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In Plymouth, ‘emotional support rooster’ has people complaining

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Eileen Soule-Freeman, 14, with her rooster, Gollum.

By Globe Staff 

PLYMOUTH — By just about any measure, the rooster known as Little G, a waddling, basketball-sized burst of white, brown, and gray feathers, seems a fairly personable and good-natured fellow.

He enjoys apples and the occasional piece of bacon, is known to come when called, and, if you were to visit him, he would probably spend much of the evening clucking softly at your feet and glancing up at you with curious, ink-black eyes.

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Despite his considerable charm, however, Little G has become the subject of an escalating civic drama, one that has pitted a local family against the town, left neighbors at odds, and raised questions about the elasticity of the term “emotional support animal.”

It’s the kind of controversy that seems to be blowing up everywhere these days — most recently over an emotional support peacock named Dexter that United Airlines turned away from a flight in Newark. As in that case, more than a few eye-rolls have met the claim that Little G should qualify as a service animal.

But Laura Ceurvels says they are wrong about her rooster.

Little G, she said, “is just different.”

Her reasons for saying so started stacking up a year and a half ago, when her adolescent daughter, Eileen Soule-Freeman, went to pick out a couple chicks from the farm of a family friend and came back with a little poof of fuzz she promptly named Gollum — Little G, for short.

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Eileen, now 14, has been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, which the Globe agreed to leave unspecified to protect the girl’s privacy. For years, she had screaming fits and obsessed over seemingly meaningless things. She could become so angry that she lashed out uncontrollably, to a point that even the family dogs seemed afraid. “It was really hard for me as a parent,” Laura Ceurvels said.

But the little rooster had an inexplicable effect on the girl. Eileen grew increasingly close to the animal — taking it to 4-H shows and wheeling it through the neighborhood in a wagon. And slowly, the issues with which she’d struggled for so long began to subside.

The screaming fits became less frequent. Things she once fixated on — like, when dinner would be ready — became less important in the company of her new companion. Perhaps most notably, Ceurvels said, in the year after adopting the rooster, her daughter went from taking six prescribed medications to just two.

In a way nothing else seemed to, Little G helped her daughter cope.

“She found something soothing in it,” Ceurvels said.

Little G was far less comforting, however, to neighbors on the family’s residential street of roughly 1-acre plots.

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Though the family did its best to limit disturbances — at night, they kept Little G in a foam- insulated coop and fit the bird with a “no-crow” collar that prevents it from crowing loudly — complaints rolled in.

In Plymouth, as in many other Massachusetts towns, it’s legal to keep chickens, an increasingly popular practice that has led to a rise in complaints about noisy roosters. In one instance, an angry resident threatened to kill a neighbor’s rooster. In another, a rooster-related argument led to one resident allegedly shooting an arrow at a neighbor’s house.

Craig F. Walker / Globe staff

Eileen Soule-Freeman's rooster, Gollum, with a chick, at her home in Plymouth.

In response to the complaints, members of the town’s Board of Health voted last April to outlaw roosters on properties encompassing less than 5 acres.

Little G, the Ceurvels family was informed, had to go.

Surely, Laura Ceurvels figured, a compromise could be reached, and in November, she appeared before the Board of Health to argue that the rooster’s effect on her daughter qualified it as an emotional support animal and that it should be exempted from the law.

She came prepared, bringing letters from three of her daughter’s doctors — including one from New Bedford-based psychologist Andrea MacAulay, who provided a written prescription for the rooster as a therapeutic animal.

But the board — citing a federal law that limits service animals to dogs and small horses — remained unmoved, denying the family a variance that would have allowed them to keep the rooster on their property.

“We afford everybody due process,” explained Nate Horwitz-Willis, director of public health for Plymouth. “But when the decisions have to be made in a very well-thought-out, legal manner, sometimes people don’t like the result.”

Following the meeting with the Board of Health, Ceurvels filed a complaint against the town’s public health department with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, arguing it stands in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act. A similar complaint was filed with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“By denying the variance without regard to my daughter’s disability,” she wrote in one complaint, “the town effectively denied her a reasonable accommodation for her disability.”

HUD said in a letter to Ceurvels that the agency had accepted the complaint and referred it to the state discrimination commission, which said last month it has assigned an investigator to look into the case.

Some experts say the notion of a rooster and child bonding is not as outlandish as it may seem.

Tia Pinney, a naturalist at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, has spent her life around chickens. She knows their habits, their quirks — and roosters, she said, possess the kind of comforting traits that could potentially benefit a child suffering from emotional distress.

“There’s something about a rooster that really does have a kind of caretaking capability,” Pinney said.

As the family awaits an outcome to the case, Little G is boarding with a family relative in nearby Carver. His visits with Eileen are limited to her once-a-week therapy sessions and an occasional stop at the Ceurvels’ home. Laura Ceurvels said Eileen’s condition has deteriorated and they may have to consider increasing her medication again.

During a visit last week, Ceurvels watched as Little G sat quietly in her daughter’s arms as she watched TV.

For that night, at least, Eileen played happily with the bird. The rooster would stay overnight, stowed out of earshot in the basement, but by the next morning, it would be back in the car, bound for Carver.


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.