When are animals considered only pets? When do pets become emotional support animals? And who gets to determine the difference?
Those are some of the questions officials in Beverly and a Superior Court judge are presumably debating as they consider the case of 7-year-old Rafaella Tsirozidou and the five chickens she is trying to keep in a henhouse outside her home as emotional support animals.
First, the facts: Rafaella’s mom got her a few baby chickens around Easter last year. Soon, she had some grown hens and roosters. William Wilson, Rafaella’s dad, applied to get a permit from the City of Beverly, for which he paid $150. All was well until about six months later, when an animal control officer showed up at their home and told them that the chickens had to go because they were not up to code, according to Wilson.
Health regulations in the North Shore suburb dictate that no birds, fowls, swine, or cattle, among other animals, can be kept in any dwelling house or within 25 feet of such dwelling and abutters unless a permit in writing has been issued by municipal health authorities. The henhouse is right next to their own home and 23.5 feet from the nearest abutter.
But they’re emotional support animals, Wilson told the city; they have to go, health officials told him.
“With these chickens, Rafaella became very involved in their care. She connected with them in a way that I hadn’t seen with the dogs at all,” Wilson said. (The family has two young dogs.) At the request of her teachers, Rafaella was evaluated by a psychologist because she appeared to have performance anxiety in addition to lagging in reading and language skills. “She’d start crying when pressured to perform” in front of the class, Wilson said. But that anxiety seemed to melt away, and it coincided with the arrival of the chickens.
“We didn’t get the chickens with the intent of being emotional support animals. That would be crazy,” Wilson said. “It was very gradual, but I noticed the effect they were having on Rafaella because I’m a doctor.” (Wilson is a family medicine specialist.) That’s why he decided to fight the city’s attempt to remove the chickens from his property and sued. All Wilson wants is for Rafaella to be able to keep her chickens.
Enter Boston Dog Lawyers and an attorney named Rabbit.
Jeremy Cohen, who specializes in dog and pet cases — hence the name of his practice — and Manuel Rabbit are Wilson’s lawyers in his family’s suit against the city. “They really have trampled on [Rafaella and her family’s] rights,” Cohen told me. “It’s time, as we say, to bark back. Well, with chickens you don’t bark, but it’s time to step up.”
Emotional support animals are not the same as service animals, which are dogs specifically trained to perform a task directly related to a person’s disability, like guide dogs for people who are blind or alert dogs for those who have diabetes. Emotional support animals typically don’t have any special training but can provide legitimate therapeutic benefits to people diagnosed with anxiety disorders, PTSD, or depression.
Here’s where the confusion often lies for most people: Federal housing regulations consider service and emotional support animals as assistance animals. Owners with a disability “may request to keep an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation to a housing provider’s pet restrictions,” according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
As of now, Rafaella has been able to keep the five chickens while the litigation proceeds. The family already sent the roosters in the flock away to avoid noise complaints from neighbors. Wilson said the city has been dismissive of his description of Rafaella’s chickens as emotional support animals. Does her disability qualify her to own such animals? Cohen said the family had Rafaella undergo a neurobehavioral status exam done by a physician. “She has generalized anxiety disorder and a specific learning disorder with impairment in reading,” the lawyers said.
Can the chickens help with that? According to Wilson, they have. In fact, Cohen said, “You can’t deny the reasonable accommodation based on speculation of what the animal might do.”
William Burke, Beverly’s health director, said he couldn’t comment due to the pending litigation. In court documents the city said, “Neighbors repeatedly and consistently spoke against approval of the permit citing rats, disregard for the rules, and close distance to their own property.” Wilson denied there is a rat problem.
“I don’t know what will happen if she loses [the chickens],” said Wilson. “Over time I hope she gains the resiliency and self-confidence so she can carry onward even if she loses the birds. But right now I would hate to take the risk of a big setback.”
To be sure, many people feel the whole emotional support animal concept has gone overboard — who can forget the emotional support peacock who was denied a seat on a plane? But, as anyone who’s ever had a beloved pet can attest, animals provide a special type of comfort. Do they belong on a plane? Maybe not. But, in general, pets have been found to have positive effects on a person’s health and well-being. And losing and grieving a pet can have a devastating impact on humans.
In the case of Rafaella, the benefits of having those chickens are clear. Does the City of Beverly really want to deny a 7-year-old girl a permit to have emotional support, in whatever two-legged form that may come?
Let her keep the chickens.