Bystanders can break a window to help people, pets in hot cars

When this photo was taken, the outside temperature was 94 degrees. After only six minutes in the sunshine, the vehicle’s interior reached 101.2 degrees.

Kate Scales, an animal control field officer for Mesa County, checks the temperature on a thermometer used to determine temperatures inside vehicles. Owners who leave dogs in cars with an interior temperature of 95 degrees will receive a citation. “We try to get there quickly,” Scales said about heeding reports of animals in cars. “It’s a priority for us. We don’t want to find a dead dog.”

Mesa County Animal Services Officer Kate Scales got the call Thursday afternoon about dogs left in a car in the parking lot of Mesa Mall.

By the time she drove from Whitewater to the mall, the Maltese dogs were faring pretty well and had water to drink inside a vehicle parked in the shade. A thermometer dropped though the window pegged the car’s interior at 82 degrees — not hot enough to issue the dogs’ owner a citation.

“We try to get there quickly,” Scales said about heeding reports of animals in cars. “It’s a priority for us. We don’t want to find a dead dog.”

Local animal services officers respond to an average of two to three calls a day from citizens reporting animals in vehicles. And now — under limited, very specific circumstances — those citizens themselves can legally lend a hand to pets and kids they think may be in trouble.

A new good Samaritan law that went into effect in Colorado this week allows people who notice dogs or people in distress in vehicles to break out a window to help. The law dictates a number of conditions and steps a person must take before smashing the glass.

It’s far more common for people to leave dogs in vehicles than children, said Heidi Davidson, spokeswoman for the Grand Junction Police Department.

Grand Junction police officers answered 19 calls for animals in cars in July. Eighteen of the calls involved dogs. One was for a mule in a horse trailer, and the person who reported it said “it appeared hot and didn’t have any water,” Davidson said.

Pulling reports for the numbers of people left in cars is more difficult because the type of call is considered a “welfare” report, and officers respond to those regularly, she said.

“We’re optimistic we won’t just have people looking for animals to rescue,” Davidson said. “The law is pretty specific about what needs to be done. It’s brand new. We don’t know how it will play out but we absolutely expect community members will use good judgment.”

Before taking action, a person who notices a dog or a person left in a vehicle must discern if the person or dog is in distress, or as the law states, “in imminent danger of death or suffering serious bodily injury.”

A person must first attempt to check if the doors are unlocked before making forced entry. They must also first contact law enforcement and “make a reasonable effort” to locate the owner or operator of the vehicle, the law states.

To date this year, animal services officers have not removed an animal from a vehicle because it was in extreme distress, animal services Director Doug Frye said. And it’s been years since the agency responded to a call in which a dog died after being left in a hot vehicle.

Frye said a distressed animal may be in the prone position, lying face down. Or it might be trying to crawl under a seat to cool down. Other indicators of an animal in distress include a dark tongue, glazed eyes, heavy panting and excessive drooling.

On average about 37 children die each year in the U.S. of heatstroke after being left in a hot car, according to the child advocacy group None of the 33 child deaths that have occurred to date this year were in Colorado, the group reported.

The inside of a car can reach 125 degrees in minutes and cracking a window doesn’t help much. Children have developed heatstroke after being left in vehicles with outside temperatures as low as 60 degrees, but in more than 55 percent of child hot car deaths a parent or a guardian unknowingly left a child in a vehicle, the group said.

There should be some considerations about breaking a window to rescue an animal, Frye said.

“We still recommend they leave it up to law enforcement,” Frye said.

About half of the time in which animal services receives a citizen’s report, a motorist shows up to the vehicle and leaves before enforcement arrives, he said. The agency receives a number of other calls involving vehicles with animals inside, but the car doors are locked and the vehicle is running with the air conditioner on. It’s not recommended, Frye said, but the practice doesn’t warrant a citation.

An owner receives an animal cruelty ticket if a vehicle’s interior is 95 degrees or hotter, he said. The majority of tickets are written to people not accustomed to the Grand Valley’s heat, he said.

“I didn’t see a need for this law,” Frye said, adding it likely came about from children being left in cars and animals were tacked on. “I’m really hoping it doesn’t create a bunch of headaches for us.”


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