CHICAGO — Any puppy training class will have its share of "eureka" moments. With endless repetition and a big enough bag of treats, even the most unmanageable dog eventually gets it.
But this, this was special.
Two high-school-age brothers were putting their 10-week-old pit bull through his paces. It was obvious that the brothers had been working closely with O.J. He maintained eye contact with the boys, responded to their commands, did well on leash and got along with his frisky classmates.
For Cynthia Bathurst, watching from the back of the room, it was one of those eureka moments times two.
Bathurst, of Chicago, is co-founder and principal director of Safe Humane Chicago, an ambitious two-year-old effort to fight violence by promoting compassion for animals as well as people. The program uses schools, churches and community groups — more than 60 organizations have lined up behind her — to get the anti-violence message to citizens in high-crime areas.
Especially young citizens: Get kids to treat animals with care and respect, and you're on the right track. Clearly, O.J. and the two youngsters were getting the message.
The classes are just one part of Safe Humane Chicago's strategy. It also works with Cook County, Ill., government agencies and Chicago's community policing network, and it advocates for stronger animal welfare legislation and the enforcement of laws already on the books.
Ending violence and animal abuse is an uphill battle being fought on many fronts, but always with Bathurst leading the way. One day she's making a presentation to 50 felony assistant state's attorneys at 26th and California. The next she's on the phone, lining up a location for an event. The next she may be at one of the classes, working with the dogs and cleaning up some puppy spillage. Or, as was the case recently, she accomplished all three in one long afternoon.
If dogs are man's best friend, Bathurst likely is a dog's best friend.
Take O.J., for example. In a worst-case scenario, he could have ended up on the streets or involved in dog fighting. But thanks to Safe Humane Chicago (safehumanechicago.org) and through the efforts of his two young handlers, he is fast becoming what Bathurst calls a good canine citizen.
"We're training them to be socialized and toward being star puppies, with the goal that they'll become ambassadors for their neighborhoods," Bathurst says during a lull in class.
The animal welfare and law enforcement communities have long pointed to statistics that show people who are abusive to animals are more likely to be violent toward people. Bathurst's efforts may tell us if the corollary is also true.
"If we're kinder to animals, will we be kinder to one another?" says Steve Dale, a dog and cat behavior consultant, author and WLS-AM Chicago radio host who has worked with Bathurst. "Working to help make Chicagoans kinder to animals is working to help make Chicagoans kinder to one another. And that is what Cynthia is doing."
The nonprofit Safe Humane Chicago is one of several animal-welfare programs that Bathurst has championed. There was also a first-in-the-nation court advocacy program for cases involving animal abuse. And there's an ongoing study that looks at the abused, homeless and at-risk pet populations from a municipal planning perspective, which will be presented to the Chicago City Council later this year.
Bathurst, who recently received the American Veterinary Medical Association's 2009 Humane Award for her work, has been a driving force behind these groundbreaking initiatives, always on a volunteer basis. Over a quarter-century, she has built relationships with law enforcement and child and animal welfare officials, government and church leaders, and people in the business world, and she draws on that pool of expertise when there's a problem to be solved. Maybe even more impressively, she not only can bring a variety of people to the table, she gets them to work together and reach solutions. When dealing with animal issues, that is no small feat.
"Really, all I am doing is bringing around a lot of these networks that I know," she says. "And saying, 'You know this, you know this, let's do this.' Organizing it, which I love to do, to make a difference. I've been lucky enough, blessed enough, whatever, and people have trusted me and it's come as far as it has."
Interestingly, this highly motivated animal advocate doesn't have a dog. Or any pets.
"I have a great rapport with dogs and cats," she says. "I grew up with horses, all kinds of animals. I have great relationships with animals and find it important."
But she says she can further the cause by not having pets of her own. "(Not having a dog) helped me in the nonanimal world," she says. "That wasn't my agenda. My agenda was not my dog or cat at home."
Instead, her agenda is the elimination of violence, and she's focused on making it happen.
"She amazes me all the time," says veterinarian Shannon Greeley, a past president of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association. "Sitting in on meetings with her and watching her strategize on how to weave the common thread between ... groups with opposing opinions or groups that have different thoughts on paths to a solution, she has this ability to find that level ground by which we can approach the problem. I don't think there are a lot of people who have that ability."
Just don't ask Bathurst to talk about it.
"She's very understated, and that's why she's so endearing as well," Greeley says. "She's not the type of person who brags or boasts. She lets her actions speak for her. She's very underspoken in many regards, but her actions are very powerful."
