SHIRLEY — A backyard coop of 15 chickens is at the center of a dispute in Shirley, as town council members debate whether a resident’s feathered friends qualify as therapy animals.
Christylee Vickers has asked the board for an exemption to a local ordinance prohibiting backyard chickens, citing a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ counseling office stating she could benefit from “a type of therapy that involves animals as a form of treatment.”
Vickers, a military veteran who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, said her pets — 15 chickens in a coop in her fenced-in backyard on White Street — have become that therapy for her as well as her son, who has special needs.
Vickers, an Iraq War veteran, said caring for the chickens has reduced the amount of medication she needs to cope with depression and anxiety brought on by her time in the service.
Shirley will be one of the first communities in the state to decide whether chickens can be exempted if they are classified as therapy animals, said Shirley attorney Tracy Newhouse.
The council is looking to other communities’ ordinances for suggestions. Indianapolis residents can have 12 chickens, Newhouse said, but the rules are different for every community.
The current Shirley ordinance states that residents cannot have chickens, goats, pigs, horses or other farm animals in the city limits, council member Becky Perkins said. The ordinance most recently was updated 11 years ago, she said.
Vickers’ time serving her country remains important to her — a stone in her yard is emblazoned “American veteran,” and an ornament on her front door reads, “This military family is protected by angels” — but recovery takes time.
Vickers’ letter from the Veterans Affairs department notes therapy animals “may signal safety, security and feeling of well-being, which in turn may trigger a state of personal change and healing.” It does not mention a specific animal or speak to Vickers’ care for her chickens.
Caring for the birds is part of her therapy regimen, Vickers said. Every morning, she goes out to their coop, and spends time feeding the birds and just being with them. She said she spoke with her neighbors, and no one had an issue with the chickens.
Vickers decided to buy chickens — having noticed several neighbors have coops as well — about a year ago when she became depressed.
Caring for herself and her family had become an overwhelming struggle; even the kids noticed, she said.
“I didn’t get out of bed, and I could barely get them to school on time,” she said.
Caring for the chickens is helping Vickers get back to who she used to be — before anxiety, depression and PTSD derailed her life, she said.
“I can be in the middle of a painful experience, but I know I have to check on them,” she said. “Even when I’m in anguish, I still get up and do it. They need me in a way that nothing else needs me. … It’s a different kind of care that I need from them, and they give me.”
And her doctors were right about the soothing effects of animal therapy, she said. She has reduced the amount of medications she is taking, thanks to the calming effects of being around the chickens, she said.
She said she is following USDA flock guidelines in the housing and care of the chickens — if they can fly, their wings are clipped, she cited as one example.
She has some young chickens that she doesn’t know the gender of, but she told the town council she will get rid of any roosters as soon as she knows they are male.
While Vickers owns the chickens and primarily takes care of them, she’s not the only member of her family to benefit from their positive effects.
Her son has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, among other disorders, and he has integrated caring for the chickens into his daily routine as well.
He reads to the chickens, and they are a calming presence while he does other homework, Vickers said.
“He can introduce his chicken to people that he probably would have never talked to,” she said. “She gave him a way to connect to people that I don’t think even would have been possible a year ago.”
Her son loves his fluffy, black chicken and the others so much that when they were away for a night, he fell asleep looking at pictures of the flock, she told the town council.
Town council members discussed their options at the May meeting but took no action.
Shirley Town Council president Dennis Denney said they are working to clarify what steps they need to take, and how many animals is appropriate to have.
Vickers said she is willing to compromise with the town council. She said she would pay a registration fee for each of the chickens, or consider having fewer chickens, but she can’t imagine getting rid of them all.
“I don’t want to deal with losing them,” she said. “I know that will be very bad for me. Every time you go backward, it hurts.”