On June 23, PEOPLE reporter Diane Herbst found two dogs locked in a hot car with the windows shut and decided to take action. This is her first-person account of what happened.
I had just finished my jog through New Jersey’s Eagle Rock Reservation in Tuesday’s humid, 88-degree weather – a day so hot I left my dog and constant companion at home – when a walker alerted me to some disturbing news in the parking lot.
Two dogs were locked inside a Lexus SUV, sitting in direct sunlight. The windows were open a crack, and the two orange dogs, who looked like Irish setters, were panting. I immediately called 911. It was 12:26 p.m.
On an 85-degree day, the temperature inside a car with the windows opened slightly can reach 102 degrees within 10 minutes; after 30 minutes, the temperature will reach 120 degrees, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Exposing a dog to these conditions can lead to brain damage or death from heatstroke or suffocation.
Sixteen frantic minutes after calling the police – “Should I break open a window?” I wondered, as I made two more 911 calls – a fire truck from West Orange escorted by several units from the Essex County Sheriff’s Office arrived. I started crying with relief, and I thanked everyone for coming. Within minutes, the doors were opened.
A firewoman found a card in the car with a woman’s name and number. I called, hoping it was the owner. I reached a man who told me his wife and their son went mushroom-picking in the woods, and that he would call them.
Fifteen more minutes passed before the son and mom arrived. At this point, about 35 minutes had passed since I placed the 911 call.
Time is of the essence with dogs in hot cars. “It’s not just the ambient temperature but also the humidity that can affect your pet,” says Dr. Barry Kellogg, VMD, of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. “If the humidity is too high, they are unable to cool themselves, and their temperature will skyrocket to dangerous levels – very quickly.”
The worst part, aside from putting the dogs’ lives at risk?
The woman got defensive and challenged the officers.
“Who opened my door?” she yelled. She then stuck her hand in the car. “It’s not hot in here,” she said, ignoring the fact the doors had been open for about 20 minutes.
I took a video. On it, an officer told the woman: “You want to sit in there for 40 minutes and see how you would act? You got no fur on. They got fur.”
The woman then took the nose of one of the dogs and tried to force a water bottle into his mouth. “Don’t force water into his mouth,” I yelled. Not once did I hear her acknowledge the danger she had put her dogs in. She just didn’t seem to understand what she did.
The officers told me they are filing a report and turning it over to the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“We are considering charging her, and the investigation is ongoing right now,” Kevin Lynch, spokesman for the Essex County Sheriff’s Office, told me. The NJSPCA has been contacted, and “beginning today [Thursday], people from the NJSPCA will make contact with the offender, will check on the status of the animals and will let us know.”
I put in a call for comment to the woman’s husband, who was unable to speak to me Thursday morning due to work.
Please spread the word about the dangers of leaving a dog in a car. Sadly, an Alabama police dog died last week after being left in a hot car.
Basically, don’t do it, warns the Humane Society. Even when it’s 72 degrees outside, the temperature inside your car can heat up to 116 degrees within an hour.
If you see a dog in a hot car, call 911. New York state is considering a law that would allow onlookers to smash a car’s window to save an animal, legislation that would be the first of its kind in the U.S.
Veterinarian Ernie Ward made this video that really hits home.
“The whole point of this exercise is to show how hot a dog gets in a car,” he says on the video. “This kills, and it’s a lousy way to die.”