(CORAL SPRINGS, Fla.) — Hoping to help their son, Kason Ray, 8, cope with the emotional problems that result from Down’s syndrome, his parents got him a therapy pet. Because his father and older brother are severely allergic, they couldn’t have any animals that could set off a reaction. After lots of research, the Coral Springs, Fla., family settled on a Juliana pig to help their son, who has significant developmental and speech delays, and has the mental age of a 4-year-old.
Three weeks ago, the tiny spotted piglet joined the family. Kason’s mother, Heather Ray, named the animal Twinkie, and she said the pig has already had a big impact on her son’s life.
“You know, he does get mad. He throws fits. He doesn’t like things, and Twinkie has a very calming effect on him. It mellows him out, it calms him down,” she said. “It’s so good for him. He loves her so much.”
Twinkie has become a beloved member of the Ray family, but the city of Coral Springs has strict ordinances prohibiting the keeping of pigs.
Ray told ABC News on Sunday that she did her research on local laws before she bought the pig. She found out that Broward County and several cities surrounding her own allowed pet pigs to be kept, and when she learned of Coral Spring’s rules, she contacted city officials to request a waiver or special exemption because of her son’s disability. On Oct. 15 officials said they couldn’t grant her request.
In a written statement to ABC News on Monday, the city’s communication and marketing director, Bob Goehrig, wrote: “A city ordinance does not allow pigs as pets. Pigs are considered livestock. If the Rays can show us there is a medical necessity and can bring documentation, we’ll be glad to look into it.”
But Ray said she’s already sent the city all the documentation they’ve requested, including a letter from her son’s doctor supporting the recommendation for a therapy pet for Kason.
In the letter, a copy of which Ray provided to ABC News, Dr. Juan Carlos Millon wrote on Oct. 23, 2012, that Kason had “certain limitations coping with stress and anxiety…I am prescribing an emotional support animal that will assist Kason in coping with his disability.”
Ray even spoke with the U.S. Department of Justice, which told her she could have grounds to keep the pig under federal laws that protect Americans with disabilities.
Twinkie cannot be registered as a therapy animal until she is 1 year old, but Ray says she intends to complete the process when the animal is eligible, adding that she is already taking a course to become a registered therapy pet handler.
Now 7 weeks old, Twinkie weighs just 3 pounds. When she grows to adulthood, she will measure about 12 inches tall and weigh between 20 and 40 pounds.
She is strictly an indoor pet, Ray says.
Juliana pigs are gentle, affectionate animals that can be litter-trained.
Ray said having Twinkie around has helped enhance Kason’s speech. He can talk about how the pet looks and what she does. In addition to that, Twinkie gives Kason the total acceptance he may not always find in society, Ray added.
“For children with special needs, anyone with special needs, acceptance is a big deal,” she said. “Unfortunately in our society, you know, people with special needs just are not always accepted…an animal loves you no matter what. They don’t care what you look like, they don’t care how you talk, how you walk, you know, they don’t care, as long as you love them they love you unconditionally, so that’s very important to him, for us to have that for him.”
So far Ray says the city has not imposed any penalties because of Twinkie’s presence in the home, which the family owns.
“They haven’t threatened us with fines, not yet, no, not yet,” she said. “However they’ve made it clear that a person could be fined up to $500 a day.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio