By Janet McAfee

On September 24th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 797, known as the “Right to Rescue Act,” which protects people from both criminal and civil liability when they break a car window to rescue an animal in danger.  Each of us has passed by a car in a shopping center parking lot on a hot day to witness a cat or dog unattended inside.  You wonder about how soon the owner might return.  You worry about the health and welfare of the animal.  California is now the seventh state to pass a law that legally protects Good Samaritans when they take action to save a suffering animal in a hot car.

Sponsored by Assemblyman Marc Steinorth (R-Rancho Cucamonga), Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) and others, this bill was a response to many tragic incidents in which dogs perished from heat stroke after being left in locked cars in the hot weather.  Assemblyman Santiago stated, “I am proud to be working on this bipartisan effort to end inhumane animal deaths.”

Coachella Valley residents may recall the death of a German Shepherd dog belonging to a Palm Desert veterinarian several years ago.  The veterinarian left his dog inside his car, presumably to run a quick errand at his office.  He may have been sidetracked, and apparently forgot about his pet outside.  The animal suffered a horrendous death from heat stroke inside a vehicle parked in a busy public parking lot outside Ralph’s Market.  Had the “Right to Rescue Act” been in effect then, one of the people passing by  might have legally broken into the car and saved this dog’s life.

If it could happen to a professional expert in animal health, the rest of us need reminding about the dangers of leaving their dogs inside automobiles.  When the weather is only 72 degrees, the temperature inside a car parked in the desert sun can quickly heat up to 116 degrees.  On one of our 90 degree sunny days, the interior temperature inside a parked vehicle can soar to 160 degrees.  Leaving an animal unattended in a parked car can be deadly, and even illegal in some communities for any length of time.  That “quick errand” may take longer than you think.

When you spot an animal inside a car on a warm day, there are some other preventative measures you can also take. Write down the car’s make, model and license plate number.  If the car is in front of a business, notify their manager or security and request they make an announcement to locate the owner.  Go back and wait by the car.  Some people are unaware and when alerted will quickly return.

If you break a car window or gain access by other means to save a suffering animal, offer him cool water to drink immediately.  Cool him off with cool water (not cold or ice water) and apply cool wet rags to the foot pads and around the head.  The cloths need to be replaced as they will heat up.  Symptoms of heat stroke include excessive panting, staggering, seizures, and dark or red gums.  Veterinary care may be needed.  Hopefully, law enforcement or animal control will soon arrive to assess and take charge of the situation.

Under AB 797, you must first call the police to report the situation before breaking in.  If the pet is in imminent danger in a locked vehicle, and law enforcement fails to arrive soon to save the animal, good Samaritans are provided immunity from civil and criminal liability from any property damage to the vehicle.  The Humane Society of the United States, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, and animal lovers throughout the state supported the bill’s passage and celebrate this victory for the animals.

Animal advocates can take preventative measures by asking business owners to post signs warning customers not to leave their pets outside in the car while they shop or dine.  The Humane Society of the United States has a “hot car flyer” you can download from their website to educate the public.  Their website is a great source of information on ways to protect our domestic pets.

Please note that this bill becomes California state law on January 1, 2017.  Our loyal 4-legged furfriends are finally getting greater legal protection as society recognizes their importance in our lives.  “The Right to Rescue” is a key piece of legislation protecting our pets from unnecessary harm and saving many lives.