In the award-winning book A Ruff Road Home, writer Susan Russell details the plight of canines caught up in the municipal court system after being confiscated from private homes due to neglect and/or abuse. The book details the harrowing, often heartrending journey from city shelter to the safe embrace of a caring family. What makes this journey possible? A highly dedicated network of volunteers and rescue organizations who understand the link between community violence and animal cruelty; and continue to explore solutions. Perhaps one of the most involved and proactive of these organizations is Safe Humane Chicago.
Safe Humane is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that fosters safer, more compassionate communities by inspiring positive, nurturing relationships between humans and animals. This ongoing crusade regularly brings the organization into contact with canines who have been damaged, bullied, broken, and/or abandoned to uncertain, terrifying conditions — dogs who are, in effect, doing time for someone else’s crime.
Take, for example, Justine. A sweet-natured pup with a winsome face, Justine’s numerous physical scars make her past mistreatment painfully evident. But according to Safe Humane Executive Director Cynthia Bathurst, this dog is far from damaged goods.
“Justine is an example of a canine who has been embraced by multiple volunteers, across multiple Safe Humane programs,” explains Bathurst. “She was abused by a man who refused to relinquish her. One day, the judge decided he’d finally heard enough. At that point, we were able to step in. Justine became one of our Court Case Dogs — she was basically housed securely in a puppy witness protection program of sorts.”
Through the ongoing process of helping Justine heal — while teaching her socialization and obedience skills, including basic commands and walking on leash — volunteers have come to adore her. She’s been taken to the Illinois Youth Center, where Safe Humane helps young people learn the importance of animal compassion. She’s worked with regional inmates and veterans, who help teach her that interaction doesn’t have to equal anguish. She’s attended puppy play groups designed to help her become a dog virtually any family could lovingly call their own.
Unfortunately, explains Bathurst, resolution for these canines isn’t always quick and easy. Justine originally came into the Safe Humane Court Case Dog program in mid-October of 2015; and as of this writing, she’s still awaiting that special someone who will give her a forever home. While Bathurst acknowledges that these sometimes-lengthy intervals can be frustrating, she notes that they help illustrate why Safe Humane initiatives are so vital to the communities they serve.
“Amazing bonds are forged with these animals as our volunteers and community members help shepherd them to a safer, better life,” she explains. It’s these deepening levels of heartfelt compassion and empathy, adds Bathurst, that can ultimately help break the cycle of violence.
Toward this end, Safe Humane continues to cultivate a growing number of community-focused education and outreach programs like the ones supporting Justine. The Youth Leaders program, for instance, is an educational elective that helps area high-schoolers become peer ambassadors in disadvantaged communities. These teens teach other students about the responsible and compassionate treatment of companion animals.
Another example is the Safe Humane Collaborative Justice program, which enlists regional government agencies and community members to help identify and prosecute perpetrators of animal cruelty. This program ensures that animal victims like Justine receive crucial rehabilitation services to facilitate eventual placement in caring homes.
There’s also a program called Lifetime Bonds, which pairs at-risk youth with at-risk animals. Young people in disadvantaged communities develop self-confidence and marketable job skills by nurturing and training Safe Humane ambassador dogs, shelter pups, and Court Case canines.
Bathurst notes that the Lifetime Bonds program recently began a pilot partnership with the K.L.E.O. Community Life Center — a non-profit organization that supports abused women and children with programs that embody its message to Keep Loving Each Other (K.L.E.O.). This pilot initiative selects disadvantaged community youth ages of 15-20, teaching them to train and socialize homeless canines currently housed by the city’s Animal Welfare League. It also pays these participants a small stipend to maintain and spruce up shelter kennels.
Bathurst explains that these efforts help make traumatized shelter dogs more adoptable. But perhaps the most important outcome is an enduring human/animal connection. She tells the story of 15-year-old program participant Joseph, who named his canine trainee companion “Spot.” An interesting choice, given that Spot is an all-black dog. When asked about the unusual moniker, Joseph explained: “She’s made a spot on my heart.”
A Ruff Road Home, available for purchase on the Safe Humane web site, is filled with similar tales of resilience, mercy, redemption, courage, and hope. The book explains how countless dogs like Justine are receiving a second chance — right along with many of the human program participants who support her. It’s a blueprint, of sorts, toward breaking the cycle of canine and community violence … much like Safe Humane itself. To learn more or donate, visit the organization’s website or Facebook page.