Zoo program makes a difference in students' lives
By J. Chambless
One of the favorite things for students to do at the Devereux Pennsylvania CIDDS campus on Boot Road is visit the small zoo.
It's a busy Monday morning for Erin Kyle, the Animal Care Educator with Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health. There are animals to feed and care for today -- fish and cats and guinea pigs and rabbits and other small animals, including a friendly macaw parrot named Rainbow. There are usually dogs, too, but they are not here this morning. A few students at the Devereux Pennsylvania CIDDS campus on Boot Road are helping Kyle with the chores this September morning, while another student meticulously sweeps the floor. Throughout the day, students will be stopping by to visit with the animals.
As any person who has ever owned a pet will attest, caring for another living thing provides plenty of benefits. In addition to the aforementioned cats, dogs, birds, and fish, the small zoo has featured larger animals like a goat, two sheep, two mules, and even a miniature horse. The Devereux CIDDS Learning Center’s small zoo is one part nature center and one part nurture center—it provides students with the opportunity to care for a wide variety of animals and learn functional social skills, including those that will help them gain employment one day.
According to Melanie Beidler, the Executive Director of Devereux Pennsylvania CIDDS, every classroom of students gets to visit the zoo at least once a week. There are approximately 180 students who live on the campus, and another 45 or so students attend classes there during the day.
“The kids help with everything,” Beidler explained. “They help clean out the cages, scoop the litter boxes, and give the animals water. They care for the animals. It's very calming for the children and adolescents we serve.”
The “CIDDS” in the program's title stands for Children’s Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Services. The program serves children, adolescents and young adults up to the age of 21 who have intellectual or developmental disabilities, including autism and other behavioral and emotional disorders. CIDDS services include two approved private day schools, community-based mental health services, community based employment training and social skills training, therapeutic foster care and a full-time residential program.
“We serve a wide variety of children on our campus,” Beidler said.
The opportunity to work in the zoo can impact the day-to-day experience that the kids have on the campus, Beidler added.
“For as long as I can remember, we have had a zoo,” explained Beidler. “All of our kids visit the animals on a weekly basis, and they really like going to the zoo. It’s one of their favorite times of the week. They know that they are having an impact on another living thing.”
Many of the students like the zoo so much, in fact, that when family members visit the campus, they will often take them to see the animals.
The building the zoo is housed in was part of the center’s greenhouse program, where students learned to plant vegetables and flowers. Part of the greenhouse, which needed a new purpose, was renovated and later emerged into a zoo. The program's organizers started filling the building with a few small animals. Then sheep were added, then miniature horses, and a tortoise. There are even rabbits, including a Flemish giant rabbit that calls the nature center home.
“The rabbit is huge, and the kids love feeding and playing with it,” Beidler said with a laugh.
Every child who comes to the zoo will have a job to do with the animals. Kyle serves as the supervisor for the kids to do the work, which offers therapeutic, vocational and educational benefits.
Kathy Keehn is Devereux's Leo Kanner Learning Center Principal, and has been with Devereux for 39 years. She sees how the zoo program benefits the students on the campus in a variety of ways.
“Erin stays in the zoo and all the kids come to her,” Keehn explained. “If you give somebody the opportunity to care for an animal, it’s incredible what it does for the person.”
According to Beidler, the staff at Devereux are always looking for those teaching moments where they can share an important life lesson to students. Working with animals provides an endless number of teachable moments. For many of the youngsters, they haven't had the opportunity to care for their own pets.
“For some of our kids, this is really a skill acquisition,” Keehn said. “You don't just say, 'change the water.' You need to show them how to change the water.”
As the Animal Care Educator, Kyle takes on an important role in showing the children how to properly care for the animals. She also takes on the duties of running the small zoo. She will often come in on weekends to make sure the animals have everything that they need. Also, whenever there's bad weather, one of the first things that a number of staff members need to tend to is to ensure that the animals receive the care they need.
“It’s not easy to run a zoo,” Keehn said. “It’s a lot of work.”
The zoo program is constantly growing and evolving. Every three weeks, they receive kittens from the Bowling Green Humane Society in Kentucky, and they will take care of the kittens until they are ready to be adopted out. The cat adoption program has been so successful—they’ve adopted out more than 300 cats so far—that they started a similar program for dogs. To date, more than a dozen dogs have also been adopted.
While it's hard sometimes to care for the smallest cats and dogs and then see them get adopted out because of the inevitable attachments that have been formed, it is also a very worthwhile endeavor to find the lovable animals permanent homes.
Sometimes, a puppy is too beloved to let go of. Oliver, a lovable Otterhound, was set to be adopted out, but he found a home among all the children, and he has now been designated as the zoo dog.
“The dogs we get are so amazing,” Beidler said, explaining the children benefit from interacting with the animals. The children and young adults develop a sense of empathy. Some of the children come to Devereux having experienced trauma in their lives, sometimes significant amounts of it. Working with animals helps them connect on an emotional level.
With dogs, the children can give the dog a direction and the animal will follow it—which is a new experience for many students.
Explained Beidler, “The majority of the youth we serve may not have had a traditional relationship with a parent. For these kids, empathy may not come naturally to them because they have not been shown empathy by their parents. For them to go to the zoo and have a dog obey a command or to have a cat jump up on their lap, it’s just unbelievable to watch.”
Of course, the benefits work both ways. The animals really respond to all the love they receive from the children.
Beidler said it's undeniable that there is a strong connection between the animals and the children. Some of the children on the campus may have experienced foster care themselves, so they relate to the animals that are in need of adoption, and there can be a therapeutic component to finding the cats or dogs a new home.
“The kids understand that they are helping the cats find a forever home,” Beidler said.
Keehn said they are working with development, the fundraising arm of Devereux Pennsylvania, so that the zoo can be expanded in the future.
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