They can be social, friendly, cuddly and they’re generally low maintenance, she said. She read about how chickens — which became popular emotional support animals during the pandemic — can make excellent therapy pets, as they can be calming, and they bond easily with humans. The problem, she learned, is that where they live, in Bangor, Maine, the city doesn’t allow backyard chickens.
The more she researched the more she thought they would be good for her son, ideally providing him with a sense of purpose and companionship, she said, and their “chicken chatter” could be comforting background noise for her son, who has anophthalmia, and was born without eyes.
C-Jay Martin is missing one-third of his brain and half of his right lung, and his heart is on the right side of his body rather than the left. He also has autism, epilepsy and ADHD. C-Jay is a social person, his mother said, and pandemic-induced isolation took a toll on his mental health.
“He wasn’t talking to people. He was just depressed and full of anxiety,” Amy Martin said.
Being around animals like chickens, she thought, could help him heal.
“He just loves animals, and he is unbelievable with them,” said Amy Martin.
C-Jay Martin said he has a soft spot for all creatures, no matter how big or small.
“I don’t have a favorite,” he said.
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Amy Martin also learned that chickens are generally gentle, and given their small size, they would not pose a danger to her son — which was an important factor.
“Some are really cuddly,” Amy Martin said.
Her yard — which is just over a third of an acre — is well suited to having chickens, and she planned to build a coop for them.
She consulted with her son’s doctor, who agreed that chickens would be a good fit for him. The doctor wrote C-Jay an emotional support animal prescription — which his mother thought would be helpful because of the city ordinance against residents keeping fowl.
The process to be granted an exception to the law, Amy Martin learned, was more challenging and complicated than she anticipated. She first contacted city officials in the Department of Housing and Urban Development in February to ask for a reasonable accommodation to the rule — meaning she would be given an exemption and allowed to keep chickens. But she wasn’t given clear answers, Amy Martin said, and after several attempts to get help with the process, city officials told her to submit an application to the Bangor Board of Appeals.
“I wasn’t looking to file an appeal,” she said, explaining that she thought she should have been granted the reasonable accommodation, and knew an appeal would be a lengthy process. “We’re not getting chickens so we can sell eggs. This is to accommodate a disability, so the process should be different.”
Based on what Amy Martin read on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website, she believed she could get the chickens, and then file an appeal to keep them after the fact. So, once she talked to her neighbors to ask if they would be OK with it, and let them know she had started the appeals process, that’s what she did.
In April, she got six chickens, which she found through a Facebook group called “Maine Backyard Chickens.”
Amy Martin said she immediately saw her son’s mood lift, in particular when he would snuggle with them and give them seeds to snack on. He thrived on the routine of looking after them, she said.
He named them Stella, Salty, Popcorn, Cheeks, and Pepper. He is still deciding the sixth chicken’s name.
“He fell in love with them,” Amy Martin said, adding that her son volunteers in the Bangor community, including at a local church, a food bank and Ronald McDonald House. “He has more of a reason to go outside. He gets very excited.”
The chickens also get along well with Amy Martin’s cat, Spoofy, and rescue dog, Marley.
“She protects them like she’s a chicken guard dog,” Amy Martin said about Marley.
Hoping to avoid submitting an application to the board of appeals, Amy Martin decided to file a complaint against the city with the Maine Human Rights Commission in April, claiming Bangor was discriminating against her son by not giving him an exemption to the no-chicken rule. Following an investigation, the Maine Human Rights Commission found no evidence of discrimination.
Amy Martin was frustrated. She decided to file a request with the Bangor Board of Appeals in August and was given a hearing date of Oct. 5.
Several people showed up to the hearing to advocate for The Martins and their chickens, including Imke Jandrau, who lives a block away.
“How on earth did we put this family through months of agony and anxiety, wondering if they were going to keep these pets?” said Jandrau. “That’s stressful for C-Jay, it’s stressful for Amy, and I thought it was just unnecessary.”
For the neighbors, Jandrau said, the chickens have not been a disturbance.
“Amy is really, really responsible, so I know she’s keeping things appropriately stored and keeping public health in mind,” Jandrau said, adding that noise hasn’t been an issue, either. “If this is what he needs to thrive, let’s be supportive of it.”
Jeff Wallace, the director of code enforcement for the city of Bangor, also spoke at the hearing, and said that the chickens are not a public health threat. Some neighbors expressed worry that the chickens could attract rats, though Wallace said “I have no reason to believe” the chickens would create a rat issue in the neighborhood.
Since Amy Martin got the chickens in April, Wallace said he has not received any complaints about them.
The five-member board of appeals voted unanimously to allow the Martins to keep their emotional support chickens.
“It was a resounding support,” Wallace said in a phone interview with The Washington Post, adding that he believes the media coverage and community encouragement played a role in the outcome. The story was first reported in the Bangor Daily News.
Amy Martin said she is grateful for the outpouring of support from her neighbors, and she hopes her family’s story will help set a precedent, so that others in their position have an easier time getting through the process.
“When we fight for something, we fight for everyone,” she said.
Two days after the hearing, “we got our first egg,” Amy Martin said. “It’s so exciting.”
The chickens have helped C-Jay Martin in all they ways Amy Martin had hoped, she said. On difficult days, especially, “it’s a good way to divert him to positivity.”
C-Jay Martin said he is thrilled he can keep his chickens — which are all female, as male chickens, which are considered roosters after one year, can be loud.
“He deserves to have his chickens,” Amy Martin said. “They help him to cope and make sense of his world.”