J.J. Hart is an autistic 3-year-old with dirty-blond hair who loves to kick balls and chase pet chickens around the backyard of his family’s DeBary home.
That’s a big change from nearly two years ago, his parents say, when J.J. stared off into space, barely spoke and threw temper tantrums.
The Harts say it’s all because of three hens — which J.J. called “ducks” — that the Harts brought home for their son to help with his autism.
“He’s now doing amazing,” said his mother, Ashleigh Hart. “He’s now going to a new preschool, and he’s able to communicate much better. And it all has to do with the chickens. He plays with them. He cuddles with them. And he runs around the yard with them. … It’s made a tremendous difference.”
But the Harts are now faced with a choice: Get rid of their chickens or leave DeBary.
That’s because City Council members on Wednesday decided to end a one-year trial program on Dec. 31 that allowed residents to keep chickens in backyard coops.
“We’re really not sure what we’re going to do now,” said Joe Hart, J.J.’s father. “He was doing so well with the chickens, and now they’re telling us that we can’t have them anymore.”
The vote against backyard chickens comes at a time when a growing number of Central Florida governments are allowing their residents to build backyard coops to gather fresh eggs from their feathered pets.
Orlando started the first program in May 2012. Apopka and Maitland followed with similar ordinances.
But DeBary Council member Nick Koval defended his decision to end the program, saying chickens don’t belong in residential communities.
“It’s unfortunate, and I sympathize,” Koval said. “But we spend a lot of time and money establishing codes and ordinances for the protection of the citizens and taxpayers of this community. And I believe that they [chickens] belong in agricultural areas.”
Joe Hart said he has hired Longwood attorney Mark Nation to find a way to reverse the council’s decision. Nation could not be reached for comment Friday.
The Harts were encouraged back in December 2012, when DeBary enacted a one-year pilot project that allowed families in residential areas to keep up to three chickens.
The council decided on the pilot project after Hart, who had been cited by code enforcement months earlier, asked for permission to keep his chickens. He had bought them after researching animal therapy for children with autism.
DeBary’s pilot program allowing backyard chickens mirrored Orlando’s regulations, including a requirement that chicken owners obtain a city permit.
On average, it costs between $500 and $800 to set up a backyard chicken coop with the correct fencing, Orlando city officials said.
While demand for permits was high in Orlando, DeBary received only two applications for the backyard coops, according to the city. One was from the Harts last year and the other was from a woman who wanted to use her chickens for eggs.
Dr. Emily Forrest, a developmental behavioral pediatrician for Florida Hospital for Children who specializes in autism, said dogs and horses are animals more commonly used in therapy for children with autism.
“But in this case, this boy has made a connection with these chickens, and it’s helped him out,” Forrest said. “I think chickens are unconventional, but if a child has made progress, then it’s really sad for him that he has to stop because of a city ordinance.”
Forrest added that children with autism are extremely sensitive to changes in their lives.
“So it could be devastating to him” to lose the chickens, Forrest said.
About 2 percent of American schoolchildren were diagnosed with autism disorders in 2011 and 2012, a 72 percent increase from the previous five years, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released this year.
DeBary Mayor Bob Garcia, who wanted to see the chicken program extended until the end of 2015, said he is disappointed that it had to end.
“It had so many benefits for this child,” Garcia said. “And it would have shown that we’re a community that is compassionate and understanding.”