Dogged determination: Cynthia Bathurst works to stop violence by helping animals and people peacefully co-exist

By William Hageman

Chicago Tribune

Published: Thursday, Oct. 29 2009 12:09 p.m. MDT

Cynthia Bathurst works with Dunamis, a 9-week-old pit bull puppy, during a training class at the Nash Community Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Brian Cassella, MCT

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.

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