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Zoo experience unlocks new life for girl with disabilities

Chicago Tribune logoChicago Tribune 3/13/2015 Ted Gregory
Zinyra Ross, 18, left, answers questions at the lemur enclosure on Feb. 2, 2015 at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill. Ross, an Aurora girl with multiple cognitive disabilities and high anxiety, became a high-achieving, well-adjusted person after volunteering at Brookfield Zoo, where she is now an employed part-time assistant at the Hamill Family Play Zoo. (Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune/TNS) © Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune/TNS Zinyra Ross, 18, left, answers questions at the lemur enclosure on Feb. 2, 2015 at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill. Ross, an Aurora girl with multiple cognitive disabilities and high anxiety, became a high-achieving, well-adjusted person after volunteering at Brookfield Zoo, where she is now an employed part-time assistant at the Hamill Family Play Zoo. (Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO — In her 18 years, Zinyra Ross has lived two distinct lives.

In one, she was isolated by severe cognitive disabilities, stigmatized by teachers as stubborn and uncooperative, and bullied and beaten by classmates. In the other, more recent life, she's a public speaking ambassador, outstanding student, role model and mentor.

A determined single mom and a suburban school with strong special-education resources helped shepherd her from one life to the other.

But the transformation of Zinyra mostly occurred in a somewhat mysterious way: She volunteered at a zoo.

"It just brings tears of joy to my eyes," said Danielle Reed, her former preschool teacher. "It's amazing."

Zinyra's metamorphosis personifies a hotly debated, growing body of research into whether human-animal interaction can be used to treat an array of disorders, from autism and post-traumatic stress to insomnia and cardiovascular disease. But scientific links are inconclusive.

Still, for those who know Zinyra, the zoo's impact was clear.

"Her life changed that day," her mother, Myra Ross, recalled of the morning her daughter entered Brookfield Zoo, in the town outside Chicago. "Everything changed about her. The independence, the confidence, her social skills. She was the kid who was teased because of the way she talked — or because she couldn't talk. This is a kid who walked with her head down all the time."

Zinyra Ross, 18, left, offers a seed to Alena Mohring, 2, with her mother Karen, at a seedling class on Feb. 2, 2015 at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill. Ross, an Aurora girl with multiple cognitive disabilities and high anxiety, became a high-achieving, well-adjusted person after volunteering at Brookfield Zoo, where she is now an employed part-time assistant at the Hamill Family Play Zoo. (Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune/TNS) © Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune/TNS Zinyra Ross, 18, left, offers a seed to Alena Mohring, 2, with her mother Karen, at a seedling class on Feb. 2, 2015 at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill. Ross, an Aurora girl with multiple cognitive disabilities and high anxiety, became a high-achieving, well-adjusted person after volunteering at Brookfield Zoo, where she is now an employed part-time assistant at the Hamill Family Play Zoo. (Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

After accumulating hundreds of hours as an exemplary Brookfield Zoo volunteer over four years, Zinyra was hired part time last summer as a greeter, guide and teacher at the institution's popular Hamill Family Play Zoo. Last spring she received a standing ovation after speaking to more than 600 people at the Chicago Zoological Society's black-tie fundraiser on the zoo grounds.

In May, the special education department at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Ill., chose her as its Outstanding Senior. In September she opened a news conference for then-Gov. Pat Quinn, who wrote this to the girl whom many know as Z:

"Zinyra — You are my hero! I love you!"

The disabilities in Z's life are broad, overlapping and a little unclear. A Pediatric Developmental Center evaluation when she was 11 noted "mild retardation, sensory regulatory disorder and repetitive behaviors." That same year, an evaluation at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago placed her IQ at 60 and noted that her mother reported that Z burned herself with boiling water and stuck herself with sharp objects.

Over the years, psychologists, teachers and occupational therapists have told Myra Ross that her daughter exhibits "autistic tendencies," including spinning, flapping her hands and never making eye contact. Today her official list of challenges includes significant impairments in reading, writing and math, and apraxia of speech, a disruption of messages from the brain to the mouth.

On the carpet in her bedroom is a worn spot where she still spins to relax.

"This is just a mystery," Ross said of her daughter's challenges. "It's a little bit of everything."

Born in April 1996 in Chicago and raised on the South Side, Z began displaying disabilities — particularly an inability to speak — early. Ross, a single first-time mother, was unsure what she was seeing.

One clear trait was Z's near-obsession with nature and animals. Her favorite TV networks were Animal Planet and Discovery. Although she couldn't read, Z loved to look at animal pictures in books.

"We would be in Englewood," Ross said. "A bunch of sidewalks, a lot of glass, a lot of rocks. Z would go to a park, in the dirt and she would dig it up until she would find worms or these little weird bugs and she would, like, take care of them."

At 2 years old, Z enrolled in Taylor Day School in Chicago's Auburn Gresham neighborhood. Evaluations from her early years make repeated references to Zinyra having a behavioral problem.

Teachers reported that she didn't socialize well with other children, would flap her hands frequently and would rarely sit still. Z was unable to make eye contact and would cry for long periods, teachers said. Preschool teacher Reed said she "absolutely" thought Z was on the autism spectrum.

In an effort to find a suitable school environment for Zinyra after preschool, Ross over the next decade placed her in three city public schools and tried home schooling. She met regularly with school officials to create an individualized education plan and found additional reading, academic and therapy programs for the girl.

Yet Zinyra's developmental issues persisted.

Her speech was gibberish that teachers were unable to understand. Letitia Douglas, Z's second-, third- and fourth-grade teacher at Morgan Elementary School in Gresham, recalls that her special-education classroom was a haven for Zinyra. But the girl experienced teasing and bullying in the lunchroom and gym class, Douglas said.