Julie Castle has seen it too. She's the director of community programs and services for Best Friends Animal Society, the Utah-based organization that was so impressed with Bathurst and Safe Humane Chicago that it is sponsoring the program and hired her last year to take it to other cities around the country under the Project Safe Humane banner. She is the project's national director.
"She came out … a couple of months ago, and we had a managers meeting," Castle says, "and I asked each manager to go around and say something about themselves that people might not know. Cynthia mentioned some really low-key thing. Somebody asked a question, and she was very reticent to give up her accomplishments. And it turns out she is a Ph.D. in rhetoric."
Bathurst grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a degree in mathematics from the University of Alabama in 1974. She went on to the University of Iowa, where she earned a master's degree and her doctorate. She worked for a Chicago company as a mathematical researcher and analyst for more than 25 years.
As Bathurst and husband, Jim Rodgers — they married while students at Iowa, and he would spend 25 years as vice president of health policy research for the American Medical Association — settled into Chicago, she became immersed in neighborhood issues.
One of her first forays into community involvement was with CAPS, the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, and it started her on what has become a mission to reduce violence. Bathurst volunteered to go on ride-alongs with Chicago police officers, figuring it was a good way to meet people in her Lincoln Park neighborhood.
About 4 a.m. on that first night out, she and the officer heard shots. They arrived at the scene — a robbery gone bad, she says — and she saw a shooting victim die.
"That had a huge impact on me.… I watched the whole thing, and I realized how violence can impact everybody," she says.
Bathurst's community involvement soon grew to include becoming president of a Lincoln Park neighborhood association. Out of that came a committee, the Dog Advisory Work Group, created to handle a growing number of disputes between dog owners and non-owners. On a broader level, DAWG's mission was to get owners and non-owners to live together in peace.
After DAWG became a separate nonprofit in 2000, Bathurst saw another area where it could make an impact. She had become familiar with court advocacy when she followed the Lincoln Park robbery case through the courts. She thought DAWG could do something similar. Court advocates, for the most part, are a presence in a courtroom.
This is especially beneficial in animal cases, because Illinois has changed many animal-related laws in recent years — animal cruelty laws have been toughened, and dog fighting has become a felony, for example — and has increased the number of prosecutions.
Since December 2000, some 700 people have gone through the court advocacy training and have attended more than 4,000 hearings. Advocates are now in court every day, Bathurst says, representing animal issues.
"We've gone from cases being dismissed even before the offender even stood up, to now where they're being taken seriously," she says.
And while she credits the volunteers, prosecutors and law enforcement officials for its success, you have to go back to how it got started.
"That was totally her baby," says Dale. "It's just amazing what she's done to get judges and also attorneys to pay attention to laws concerning companion animals and public safety (because) they're just being watched. … Chicago is the first major city in the country, as far as I know, to do this. It was all Cynthia."
Following cases of animal abuse and violence, working with police as they tried to get a handle on dog fighting, and seeing mounting evidence of the correlation between violence against animals and violence against people, Bathurst believed there was a need for a more comprehensive approach, one in which she could take advantage of her alliances and organizing skills.
"(The idea) was, let's form something that everyone in Chicago can get involved with," Bathurst says. "They won't care (about the program) if it's DAWG, they won't care if it's PAWS, they won't care if it's DCFS. So let's name it Chicago and Safe and Humane."
"We really know how much of a link there is between violence against animals and violence against people, especially children," Greeley says. "The two just seem to have a deep correlation. So identifying the violence against animals and dealing with that at a very early age, and not allowing kids to become desensitized to it, is really very important."
Safe Humane Chicago takes ambassador dogs to community events, where kids can see that dogs have a higher purpose than to be used for fighting — some children have never even learned to pet a dog, Dale says — and teaches high school students the lessons of compassion. At ground zero, though, are the classes.
"The biggest challenge is getting that relationship going when they're young," Bathurst says, watching a couple of pit bull pups roughhouse. "And then these young people get so proud. The whole idea is to get ambassadors out there."
It's Bathurst's approach that has made the difference.
"I think the cool thing about her," Best Friends' Castle says of Bathurst, "she didn't start with the animal piece first. The world I come from, our focus is 'no more homeless pets.' But where she really started from is the people and community aspect.
"If we're going to achieve no more homeless pets, it needs to happen in that way. It needs to be a community ownership issue, rather than 'here is an animal welfare group that is going to save all the animals for us.' It really needs to be a part of the fabric of the community."Comment on this story
Bathurst sounds hopeful.
"If we are able to target and have public-private partnerships to tackle these problems," she says, "we can make life better for the animals and life better for the people, for the communities, get safer communities that will be more humane, provide good role models, do something about this whole dog fighting thing, the culture of violence.
"See, it's like changing the world and using animals to do it."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.