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Car damage, fines await those who leave pets in hot vehicles

The Myrtle Beach (Fla.) Police Department put a stuffed dog in a closed car with a thermometer July 31, 2012, to demonstrate the dangers of leaving a pet in a car on a warm day. The temperature inside quickly reached 120 degrees.
The Myrtle Beach (Fla.) Police Department put a stuffed dog in a closed car with a thermometer July 31, 2012, to demonstrate the dangers of leaving a pet in a car on a warm day. The temperature inside quickly reached 120 degrees. cslate@thesunnews.com

Warm weather brings out the signs of summer: picnics in parks, boats on the water, careless folks leaving pets locked in cars.

At least two reports of pets in distress while locked in cars were called into Whatcom County’s 911 dispatch center on Sunday afternoon, May 1, as temperatures rose into the 70s.

It may be tempting to take your pet with you in the car when you travel or do errands, but it can quickly turn dangerous. On warm days, the interior of your car can reach dangerously high temperatures in just minutes — even with the windows down and parked in the shade, notes Laura Clark, executive director of the Whatcom Humane Society.

Pets left inside cars, even briefly, can quickly suffer from heat exhaustion, heat stroke, brain damage and even death.

If that isn’t enough incentive for people to stop this practice (and by Sunday’s calls, apparently not), then how about this?

▪ Police or animal control can smash in your car window, bust your door or otherwise damage the car in an effort to free the animal. The law (RCW 16.52.340) says those agencies aren’t liable for any damage caused to your vehicle in the process. And your insurance company might not cover it either when the agent learns why your car window was shattered.

▪ You could be charged criminally with animal cruelty (RCW 16.52.205 or 16.52.207). That’s up to 5 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines if you’re found guilty of a class C felony.

▪ You could be fined for a civil infraction (RCW 7.80.120).

▪ You could have to pay impound and board fees as well as any veterinary costs incurred to treat the animal.

To report: If you see an animal in distress inside a vehicle in Whatcom County, call animal control at 360-733-2080, ext. 3017. If possible, be ready with a detailed description of the vehicle including license plate and a description of the animal. Or you can call 911.

What happens then: When animal control responds, they immediately evaluate the situation. If it’s not dire at the moment, they will try to track down the owner. Often this is easy when the car is parked outside a restaurant or other business (announcing the car description usually gets someone’s attention).

If it is determined that the animal is in immediate danger, officers will take whatever action is warranted and necessary to save the animal's life, Clark said.

Even if the owner is quickly found to open the vehicle, that person still can be charged with a crime or fined.

Debbie Townsend: 360-715-2280, @HeraldDT

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