ST. AUGUSTINE BEACH, Fla. – A feud over emotional support chickens in St. Augustine Beach has made it all the way to City Hall.
The mother of 9-year-old Cole Wildasin said her son was shaken as a baby and he needs the chickens to help deal with his brain trauma. But a neighbor is worried the chickens are a public health hazard.
“I have a special brain and they help me and they calm me down,” Cole told News4Jax on Monday. “In the morning, I wake up, come outside, let them out. And when it gets in the afternoon, I feed them some scratch.”
After he was born, Cole’s brain was damaged with shaken baby syndrome. Jennifer Wildasin, his mother who took him in as a foster child and then adopted him, said Cole has latched on to the chickens as a form of emotional support.
“I wouldn’t be fighting for a chicken, really. But there are kids that have dogs and cats, and for him, it works,” Wildasin said.
But a problem arose months ago when the city knocked at the family’s door, saying a neighbor complained. The family took this to City Hall, eventually winning an exception to city ordinances against chickens in St. Augustine Beach. But the same neighbor complained again, writing a letter contesting the city’s decision.
“It’s just heartbreaking," Wildasin said. "It doesn’t have to be this way. You’re here. You can’t see them. They’re not a problem. They’re not causing any harm.”
Pamela Holcombe, the neighbor who is fighting this, wrote a lengthy letter to the city, which reads, in part, “writing this letter gives me no pleasure.” Holcombe said she’s a “lifelong animal lover,” but goes on to write the chickens could cause a “public health hazard creating a human avian vector for the transmission of communicable diseases.”
Cole said he doesn’t want his chickens to go anywhere.
“I would be very sad if they did,” he said.
In an effort to help Cole keep his eight chickens, his mother and community members spoke at a St. Augustine City Commission meeting Monday evening when the issue was brought up for discussion.
“Having a chicken and taking care of it, and making a child feel good about themselves and be successful, is more important than what the ordinance says right now," tutor Lila Sleeper said.
Wildasin said she prays people will see the difference the chickens make in her son’s life.
“I’m just so humbled by the support that I’m receiving from family, friends, community and perfect strangers that are just reaching out," Wildasin said. “I’m just more than humbled, and if anything, I’m praying that God uses us for something even bigger.”
Holcombe also spoke at the meeting.
“No other child in St. Augustine Beach, disabled or not, can keep chickens and, essentially, the chickens are not helping him use the dwelling, and so it’s a fatally flawed application in that respect," Holcombe said.
After hearing from community members, commissioners unanimously decided to let Cole keep his chickens for at least 120 days. During that time, commissioners will examine the regulations regarding chickens.
Though the issue is not over, Cole mother’s said she’s optimistic.
Holcombe told News4Jax by phone ahead of the meeting about her other concerns that go beyond public health. She said she is concerned by providing an exception to the law, adding it could provide people a way to bypass local animal ordinances. She said she’s also concerned about this damaging people’s ability to have emotional support animals.