You can now rescue a critically ill pet from a hot or cold car in California and not face civil or criminal prosecution, thanks to new legislation.
But California Assemblyman Marc Steinorth (R-Rancho Cucagmonga), who co-sponsored the legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law, said that certain steps must be taken to qualify for such immunity.
“We want people to know about this law but we don’t want to have people abuse it. This is not a vigilante license to break into cars,” Steinorth told People. “There are a series of steps that must be taken [to qualify for immunity and if they’re taken] this law will save lives.”
Steinorth is a parent and pet lover who has grown increasingly concerned about the number of hot car deaths. One such high-profile death occurred this past June when a police dog in central California died in a patrol car when the air conditioner malfunctioned, according to UPI. The dog was placed in the car to cool down after a training exercise in 90-degree heat.
Stephen Wells, executive director of Animal League Defense Fund, said the law that takes effect Jan. 1, 2017, will save animals’ lives while ensuring rescuers take measured approaches.
“California’s new law (AB 797) sets out a measured and reasonable way for citizens to respond to animals trapped in hot cars. In requiring citizens to use ‘no more force to enter the vehicle and remove the animal than … necessary,’ the law encourages a calm and effective response to these emergencies, protecting the animals involved,” he said. “Using as much force as necessary to get the animal out of the hot car — and no more — means that the animal is removed from a deadly environment, while being exposed to as little associated trauma as possible.”
Steinorth began researching animal deaths about a year ago. As part of his research, he and his colleagues locked themselves in a hot car for 20 minutes.
“It took me a couple of days to rehydrate. I’m not not trying to exaggerate,” said Steinorth. “I was constantly thirsty after that. I was at a dinner that night and they had to refill my water glass about three times.”
Dogs and other animals don’t have a human’s ability to perspire, which means they can quickly be overcome by heat that can prove fatal — fast.
But Steinorth cautioned that not all animals in cars are in enough imminent danger to be rescued in extreme ways by civilians. That is why the law includes these five steps the rescuer must take to be eligible for immunity:
1. Determine the car is locked and there is no other reasonable method by which to enter;
2. Act in reasonable and good faith, believing there is imminent danger if the animal is not immediately removed;
3. Contact law enforcement before entering the car;
4. Uses no more force than necessary to enter the car; and
5. Remains nearby with animal in a safe location until law enforcement arrives
“Any time you have a situation where an untrained individual is being asked to make decisions like this, there is a great deal of risk. Many people do not know what the signs are for heat stress or stroke, how to treat an animal if it is suffering from such conditions and how to safely extricate an animal from this situation,” said Nicole Wilson, Director of Humane Law Enforcement, Pennsylvania SPCA, Philadelphia, who noted she has not read the law that was just passed. “We have received calls in the past where people have had concerns for an animal and an officer responds to find that the car and air conditioner were both turned on. This can certainly be a concern when empowering individuals to take drastic action like breaking a window.”
Most animal experts recommend Good Samaritans wait for law enforcement or animal control before attempting a rescue except in the most extreme cases. An agitated animal may jump out of a car and run away, seriously cut itself on glass or even attack the rescuer.
“Dogs are unpredictable,” a dog trainer Jody Haas in Highwood, Illinois, told PEOPLE. “The dog might significantly bite you or seriously hurt itself. What if it darts out and is hit by a car? You just don’t know. Still, if I felt it was life and death situation, I would not hesitate to at least break part of the window if not the whole window to get the dog air … But the best thing is to call 911, and they will come right away.”
Merritt Milam, founder of Wags ‘N Whiskers, a pet day care in Birmingham, Alabama, said it’s better to err on the side of caution and attempt a rescue than stand by if no help arrives for a pet in distress.
“As far as injuring or upsetting the animal goes, in my view, the most important thing is to make sure the pet survives,” said Milam, who stressed calling 911 and waiting as long as possible before attempting a rescue. “In the event that you come across a dog or cat in immediate distress inside the car, I would break the window that is farthest away from the animal. Although [the animal] probably will follow your movement from inside the car, try your best to not do any harm.”
Steinorth stressed that the new legislation is designed not to legally harm those who act in good faith to save pets’ lives.
“People want to make a difference but they are afraid. We want them to feel empowered,” said Steinorth. “We want to stop civil lawsuits, criminal prosecution and empower citizens to save lives. Rescue the pet.”