Calgary opens its doors to emotional support livestock
A sense of calm comes over Nikki Pike when she's with her three hens Nugget, Nibble and Noodle, at her home in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 4, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)
CALGARY -- A sense of calm comes over Nikki Pike when she's with her three hens Nugget, Nibble and Noodle.
The Calgary woman has had anxiety and depression since she was sexually abused as a girl. Spending time with backyard chickens provided a safe haven during that traumatic time, and the mental link between the birds and peaceful feelings has followed her into adulthood.
"When I'm holding them, I'm feeling, I'm smelling, I'm hearing," she says. "What calms me down is all of those sensory aspects of being with them."
Pike is working to formally register her "girls" as livestock emotional support animals under a new city program.
In December 2017, a complaint prompted the city to investigate her backyard chicken coop.
"I was worried that somebody was going to come and take them away," she recalls. "That's incredibly stressful on top of my already crazy life that involves a lot of anxiety."
Pike urged the city to amend its pet bylaw to allow animals normally found on farms into urban homes for mental-health purposes. Council voted to make the change last fall.
Pike is happy the city has recognized her chickens' importance to her mental health -- and that the bylaw takes into account animal welfare and effects on neighbours.
Pike's hens spend most of their time in a heated coop decked out with disco balls, but they come inside at night for cuddles and treats. Her two sons, eight and six, like to read them bedtime stories.
Chickens are more affectionate and show more personality than people realize, says Pike.
"They will hop up on you and demand snuggles."
To get a permit, an applicant must provide a letter from a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist stating an animal is needed to treat a mental-health condition.
Many websites will provide a boilerplate letter for a fee. But Aalika Kohli, a business and policy analyst for the city, says those won't do.
"The process is pretty robust to ensure there are no loopholes."
The city must be satisfied the animal has adequate space and that there's contact information for a veterinarian who can provide specialized care. An alternate home for the animal must also be lined up.
The city has not received any applications since its online portal opened in March, but Kohli says she's expecting five to 10 a year.
She thinks most applications will be for chickens, pot-bellied pigs and miniature horses. Larger animals, like cows, would probably require too much space, but Kohli says each application will be weighed case by case.
Strathmore, east of Calgary, is the only other jurisdiction the city found with a similar bylaw. An exception there was made for a family with a pot-bellied pig.
In 2014, Trevor Dahl and his family convinced Strathmore's town council to allow Chuckles, a pot-bellied pig, into their home.
The Dahls had taken in Chuckles as a rescue a few years earlier, but were told he couldn't stay. Dahl says the pig was a big help to his daughter, then 10, who had been having nightmares after a large fire on their street.
"As soon as he started sleeping through the night, she started sleeping through the night, too," he says.
The Dahls have since moved to a more rural area where county officials have no problem with Chuckles and another pig named Fairie as long as they're not a nuisance.
Unlike service animals -- such as dogs that help blind people get around -- emotional support animals don't need training.
Dahl took Chuckles to be trained in Edmonton anyway to bolster the case before Strathmore's town council. The course was a breeze for the pig, he says.
Dahl believes municipalities should regulate pot-bellied pigs the same as cats or dogs. They're clean and quiet, but their sharp minds do need to be kept occupied with games and toys to keep them out of trouble.
"They are more loyal than a dog. They're incredibly intelligent. They're extremely affectionate."