An incident involving a pet left in a hot (temperature-wise) car just out of JSO’s jurisdiction reveals a policy that’s bound to cause issues here in Northeast Florida.
On May 9, Georgia resident Michael Hammons made national headlines when he broke the window of a car to rescue a dog that had been left inside. By Southern standards, the weather wasn’t particularly hot that day — a temperate 78 degrees — but according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, at that temperature, the interior of the car could have reached upwards of 114 degrees in 30 minutes, more than hot enough to kill the Yorkshire/terrier mix. So rather than wait for an officer while the dog suffered and possibly died of heatstroke, the Desert Storm veteran took matters into his own hands. Many would do the same.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) subsequently said Hammons would receive its Compassionate Action Award for his actions.
But the outraged owner of the vehicle, who presumably cared more for her window than her pet, was less than grateful. USA Today reports that upon the owner’s insistence, Hammons was subsequently arrested for criminal trespass by Oconee County, Georgia police.
It gets hot here, too.
Jacksonville’s municipal code specifically allows police and animal control officers “to enter the vehicle by using the amount of force reasonably necessary to remove the animal” left in a vehicle on a hot day and provides civil and criminal immunity to the officer and civil immunity to the city for such actions. The party responsible for leaving the animal in the car can subsequently be charged with cruelty to animals, a third-degree felony in Florida punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
There is a gap in the law, however.
A civilian — like Hammons — who breaks into a vehicle to free an animal can be arrested and charged with a crime, such as destruction of property or criminal trespass. Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Officer Christian Hancock said he would not personally recommend arrest but confirmed that it is possible for someone to be arrested for such action in Jacksonville. (The criminal charges against Hammons were later dropped.)
Worse yet, if a police officer responds to a call involving an animal locked in a hot vehicle, JSO policy is for the officer to attempt to contact the owner. The policy specifically states: “On all calls involving domestic animals, officers should attempt to contact the owner of the animal to resolve the immediate problem.” (Emphasis added.)
So instead of immediately affecting rescue, per JSO policy, an officer should make a phone call.
Officer Hancock said that the decision of whether to break into a vehicle to free an animal is an on-scene call and officers should look for signs of distress before doing so. “We want to see those signs of despair and if there’s an issue, an emergency reason to knock a window out.”
As sensible as this policy sounds, officers are not trained in veterinary medicine; the early stages of heatstroke or hyperthermia in dogs — left in vehicles more frequently than any other species — are difficult, if not impossible, to diagnose on sight through a car window. Just a quick check on petMD (“vet authored, vet approved”) reveals that the signs of heatstroke in dogs include panting, excessive drooling, rapid heart rate, dehydration and reddening of the gums — none of which may be readily apparent to a casual observer. By the time there are more obvious symptoms, such as vomiting or defecating blood, unconsciousness or seizures, it’s often too late. Coastal Veterinary Hospital veterinarian Heather Avery said that once a dog collapses from heat stroke, the prognosis is generally bleak.
“We don’t have a lot of good laws enforcing animal care in this area … it’s frustrating,” Dr. Avery said.