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Bill would offer a legal last resort for saving pet trapped in a hot car

It happens every summer, many times over. Out of ignorance, laziness or sheer indifference, people lock their pets, usually dogs, into sweltering cars that can quickly become ovens. Animals die by the score. Now, something is in the works to prevent that from happening. It may not be the most important matter on Albany’s agenda, but it is worthy of passage.

The question has been – and, for the moment, remains – what can people legally do to rescue an animal locked into what amounts to a death chamber? Technically, the answer is little more than call the police, a sensible enough response but one that can still come too late.

That was the sad experience at the New York State Fair in Syracuse two years ago when onlookers found a 2-year-old black lab collapsed inside a locked, hot car. They discussed breaking the window, but didn’t know what the law allowed. A state trooper arrived just as the dog’s owner did three hours after leaving the dog, but it was too late. They pulled the dog out of the car, but the animal died.

Since then, the local prosecutor, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, said there is “absolutely no way in the world” his office would prosecute someone for trying to save an animal. It’s a heartening response, but it’s insufficient to count on prosecutorial discretion. What happens when someone in another county breaks a car window to rescue a dying animal?

Two Western New York legislators are trying to answer that question with a measure that would protect anyone 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 measure, proposed by Assemblyman John D. Cerreto, R-Lewiston, and supported by Assemblyman Michael D. Kearns, D-Buffalo, along with a Long Island assemblyman and five co-sponsors from Long Island, never got traction in the closing days of this year’s session, but it remains alive for next year. New York would become the first state in the nation with such a law. With it, Ali, the black lab in Syracuse, might still be chasing squirrels.

It’s not a free pass. Risks abound, as Amherst Assistant Police Chief Charles Cohen observed. An animal might attack a person trying to free it. Shattering window glass could hurt both the animal and its would-be rescuer. And the car owner could sue, claiming, perhaps, that the dog wasn’t in danger because it had been left in the car for only a few minutes.

There are better first resorts, including calling the police, who can pop the door lock, or the SPCA.

But the law provides at least a last resort for saving an animal that would otherwise perish, and that reflects something admirable about the inclinations of people to protect the animals they keep as pets. There is a moral obligation to care for these animals, who rely on their owners for food, shelter and protection. If this legislation passes, the law will honor those who act in good faith to save a dying animal.

The bill would require a rescuer who removes an animal from any vehicle to give it to a humane society and leave a note on the vehicle stating where the animal has been taken. It also requires that the person acting to save the animal must be acting “reasonably and in good faith.”

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. Legally, those are the best options unless this legislation is approved. It should be.