A legendary local community organizer envisions a safer world for people through compassion for animals
By Wendy Wollenberg
Cynthia Bathurst didn’t necessarily set out to be a champion for animals. As a volunteer community organizer in her Lincoln Park neighborhood, the former mathematical analyst only wanted to broker peace between dog guardians and people without pets in her local park. (For the record, she falls in the non-guardian camp.) She formed the Dog Advisory Work Group (D.A.W.G.) as a committee of her neighborhood association to find solutions to disputes such as picking up after pets and off-leash public spaces. There was obviously a need for this type of work, and D.A.W.G. became its own nonprofit in 2000. “It was all about quality of life and sharing public spaces wisely,” Bathurst says.
Bathurst has also been involved with the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS), a partnership that would help form the court advocacy arm of D.A.W.G. in late 2000. Realizing the impact of a constant presence in courtrooms dealing with animal-related cases, D.A.W.G. has since trained more than 800 volunteers who have participated in more than 5,000 hearings involving situations of animal neglect, abuse, and fighting. “Just by being there, day after day, we let the system know that these cases are important,” Bathurst attests. In recent years, Illinois has changed many animal welfare laws, including making dog fighting a felony, toughening animal cruelty laws, and increasing prosecutions.
The program extends into rehabilitation for the animal victims of these crimes. Where 98 percent of the dogs involved in these situations were once euthanized, that number has dropped to 50 percent since D.A.W.G.’s inception. “These are the animals that are being abused and neglected; the victims, not the criminals,” Bathurst says, referring to the education needed to change the public’s perception of these cases. “It is the community’s responsibility to take care of all animals.”
As a recent example of how far these efforts have gone, Bathurst cites a 2010 dogfighting case as a defining moment in her work. Two dogs, Brutus and Remus, were rescued from a basement by police and taken to Chicago Animal Care and Control (ACC). During sentencing, the judge ruled that the defendants had to pay for the dogs’ lifetime care and transport, as well as all of the costs incurred by ACC. The dogs have since been adopted are now affectionately known as Benny and Remo.
Building upon the D.A.W.G. platform and based on the belief that a safe neighborhood is a humane one, Bathurst helped create Safe Humane Chicago in 2007. Striving to end violence against both animals and children and bringing to light the connection between the two, Safe Humane Chicago’s mission is comprised of comprehensive programming aimed at at-risk communities. “We are bringing together people from diverse backgrounds who want to make a difference in their neighborhoods,” Bathurst says.
Safe Humane Chicago works with schools, churches, the Chicago Police Department, and other organizations to carry out its intensive programming for children, teenagers, and adults. The campaign provides interactive instruction on humane treatment of animals, responsible dog guardianship, and ways to stop dog fighting and end animal abuse. “One of the most rewarding aspects of our efforts is hearing from kids we’ve reached out to who want to work with us as mentors to help others,” Bathurst says.
This dynamic, impactful initiative now has a national partner in the Best Friends Animal Society, the country’s largest sanctuary for abused and abandoned animals, which is based in Utah. Bathurst was named the national director of Project Safe Humane, bringing the Chicago model to other cities across the country, starting with New York and Los Angeles.