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Taking the legal bite out of breaking into a hot car to save an animal

The new Tennessee law is the first of its kind because it specifically addresses the question of animals.

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    A small dog enjoys some fresh air during a car ride on a mid-90 degree day along Orchard Street in Walla Walla, Wash.
    Jeff Horner/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin/AP/File
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Would you smash a car window to save an animal from a hot car, or would fear of legal consequences stop you?

A law being called groundbreaking by animal advocated makes it legal for Tennesseans to break into vehicles on dangerously hot days to save animals. The new statute is an extension to the Tennessee Good Samaritan Law which went into effect as of July 1.

Although 16 states have some provision for animal cruelty which can be applied to leaving animals in parked vehicles, animal defense group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) says that the new Tennessee law is the first of its kind because it specifically addresses the question of animals.

In order to qualify for protection under the law, the person breaking into the car must take specific steps, including searching for the owner of the car, notifying law enforcement, and ensuring that the car is locked and that the child or animal is in imminent danger of suffering harm if not immediately removed.

The bill was first introduced by Tennessee State Rep. David Hawk.

“We believe this law is the first of its kind in the US," says Colleen O'Brien senior director of media for PETA, which has given Rep. Hawk a Compassionate Lawmaker Award. "Leaving animals or children in hot cars has become an epidemic. Animals and children should not be left in cars, even for a few minutes, even at temperatures as low as 78-degrees. If you see an animal or child in distress, never leave the scene until the guardian or authorities have arrived. If they are not arriving in a timely manner take whatever steps are necessary to rescue the animal or child in the vehicle.”

PETA plans to give Hawk a framed certificate and boxes of dog-shaped vegan chocolates will be offered to the Tennessee General Assembly in thanks for passing the bill.

"Every summer, PETA receives dozens of calls about cases in which someone ran into a store for 'just a few minutes' – only to find that those few minutes proved fatal for a dog left behind in the hot car," says O'Brien adds. "Thanks to Representative Hawk, this new law will ensure that Tennesseans don't hesitate to step in and save dogs from agonizing, preventable deaths."

Animal welfare departments across the US, UK and Canada have issued warnings about the dangers of leaving animals locked in vehicles in hot weather.

Social media has been a source of both information and expressions of outrage toward those who leave an animal in a hot car.

On a 78-degree day, the temperature inside a parked car can rise to between 100 and 120 degrees in just minutes.  On a 90-degree day, the interior temperature can reach as high as 160 degrees in less than 10 minutes.

In May, when British Columbians were experiencing a rare heat wave, Dr. Adrian Walton a veterinarian with the Dewdney Animal Hospital there decided to help pet owners and the general public understand the suffering of an animal in these conditions by sitting inside a hot, vehicle for 30 minutes and posting the video to YouTube.

“What’s particularly bad is with dogs because they actually go into a panic mode and generate more heat and can be dead within ten minutes,” Dr. Walton says in an interview. “The video is only six minutes long out of the 30-minute ordeal and so what you’re seeing is the edited version because what I found was that at about six minutes in as I tried to explain what a dog goes through I was slurring and stuttering so badly, at just six minutes in, that the video was unusable,” he says.

In May, Michael Hammons of Athens, Georgia saved a dog from a hot Mustang and was arrested for smashing a window to free the animal. Georgia state law allows an individual to break a window to save a child in distress, but not a pet. Perle says his organization and other animal rights advocates are working to change the law.

News outlets reported that Hammons was charged with criminal trespassing after freeing the small Pomeranian mix.

According to reports, witnesses said that while shoppers waited for police to arrive to free the dog, Hammons, a Desert Storm veteran, smashed the window.

Meanwhile, Fayetteville, Ark., lawmakers are considering a different approach. A new law under consideration there would ban people from leaving an animal in a hot car.

Dr. Walton has some thoughts for would-be rescuers in order to stay on the right side of the law in any state or nation.

“Before you go smashing car windows, first use your phone to video, or have someone nearby video, what’s happening before you break a window,” he says. “Having that video evidence, I believe, will insure that you’re able to demonstrate the urgent nature of the situation to anyone in law enforcement, any judge seeing it. I don’t think anybody who actually sees what’s happening, the suffering of the animal, will see what you’re doing as wrong.”

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