Friday, October 12, 2012

J.J. Hart's "Ducks" and the Obstinacy of Local Governments

Taken at face value, the story of J.J. Hart's "ducks' (which are really chickens) is just another feel-good story that media outlets trot out to offset the "We're all gonna die, tune in at 11:00 to find out why" stories that seem so common.

But subsequent analysis reveals this is a more complex tale that spotlights the dysfunction of local governments (as well as the inherent values of "ducks").

JJ and Bretten

J.J. Hart is a two-year old on the east coast of Florida who has something in common with a nine-year old named Bretten Casagrande who lives in Clayton California. Both kids have parents who started keeping chickens illegally. But that is not news. It was not even newsworthy when someone turned their parents in for keeping forbidden fowl. That happens all the time. No, J.J. and Bretten became newsworthy because they developed special relationships with chickens.

Now, many backyard chicken owners develop special relationships with their birds -- they care for them, dote on them, and go on about them as much as cat and dog owners do their pets. And many chicken owners will tell you they find hanging our with their birds to be a calming, centering part of their day. But most owners can't document the therapeutic effect the birds have for them.

That's why Bretten and J.J. are different. Bretten has Tourette's syndrome and finds comfort and friendship in his chickens that accept him without thinking he's weird. And J.J. talks to his chickens (the ones he calls ducks) a phenomenon his parents consider a milestone since J.J. was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and talking is a big deal for him.

Luckily, Bretten's family was able to secure a RAA (Reasonable Accommodations Agreement) from the City of Clayton. Reasonable Accommodations are provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act that attempt to level the playing field for people with disabilities. In order to obtain an RAA in a situation like this, there has to be a determination of a disability and a finding that the accommodation (allowing the chicken/s) provides some therapeutic value directly related to the disability. Some people believe that chickens may actually be preferable to other more common pets for autistic children because "chickens are not as confusing and confronting as some animals."

It may not be obvious that chickens could help with autism, but there's an intriguing Australian website that seeks to help parents with autistic or disabled children find appropriate pets. It's not a chicken-advocacy site that mentions autism. It is an autism site that reviews many pets -- cats, dogs, reptiles, birds, mice, and fish. The entry on chickens is surprisingly positive (or maybe not so surprising now that we know about J.J. and Bretten). It says chickens "can be an inexpensive, non stressful blessing of delight to the receptive autistic child.Check out the full entry here.

J.J.'s parents may or may not get a RAA. The DeBary City Code Enforcement Board has not seemed very creative in helping the family so far (even though the Mayor can see the injustice) and even deliberately adopted a code definition to establish the birds as farm animals, a bureaucratic in-your-face, cover-your-butt repudiation of the fact that J.J's parents are not running a farm and the birds are clearly pets.

There is no small measure of irony in the fact that one symptom of autism is a reduced ability appropriately understand situations based on social cues that most people take for granted. In this case the autistic person (J.J.) is able to respond appropriately to chickens, while the bureaucracy seems unable to and actually displays symptoms remarkably similar to autism:

Impairments in social interaction (inability to distinguish household pets from agricultural operations)

Impairments in communication (reliance on threatened fines and actions instead of problem solving)

• Restricted interests (obsessive preoccupation with the code, not the families)

• Repetitive behavior (persisting in harassing more and more families rather than re-examining the code)

JJ Hart and one of his "ducks"
Daytona Beach News-Journal photo by Peter Bauer

The advent of zoning roughly a century ago coincides with a time when the vast majority of domestic animals were viewed as utilitarian. While kings had court spaniels, American dogs were commonly kept outside (in dog houses) and frequently chained. There were watchdogs, and hunting dogs, and herding dogs, and rescue dogs, etc. but the massive explosion of indoor pet dogs we now experience had not occurred. Cats likewise were kept as "mousers". Kitty litter wasn't invented until 1947 and so cats either spent a good amount of time outside or houses smelled like cat pee. Farms were more diversified than today and many included hogs and many people did their own slaughtering. So it was pretty reasonable that early zoning efforts strove to create conditions where people would not be next to a pig sty, for instance.

But something changed, at least in the US as farms gave way to suburbs and people gained in affluence. Dogs stopped having to work so hard for a living, entered the home and became pets. Kitty litter made possible the indoor cat. Even miniature pigs became recognized as legitimate pets. So why have chickens been slow to be recognized as pets?

CLUCK thinks there are two reasons. First, with rare exception chickens still live outdoors and that helps maintain the aura that they are farm animals. But keep in mind, it wasn't that long ago that dogs and cats were far more outdoor animals than they are today.

