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Miniature horse is therapeutic for boy, but violates county codes

SPRING HILL

In 2007, the Hernando County Commission allowed a pot-bellied pig to live as a pet on residential property in Spring Hill. Prior to the vote, his owner coaxed the pig to turn around, beg and sit in front of commissioners.

More recently, in March 2012, the County Commission, after much debate and objections from Realtors, signed off on permitting people to keep chickens in some residential areas — up to four hens per family — to provide eggs.

Now, the county has another animal dilemma on its hands: whether the beloved miniature horse of a boy with a rare genetic disorder should be allowed to stay in the back yard of a Spring Hill home.

Daisy, a dun-colored female, belongs to the family of 11-year-old Elijah Samaroo, at 219 Galaxy Drive. Elijah feeds the horse twice a day, rides her and brushes her.

"I care for her, and I love her," he said.

Elijah was just 2 days old when Kelly Samaroo, 52, took him home as a foster child. His mother lived in a mental health treatment program at the time; the identify of his father was unknown. When Kelly first saw Elijah, he was in a car seat behind the desk of a Florida Department of Children and Families social worker.

"I cried, because no baby as precious as this belongs sitting behind a social worker's chair in an office," said Samaroo. "I said, 'Come on, baby, you're coming home.' And from that day on, he's been home."

Born with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a chromosomal abnormality that makes him cringe upon human touch, Elijah hated being held as a baby and struggled to interact with other children in school, Samaroo said.

When the boy was 3 years old, Samaroo enrolled him in physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy to address his sensory issues and a host of other problems, including struggles with balance and eye contact.

Then Samaroo noticed Elijah's interest in horses grazing in Hernando County. She bought Daisy from a petting zoo in Dade City in January 2012.

"It's helped with his sensory issues. Before, he didn't like to be touched," Samaroo said as she watched him high-five a reporter.

The horse has bonded with the entire family, in fact, joining the Samaroos throughout the day by the pool and in the play room.

It's a big family that includes Kelly Samaroo; her husband, Jairam Samaroo, 47; six adopted children, ranging from a 1-year-old to a teenager, and three grown adopted children who live in different states. Kelly also has three grown children from another marriage; Jairam has four.

"It's like a heaven," Kelly says of the two-story house that backs up to Hunter's Lake.

The small horse prances in a corral looking out on the water. Manure is composted by the Samaroos and their neighbors, Kelly said.

Experts say that young people bond in a special way with animals.

"Animals are great as therapy for children because they are small and don't intimidate," said Daniela Sharma, program director of animal sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Even when talking with a therapist, the child can be disconcerted. But a miniature horse doesn't give you that stare in the face the way adults do."

Trouble began in October 2012, when an anonymous neighbor filed a complaint with the county, noting that a horse was living in a residential zone. The county's Code Enforcement Department sent the Samaroos a postcard.

"I was sad — I thought, I'm not here to cause trouble. This is my safe little world with my children," Kelly said.

No citations or fines have been issued so far, just several warnings, said Chris Linsbeck, the county's zoning supervisor. But he says he's waited as long as he can.

The neighbors on either side of the Samaroos say they enjoy Daisy's presence and use her manure as compost.

However, "ever since they've had the horse, I've had rats in the garage," said Diane Kohna, 41, who lives catty-corner from the Samaroos.

A week ago, county Commissioner Diane Rowden pulled up to the Samaroos' house in her Mercedes Smart Car to meet Daisy.

"I'm on your side," she told Kelly Samaroo. "I've had a Great Dane that was bigger than this horse."

Linsbeck said the question of whether Daisy remains in the Samaroos' back yard normally would hinge on whether the horse qualifies as a "variance" from zoning rules — an exception usually reserved for particulars such as dimensions of buildings, not for noncompliant uses of property.

However, Daisy may qualify as an emotional support animal, meaning she would fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act and be approved to live with Elijah.

On Wednesday, Elijah's pediatrician, Flora Howie of the University of South Florida/All Children's Hospital, faxed a letter to Linsbeck describing the therapeutic benefits of Elijah's relationship with Daisy.

"It's a term that's new to me — 'emotional support animal,' " Linsbeck said. "Now we're trying to see if this qualifies for ADA protection."

Rowden said the county is leaning toward granting an exception, based on the doctor's recommendation.

"I have no problem with that,'' she said.

She said she has seen how Elijah lights up when he is interacting with Daisy.

"It's not something that's made up,'' she said.

Staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Alison Barnwell can be reached at abarnwell@tampabay.com or (352) 754-6114.

Miniature horse is therapeutic for boy, but violates county codes 06/14/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 6:56pm]
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