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Proposed New York law would allow onlookers to smash a car window to save an animal

On an 85-degree day in September 2013, people in a parking lot at the State Fair in Syracuse noticed a 2-year-old black Lab suffering inside a locked car.

A crowd gathered and peered through the window at the dog, who had collapsed on the floor of the car and was barely breathing. Bystanders called police and, as they waited, tried to push down the barely cracked window to reach the door lock. That didn’t work.

“We discussed smashing the window,” one man told Syracuse.com. “But no one knows what their rights are.”

A state trooper arrived just as the dog’s owner, Patrick Oneill of Massena, returned to his car after more than three hours away. The dog was pulled from the sweltering car, but it was too late.

In the following days, while distraught people debated what could have been done to save the dog, named Ali, the bystanders belatedly received their answer about liability.

“There’s absolutely no way in the world we’d prosecute someone for trying to save the animal,” Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick told Syracuse.com.

Two local state legislators have proposed an amendment to the state Agriculture and Markets Law that would codify the Onondaga DA’s opinion. The bill would protect anyone, not just police or peace officers, who “take[s] necessary steps” to open a parked car to rescue a dog – or any animal – “in imminent danger due to heat or cold.”

The amendment would put New York State in the forefront of legislation to protect animals who are endangered by being locked in cars, and the people who take steps to save them. Unlike laws written to enable people to rescue children, no state protects a civilian who breaks a car window or opens a door to rescue an animal in distress. If this bill passes, New York would be the first.

Assemblymen John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, and Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, have joined with a Long Island assemblyman and five co-sponsors from Long Island, Rochester and Albany to propose the amendment.

“You could not believe the response throughout the whole country that I’ve gotten from animal lovers to this,” Ceretto said since he announced the bill in early June. “I’ve been on radio shows from Vermont, on blogs on Long Island, and gotten responses from California asking why this isn’t national.”

During the warm months, the SPCA Serving Erie County gets one to two calls a week about dogs in hot cars, said Executive Director Barbara Carr.

“About 30 percent of the time, the dogs are in fairly high distress,” she said. The agency sends out an officer, who uses an instrument to determine the temperature inside the car, she said.

The SPCA officer calls local police to assist in rescuing the animal and to stand by.

“Cops can pop the car doors, so we do not break the window,” Carr said. “If the owner comes and the animal is in distress, we’re seizing it, and we don’t want any problems with the owner anyhow.”

Although the extreme danger of leaving animals in cars on hot days has been well-publicized, people continue to do it.

Police in Amherst, which has many shopping centers and strip malls, can respond to several calls a day reporting dogs in cars.

“Obviously if people see a dog in distress they should call their local police, or the SPCA if you don’t get an answer that you like from the police department,” Amherst Police Department Assistant Chief Charles Cohen said.

He discourages people from taking steps to open the car themselves, and not just because it’s illegal.

“We do not recommend breaking windows to rescue a dog for a variety of reasons – the dog could attack you, you could get sued, you could hurt yourself on the broken glass, so that’s a bad idea.”

Ceretto said he proposed the bill after reading a newspaper article about an incident in Athens, Ga., when Michael Hammons, an Army veteran of Desert Storm, broke a car window to rescue a Yorkshire terrier in distress. The woman who owned the car and dog pressed charges against Hammons for criminal trespass. She, in turn, was cited for improper care of the animal. Georgia does not have a law forbidding people from leaving animals in hot cars.

“We didn’t want to charge him,” said Oconee County Chief Deputy Lee Weems. “But he told us he broke the windows, and when you have a victim there saying she wants him charged, we had no other choice.”

Hammons told a local television station, “I’ve got PTSD, and I’ve seen enough death and destruction, and I didn’t want anything else to happen if I could prevent it.”

A national groundswell of support for Hammons included an online petition to get the charges dropped, an award from PETA, an online campaign to raise money for his legal fees and an attorney who stepped forward to represent him for free. Early this month, the district attorney filed a motion dismissing the charges against Hammons.

Ceretto introduced the bill on May 26, fairly late in the legislative session. It was referred to the agriculture committee, where it will be on the agenda when the Legislature resumes.

The bill requires the person who removes the animal from the vehicle to turn it over to a humane society and leave a note on the vehicle stating where the animal has been taken. It also requires that the good Samaritan who saves the animal must be acting “reasonably and in good faith.”

The bill, Kearns said, “talks about ‘imminent danger of death or serious physical injury,’ and where I see this bill coming into play is a very dire situation. These cars can be death traps for dogs.”

Symptoms of heat distress start with heavy panting and progress to drooling, seizure, vomiting, loss of coordination leading to collapse, unconsciousness and death.

To report an animal in distress, call the local police department. In Erie County, the SPCA can be reached at 875-7360. After business hours, call the SPCA at 712-0251.

Patrick Oneill, who made the fatal decision to leave Ali locked in his car at the State Fair, pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and was sentenced last May to three years of probation, during which he is forbidden from owning animals.

If the bill does eventually pass, Ceretto emphasized that bystanders should break a car window in life-or-death circumstances only, such as the one that killed Ali.

“These are extreme situations where a dog absolutely needs help and there is nothing else the individual can do but break that window and save that life,” he said. “And right now, under New York State law, you could be charged as a criminal for that.”

After researching the bill about rescuing animals from cars, Ceretto also sponsored a second bill allowing people to take similar steps to save children. “In certain circumstances, even if a child were locked up in a car, you could be charged too” for breaking a window, he said. “So we tightened up that law relating to unattended minors.” That bill was referred to the transportation committee.

email: aneville@buffnews.com