Let’s strive for common sense in freeing dogs from hot cars

Elyse Green holds Ellie the dog in Ramsey.
Elyse Green holds Ellie the dog in Ramsey. Special to The Bee

In the Central Valley, where the temperature regularly tops 100 degrees during the summer, no one wants to spot a dog sitting in a car, left there by an irresponsible owner.

But every summer, it happens. Someone is strolling through a sun-soaked parking lot comes across a dog sitting in the seat of a parked car. The windows might be rolled up or cracked ever so slightly. The pooch is usually panting.

What can be done?

Animal rights groups tell people to write down the license plate number of the car, try to track down its owner and, if all else fails, call 911 and wait for help. Legally, in California, that’s about all people can do right now, even if the dog is dying.

A bill making its way through the Legislature would give good Samaritans another tool.

Assemblyman Marc Steinorth, R-Rancho Cucamonga, is sponsoring AB 797, which would let Californians break into vehicles to spring a sweltering or freezing dog without fear of getting sued.

The only stipulations? Before breaking a window with a brick or a hammer vigilante-style, rescuers must call 911, verify that the car is indeed locked and there’s no other “reasonable” way to get in, and show that the dog is in imminent danger.

It’s a feel-good measure, for sure – one that only a handful of other states have adopted, among them Tennessee and Florida. But feel-good measures can come with consequences.

Debbie Tandoc, field vice president for the NORCAL Golden Retriever Club, was right when she told The Bee’s Jeremy B. White that “animal rights people just go off their rocker with this sort of thing.”

If that sounds outlandish, consider that, on its website, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals advises people to, yes, call 911 when they see a dog trapped in a hot car.

But “if the authorities are unresponsive or too slow and the dog’s life appears to be in imminent danger,” it continues, “find a witness (or several) who will back up your assessment, take steps to remove the suffering animal from the car, and then wait for authorities to arrive.”

This is PETA’s advice to everyone – even those Americans who don’t live in states that afford the kind of protections that AB 797 would.

The Legislature should be very careful with the language of this bill. The goal should be to strike a middle ground between the rights of animals and of the rights of their owners. California doesn’t need a law that emboldens self-styled superheroes who make it their mission to hastily free dogs from locked vehicles. They might have the moral high ground, but they shouldn’t get the legal one, too.

And, whether or not AB 797 passes, animal lovers should take the time to read up on the facts about the signs of a dog in distress.

While it’s true that dogs can overheat quickly, especially in a vehicle, because they can’t sweat, there are other reasons a dog might be panting and restless. Anxiety about being left alone, is one example. A keen eye can tell the difference.

Ideally, no dogs would ever be left in a hot car. But handling such situations when they arise should come down to common sense.