She calls the change in Zinyra "awesome. I'm telling you, Every time I look at her now, I cry."

But in elementary school, Douglas said, Z would sob "and get hysterical" while being teased. "Then they would call down to me to come and get her."

The teasing took such a toll that Z regularly would come home in tears, picking at her skin, Ross recalled. In fifth grade, a classmate at Z's third school, Carter Elementary in Washington Park, beat her so severely that police were called and filed a charge of simple battery.

Throughout the abuse, Z never retaliated, teachers and her mother said. But the girl was "terrified" to go to school, Ross said.

In seventh grade, a spark of hope appeared.

Myra Ross heard about Brookfield Zoo's Youth Volunteer Corps and called supervisor Debra Kutska, who welcomed Z. She turned 13, the minimum age for volunteers in the program, and mother and daughter drove 45 minutes to the zoo from their South Side home.

When Z finished that afternoon, she was thrilled, Ross recalled. Her daughter said everyone was nice and she'd made a friend, something Z had done only once before in her life, in sixth grade.

Although she was shy her first few months at the zoo, Z connected with other kids in unassuming ways, Kutska said. Zinyra knew a great deal about animals and was hungry to learn more. Her confidence, social skills and elocution improved. Always cheerful, she volunteered for additional days, Kutska said.

As the months passed, Zinyra became a mentor to other kids, Kutska recalled, partly because she so openly shared her challenges. When other kids without disabilities saw how far Z had come, she became an inspiration to them, Kutska said.

"I doubt she ever knew that," she added.

That experience seemed to dovetail into her high school journey.

After deciding against the city's public school system for her daughter's high school education, Ross researched high schools with strong special education programs, settling on Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora. She and Z moved to an apartment there a few weeks before the 2010 school year.

She was drawn out by a supportive staff and the school's array of programs for students with special needs.

"Zinyra grew more comfortable with who she was as an athlete and gained confidence in all that she was able to do," Waubonsie Special Olympics coach Sarah Kemerly said in an email. After excelling on the school's Special Olympics basketball, bowling and track teams, Z now competes in those sports with the school district's Special Olympics program for alumni.

Social worker Gina Bogin, who managed stage productions for students with special needs, said Z at first was afraid to go onstage. In a few months, she played the Wicked Witch in "Wizard of Oz," then Alice in "Alice in Wonderland" and the wicked mother in "Rapunzel," Bogin said.

She became a public speaking ambassador for Special Olympics and Best Buddies, a nonprofit that promotes friendships, jobs and leadership training for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In spring, Z completed four years at Waubonsie and is now enrolled in the school district's post-high school transitional program that teaches life skills to special education students.

"I believe all of them helped her develop into the person she is today," Kemerly said of Waubonsie's programs. She called the zoo program "vital."

How and whether animals helped unlock Z's potential is a small part of a lively scientific debate that explores the broader topic of animals' potential to help the human condition.

Celebrated author, speaker and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin is a central figure. She maintains that her autism helps her think like animals and that animals are a safe way for people with autism to interact socially.

Kutska, who spent nearly eight years working with the teen volunteer program before leaving Brookfield Zoo last summer, said she has witnessed the power of the human-animal connection many times.

"The ability to come in here and spend the day learning and talking about animals does allow for a lot of transformation and growth for those students," she said. "I see it in most of the kids who came through, no matter what their ability is."

Marguerite O'Haire, assistant professor at Purdue University's Human-Animal Interaction Research group, has been studying the subject for about a decade. In a study she published in 2013, O'Haire concluded that children with autism spectrum disorder were more social in the presence of guinea pigs than in the presence of toys.

The study "demonstrates that the presence of an animal alone ... can increase social interaction," she wrote.

A 2010 study she noted suggested that children with autism experienced decreased stress when interacting with service dogs. O'Haire also pointed to a study in 2003 that indicated human interaction with animals releases oxytocin, known as "the love hormone," in children without autism.

Scott Lilienfeld, a psychology professor at Emory University, has reviewed dolphin- and equine-assisted therapies and found the evidence "equivocal" on whether they yield long-term improvement in psychological conditions.

Studies suggesting an enduring improvement are "not too rigorous," particularly in understanding control groups, Lilienfeld said.

An effective therapist can use a topic a patient is passionate about to spark favorable change, Lilienfeld said, and he suggested that Z's work around animals may have "started her on a cascade" of other, favorable developments.

"We probably could never know what actually happened," Lilienfeld said, "but I'm not opposed to thinking that (her involvement at the zoo) could have unlocked some things."

Brookfield Zoo is exploring the possibilities. Last year the Chicago Zoological Society, which runs the institution, created its Social Innovation Initiative, a broad effort to bring change in Chicago's most vulnerable populations. One segment of the plan includes programs for people on the autism spectrum.

A 'miracle' in action

Zinyra starts her shift as a play program assistant shortly before 9 a.m. Mondays and Tuesdays and works until 5 p.m.

At her post in the play zoo one snowy Monday morning last month, Zinyra played with a little girl near the kookaburra cage, then stepped over to the lemur exhibit and ushered two children close to the glass.

Z's speech can be muffled and she sometimes struggles to form words, but that morning, children and adult guests easily engaged with her.

Zinyra said the zoo "is like a little comfortable cover for me where nobody judges you." Her favorite part of the job is meeting people from all over the world, she said. Her dream is to become a veterinarian.

The experience has helped her talk to more people, Z said, "and sometimes I get to help them out too."

That morning she was the picture of poise, something that so many who knew her years ago find astonishing. Even Kutska, who saw it unfold, said she still gets choked up when remembering Z receiving a standing ovation after speaking to commissioners of the Cook County Forest Preserve District about three years ago.

"She doesn't realize," Kutska said, "the miracle that she is."

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