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Menagerie for special needs kids forced to find new home

Danny's Farm is forced out of its Altadena neighborhood because the area is not zoned for petting zoos or field trips. Some of the animals are given away, and a scaled-down version of the farm will be set up in South Pasadena.

January 15, 2011|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • His parents established Dannys Farm as a safe place for animal lover Danny Gott, 17, and their other autistic son. A zoning issue has forced the farm to leave Altadena.
His parents established Dannys Farm as a safe place for animal lover Danny… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

The horse was carted to the San Jacinto Mountains, while a Victor Valley family welcomed the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. Two of the mini-donkeys headed west to a Simi Valley ranch, and the Mallard and Peking ducks took off for Hemet.

For a few years they had been a menagerie with purpose, captivating children with special needs who arrived daily at Danny's Farm. But then someone took offense at the noise and smell and complained about the cars filled with children that pulled up to the Altadena home. Which brought to surface a major flaw: The neighborhood was not zoned for petting zoos or school field trips.

After two years of back-and-forth with county zoning officials, the owners of the red barn on Ridgeview Drive vacated this weekend.

Even as animals were being given away and supplies were boxed up, Cathy Gott found it hard to believe that the farm she and her husband — former Dodgers pitcher Jim Gott — founded in honor of one of their autistic sons was shutting its doors.

"We did everything they asked us to do," she said Wednesday, looking around at empty stalls still blanketed with wood shavings. "I thought if we keep complying.... I just never thought this would happen."

A scaled-down version of the farm will move to the Almansor Center's site for special education classes and programs on Fremont Avenue in South Pasadena. The few remaining animals — mostly rabbits, guinea pigs and chicks — will live in a corner of the parking lot at the center. A nearby gymnasium will accommodate the specialty autism program.

The new site, however, doesn't have the organic feel of the original, which opened in 2007.

The Gotts — who have six kids between them, four from Jim's previous marriage — had hoped to create a safe space for their two autistic sons. They also wanted a place where Danny, the younger of the two and a fierce animal lover, could be employed.

"When you have a kid with autism, the worry is what are they gonna do?" said Cathy Gott, 48. "We focus so much on children in our society, but we forget these people are always going to need a place to work. It's a real challenge to get them excited and motivated — they fixate on certain things. But I could always get Danny to go to a petting farm."

On a dead-end street in a residential neighborhood in Altadena, they rented space from a horse stable. The small property came with stalls, and they made the place wheelchair accessible and added a mini-corral and a building shaped like a barn. Several adults with developmental disabilities were hired to care for the animals, many of which had their own special needs. Big Red, a rooster with one eye and a bum left leg, was a staff favorite; Tiny Tim, a donated pygmy goat, hobbled about because of a bad shoulder.

The farm soon drew school field trips, parties, community events and visiting families. A $5 donation per child was requested but never enforced. Every afternoon, autistic kids arrived for a program in which they learned to interact with animals and one another.

"They have such issues with smell and sound and taste and texture," said the farm's executive director, Lisa Housman, 51. "The magic of this place is the whole sensory thing for the kids."

Joan Sullivan of Monrovia sent her autistic teenage son to a summer camp at the farm but doubted it would have much effect. Jack was terrified of animals. After a couple of weeks, he was riding a horse.

"They were so patient and so understanding and knew he just needed to ease into this," Sullivan, 48, said. The bigger animals, she said, were essential to her son's transition.

Cathy Gott still has faint hope that one day she'll be able to gather all the animals and return to Altadena. Moving has been costly for the struggling nonprofit, but she'd do it again.

County officials say that's unlikely. The planning department first learned of the farm in January 2009 after the owner of rental property in the neighborhood complained of the animals' noise and smell, as well as the traffic. Gott said she approached the rental property owner, who lives elsewhere in Altadena, but got nowhere.

The Gotts said they tried to comply with the county's directives — getting rid of the noisy sheep, limiting the number of visiting children. But then a letter arrived in December. They had 30 days to shut everything down.

"It was a good cause, but the wrong location," said Oscar Gomez, a regional planner with the county who oversaw inspections of the farm.

Gomez said that the property is zoned residential and that the adjacent horse stable was a grandfathered use. There was no conditional use permit available that would have covered the farm's activities.

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