Amy Martin stepped to the lectern earlier this month wearing a sweater that said “Mama Bear” and spoke directly to city officials sitting across from her in Bangor, Maine.
She was there to speak for her 25-year-old son, C-Jay Martin, who has experienced profound anxiety and depression ever since the pandemic. The emotional support chickens they kept at home, she told them, had brought comfort to her son, who is blind and has epilepsy and autism.
A city ordinance, however, prevented residents from keeping fowl, so on Oct. 5, Martin attended the board of appeals meeting and made her case for having them as pets. The chickens, she argued, could bring her son joy.
After a meeting of more than an hour, board members unanimously agreed. They voted that Martin and her son could have chickens at home in a decision that has resounded far beyond the city of about 30,000 residents, earning her praise from advocates for people with disabilities, and her neighbors.
Other city residents spoke in favor of Amy Martin’s chickens, trying to persuade the board to make an exception.
One neighbor, Martha Gladstone, wrote in a letter to the board that while dogs leave feces on lawns and cats in the neighborhood dig into flower beds, “hens stay put.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice to bring a little joy in the life of someone who has suffered lifelong?” she wrote.
The decision has also highlighted the unexpected comfort, and importance, that emotional support chickens bring to patients, because they require less maintenance and daily attention than other pets yet are similarly docile and affectionate.
C-Jay Martin was already enamored with his flock of six hens, whose names are Popcorn, Cheek, Stella, Salty (she is known to have an attitude and cluck at others), Pepper and her sister, who is yet to be named, although a “SpongeBob SquarePants” reference is being considered.
“It’s absolutely worth everything we had to go through” to keep them at home, Amy Martin said in an interview.
She first reached out to city officials in February to seek permission, but by March she was upset about how long the process was taking and decided to go ahead and buy them for her son, whose anxiety had not improved much.
Jeff Wallace, the director of code enforcement for the city of Bangor, said that there was no mechanism for him or the city lawyer to immediately approve Martin’s request. The appeals board was the only way, he said.
“From the very first day, if I could have, I would have,” Wallace said.
Martin said that she had felt pressure to move quickly because her son, who is immunocompromised, had felt extremely isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and those feelings had not improved much by January. He remained withdrawn and introverted, nothing like the sociable and gregarious person he had been all his life.
Martin said she had begun researching what could help and had read about emotional support animals, particularly the usefulness of chickens. They were known to help people with autism establish routine and foster responsibility, creating a sense of autonomy, she said.
Dr. Leela Magavi, a psychiatrist in Newport Beach, California, said that while it’s rare for chickens to be the animal of choice, they are beneficial for many people with autism who struggle with social anxiety, she said.
The chickens help with social communication because, oftentimes, people want to visit to look at them, and they provide patients with something interesting to talk about, Magavi said.
“They also feel confident in that they’re taking care of others, and it’s like a sense of altruism that really helps with dopamine and happiness,” Magavi said. “And it creates a sense of motivation and accountability.”
Martin said she had noticed right away how the chickens helped her son. The first day she got them as chicks, C-Jay Martin stayed by their cage, patting them gently and holding each on the palm of his hand.
Martin said she had eventually moved the chickens into their fenced-in backyard, where they could roam freely and have a coop and a greenhouse to stay warm and dry during winter.
If there is a spider inside the house, she likes to bring a chicken in to eat it.
Their dog, Marley, also loves them.
“She acts like a chicken guard dog,” Martin said.
Seeing how much her son had improved since getting the flock, Martin sought support from more of her neighbors before the board of appeals meeting.
On the day of the meeting, several spoke in favor of Amy Martin’s chickens, trying to convince the board.
“They’re not a nuisance,” one neighbor said.
“Chickens are friendly,” said another.
“I took them a bag of chicken feed instead of a bottle of wine,” a third neighbor said in a gruff voice, wondering how “with all the evil and unrest in this world,” wasn’t this a simple, right thing to do?
Their support worked.
Two days after the meeting, there was a sign, Martin said, that everything would be OK.
Pepper the chicken laid an egg.
Source: Eduardo Medina