The second reason is that hens are simply too productive -- too useful. Like iguanas, goldfish, and venomous snakes, "lap-candy" cats and companion and toy dog breeds must be pets. That's because many of the former mousers and working canines can no longer be relied upon to do anything that was once considered useful around the farm. Of course, cats and dogs can lounge about and either chase lasers or bestow unqualified adoration on their owners without reference to any working heritage. But chickens betray their barnyard past -- the dang things keep laying eggs.

So when six parents recently asked the Sarasota County Commission why they couldn't have chickens, the Commissioners didn't waste any time answering their questions. Instead they assumed, perhaps correctly and perhaps not, that antiquated prejudice against "farm animals" or "livestock" would be so pervasive that the best these parents could hope for would be to take the commissioner's strategic political advice and mount a massive public relations campaign.

Aside from perceived political woes, the best argument any commissioner could muster was the spectre of Sarasota turning into Key West with wild, resplendent roosters running amok.

And all this was especially moving because one mom had showed up with her son, another child with autism, who had lost his special friend, Opal, when a vindictive neighbor turned them in to code enforcement. There was no mention of an RAA, even though three of the commissioners agreed that a few backyard chickens didn't need to be a problem.
Chaz's drawing of Opal, a special friend that lives on in his memory.

It took a child to point out that the emperor was naked and it may take special needs children to help elected officials realize how off-base their bans on backyard hens are. These three children, J.J., Bretten, and Chaz, (and their families) are making several important points about backyard chickens.

The first is obvious-- that chickens can be pets that are just as special, meaningful, and loved as any dog or cat.

Secondly, that a few backyard hens do not pose a threat to families or neighbors. A majority of the County Commission even affirmed this during their discussion.

And finally, and sadly, these situations (Clayton excepted) reveal the hidebound bureaucratic obstinacy and dysfunction with which local governments too frequently approach this subject. Their outdated reliance on stereotyping these birds as "farm animals" or "livestock" cannot withstand close scrutiny and will be increasingly challenged across the country so that children don't need to make special claims in order to grow up in a household with special birds.


To see a video about JJ and the unfolding situation in  DeBary click here.


Ashleigh Hart said...

Thank you for your support! Please feel free to contact me (JJ's mom) anytime!!

I have also started a petition for Chickens for DeBary. I have learned that there are quite a few people in this city that WANT backyard chickens. Our chickens have been such a huge help for JJ. They have really helped him "come out of his shell" and he is improving so much. Don't ever let ANYONE tell you that your "special needs child" will "never do something" There is ALWAYS a way to break through, and things are different for everyone. You just need to "think outside the box" While I do not give our chickens 100% credit to JJ's "growth", he has a relationship with them and a love for them that is just AMAZING! Our other two sons, Jarrett (11) and Matthew (4) love them too, and they have been a wonderful educational tool for them.(Jarrett is in Honors Science and Agricultural Science in school) I feel that we should all be allowed to do what we want (within reason) with our property as long as it is not harming anyone else. After all, what is the point of owning your property if you can't do anything with it? ESPECIALLY if you are trying to improve the health and well being of your family!!

Thank you for your support!
God Bless!!!

Anonymous said...

Why not let the people of Debary vote on this issue? Seems like a simple way to settle the matter.

Cluckers said...

Dear Anonynous:
No, that sounds neither simple nor appropriate. First of all, it could not go on the upcoming November ballot, so that would either require a long wait for another election or an expensive special election, which would only draw those who feel really strongly one way or the other. Second, we elect and pay for government to solve problems like this. What kind of community would it be if everything were subject to plebiscite? Would you want your community voting on what you can do in your backyard? A ballot measure to see if you can have an above-ground pool, or a party, or let your dog out, or even keep a dog? Third, people have an expectation of reasonable use their property and should be allowed to do so unless it is creating some significant problem for neighbors, in which case the neighbors should be able to gain relief. Its easy to imagine Michael Jordan's neighbors wishing they didn't have to listen to bouncing basketballs when he was a kid, but our country allows that sort of reasonable use. But no neighbor is claiming harm here. The Hart's were turned in by someone who is not an adjoining neighbor.

Finally, we are turning off the ability to comment anonymously. It's not that we don't solicit or won't publish other views, but if people like J.J.'s mom are willing to endure public scrutiny for their beliefs, it seems reasonable that those who have far less invested meet some minimal level of commitment -- like having an identity.


I work in a public facility geared toward family outdoor entertainment that includes a farm. I can't tell you how many children that struggle with various challenges come to our facility and find joy in engaging with our chickens. We have heard from many parents that visit with children that are on the Autism spectrum and they are amazed at the ability of chickens to draw them out.