New state law protects dog rescuers

Lauraine Leblanc
Mad River Union

NORTHERN HUMBOLDT – Police and animal shelter staff can tell how hot it is outside just by answering the phone. That’s because even in temperate Northern Humboldt County, hot days generate multiple calls about dogs locked in cars. Bystanders call in their concerns, but until now were powerless to act, other than calling authorities.

In California, good Samaritans can now rescue dogs without fear of repercussion, for on Sept. 24, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 797, a bill that amends the Penal Code to allow bystanders to rescue animals – usually dogs –  trapped in hot vehicles.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, when the outside temperature is 75 degrees – as was the case in Eureka as recently as Sept. 25 – the interior temperature of a car can reach 120 degrees in under one hour.

How much of a problem is this in Humboldt County? According to Humboldt County Animal Shelter Manager Rob Patton, not much. “On sunny days we get a lot of calls,” he said. But only once in his career as an animal control officer in Eureka did he have to call in a tow company locksmith to liberate a dog from a locked vehicle. Even then, the dog was fine.

“Most people are good about leaving adequate ventilation,” he said. A dog in a car might be panting, he said, but that might be due to stress, nervousness or frustration at being left in a car.

And in the coastal and northern areas of the county, there’s not much cause for a concern. It would be more of a problem in southern and eastern parts of the county, he added.

Previous laws allowed only animal control and police officers to rescue animals locked in hot cars. However, because official responses were sometimes not fast enough to rescue animals in dire distress – when minutes are the difference between life and death – bystanders can now break the windows of cars to release animals in distress, without fear of criminal or civil repercussions.

The rescuer must first determine that the vehicle is locked and contact a local law enforcement agency or emergency service. “Be real cautious before you start breaking windows,” said Patton. “It’s hard to tell. It’s best to get some sort of official opinion – of course, if you see a dog in need, call emergency services.”

If police or animal control advise the caller to remove an animal from a locked car, the new law states that the rescuer must remain with the animal in a safe location nearby until the emergency responder arrives, when they must turn the animal over to the responder. Civilians may only use force sufficient to enter the vehicle.

The new law also spells out expectations and penalties for leaving an animal in an overheated vehicle. Persons are prohibited from leaving animals in locked cars “under conditions that endanger the health or well-being of an animal due to heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, or lack of food or water, or other circumstances that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability or death to the animal.” It lays out penalties of fines of up to $100 per animal for a first offense and up to $500 and up to six months in county jail for further offences or if an animal suffers “great bodily injury.”

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