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‘Right To Rescue’ Bill Aims To Save Pets In Hot Cars

John Phelan/Wikimedia Commons

As summertime temperatures climb, you may be tempted to bring your dog with you for an air-conditioned ride in the car. But if you have to leave your dog with the engine off for even a short period of time, the consequences could be tragic … and expensive.

A bill under consideration in California would give bystanders the right to go as far as breaking a car window to get the animal out.

It's August. You’ve just pulled into your local grocery store, and notice a dog in the car parked next to you. The engine is off, the windows are rolled up, and there’s not a water bowl in sight. The dog’s staring up at you from the driver’s seat, lethargic, and you know that as hot as it is outside, it’s got to be much hotter in the car. You wait for a few minutes, but the dog’s owner doesn’t return. What can you do to help the animal without getting into trouble yourself?

A proposed new California state law, AB 797, called the “Right to Rescue Act”, allows the average citizen to save the animal by any means necessary. This means immunity even if someone has to break a car window to get the dog out safely.

Rebekah Arnold, a dog-sitter from Redding, thinks the Right to Rescue Act is a great idea. 

"Living in Redding, California where it does get to 120 degrees outside,” she says, “I have seen dogs suffer inside of cars and I think that everyone from well-meaning dog owners to neglectful, abusive dog owners are really going to have to step their game up and treat animals better.”

The bill is inspired by a similar law enacted in Tennessee. The California bill provides “good Samaritans” with legal protection if they damage property while trying to rescue an animal from a life-threatening situation. But only if they follow certain rules, like checking to see if the car is unlocked and making sure that the animal is actually in danger. The person must also contact law enforcement and stay until help arrives, using no more force than necessary to rescue the animal. 

Republican Assemblymember Marc Steinorth, who authored the bill, filmed a video to promote the importance of AB 797.  In the video, the assemblyman and two colleagues sat in a car for 20 minutes on a 90 degree day while the temperature inside rose.

When they finally got out of the car, the interior had reached 108 degrees. 

Steinorth's intent was to show just how quickly a car can reach dangerous temperatures—and it’s even worse for animals. 

“The point that we tried to make with the video too was, I mean you think about it, the animal doesn’t have the opportunity to perspire,” he says. “So an animal is wearing a full sized fur coat, it’s even that much more challenging for them."

A dog in distress will be panting, drooling, breathing heavily, or in advanced stages of distress, the dog may have stopped panting altogether. 

Steinorth says that there has been little opposition to the bill, but there is some concern that vigilantes will use it as an excuse to break windows. 

Captain Lee Anne Smith is Chief of Operations at Redding’s Haven Humane, a non-profit organization that cares for homeless and abused animals. Smith supports the new bill, but wonders what consequences it may have when it goes into effect at the end of this summer:

“My only concern is sometimes people will jump the gun, so to speak, and just want to go in there and get the animal out without first giving themselves an opportunity to evaluate the situation or have someone in an official capacity evaluate the situation,” she says. “But I like the idea that we can help them sooner than later.” 

In the amount of time it takes for law enforcement to respond to a call, it may be too late. Smith says Haven Humane receives as many as five or six calls a day to rescue animals from hot cars in the summertime, even though for the last 10 years it’s been illegal in California to leave an animal unattended in a vehicle under hazardous conditions. 

Assemblymember Steinorth prefers to focus on the life-saving potential of the bill instead of any possible damage to vehicles. 

“Certainly you don’t want people just to think that this is a wholesale license to go out and vandalize,” he says. “That’s not what this is intended to do. And I really believe that people are intelligent enough that they understand that’s not what this is.” 

The bill is currently making its way through the legislature. Steinorth hopes to have the bill on the governor’s desk for signature by the end of summer. In the meantime, when it’s hot outside, pet owners should play it safe and leave their animals at home.