Why a woman got two years in prison for leaving puppy in car

A Tennessee woman has been sentenced to two years in prison for leaving her 3-month-old puppy in a baking car. In the past two decades, such animal cruelty convictions have become more common. 

Jeff Horner/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
In a photo unrelated to the Tennessee case, a small dog cruises as a cool canine on a mid-90 degree day along Orchard Street in Walla Walla, Wash. in August 2012.

For leaving her puppy in the sweltering Tennessee heat, broiling inside a car, a woman in Memphis has been sentenced to two years in prison. 

On July 29, police officers were called to the Wolfchase Galleria mall in east Memphis. Some shoppers had noticed a little terrier dog in distress inside a Ford Fusion. The window was cracked and a cup of water had been left for the puppy, WREG News reported, but it was not enough.

The Good Samaritans were able to retrieve the dog from the car and head to a veterinarian, but Boss Lady, the 3-month-old Shorkie Tzu, died before reaching the nearby Bartlett Animal Shelter.

The late afternoon heat rose to nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside the car, the temperature was reported at 140 degrees. Lady Boss’ internal body temperature, according to the Humane Society of Memphis and Shelby County, was at least 110 degrees – the highest the thermometer would reach. The autopsy report said the dog died from extreme hyperthermia and dehydration.

The puppy’s owners, Alexis Cain and Charlie Parker, had been inside the shopping complex for an undisclosed period of time. At least two hours elapsed between when Boss Lady was found in the car and when they came out of the mall.

Ms. Cain was the only one convicted Monday, but both were arrested and charged with aggravated cruelty to an animal in July. She will be back in court Dec. 8 to request her sentence be suspended.

In the past 20 years, local and state governments have become more and more diligent in enacting animal protection laws. In 1992, fewer than 10 states had felony animal cruelty provisions. By 2013, every single state did. The penalties for animal abuse have also become more austere.

“We’ve seen positive movement in terms of protecting animal rights on two fronts,” Scott Heiser, a senior attorney at the Animal League Defense Fund, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “On the legislative level, there are more provisions with harsher penalties, and on a procedural one, judges are now more likely deliver opinions that recognize the suffering of animals.”

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, “hot car” cases are an unfortunately common form of intentional and unintentional negligence.

Just 10 days before Lady Boss’ death, a Chihuahua in South Carolina was found inside a Toyota in scorching heat. The window had also been opened a crack but the dog was in distress. It was rescued by a passerby, and the owner was subsequently arrested. And earlier in the summer, a Dachshund-mix puppy was found and rescued from a car in an Oklahoma casino parking lot.

Dogs, unlike humans, do not have a sophisticated system of sweat glands that makes it easy to stay cool. Under even moderately warm temperatures, the metal interior of a car can rise to dangerously high temperatures. Leaving the window open does not suffice, say animal shelter workers.

Under current state laws, conviction of animal abuse can range from hefty fines to a sentence of up to 10 years. Felony animal cruelty convictions can result in jail or prison sentences ranging from six months to 10 years.

In Tennessee, for instance, aggravated cruelty, defined as any conduct “carried out in a depraved and sadistic manner and which tortures or maims an animal,” is a lower class felony, which entails a penalty of at least one year of incarceration.

“We applaud this judge for taking a very strict approach,” Mr. Heiser says, adding that such a sentence would have been unlikely 10 years ago.

But while advocates have made significant strides in protecting pets from abuse, agricultural livestock and animals in testing labs are often exempt from any legal rights.

“At a societal level, we refuse to tolerate suffering among animals that we consider family members, but will turn a blind eye to any additional suffering in the name of food production and experimentation,” Heiser says.

For animal activists, this means the battle is far from over.

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