Josh Shaffer

Hot dog in hot car sparks hot debate

An example of the proper way to leave dogs behind in a car: On a cool fall afternoon, Buster Brown and Special K wait for their owner Chip George at the former Quality Grocery on Lane Street in Raleigh, N.C.
An example of the proper way to leave dogs behind in a car: On a cool fall afternoon, Buster Brown and Special K wait for their owner Chip George at the former Quality Grocery on Lane Street in Raleigh, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Last week, Ann Craighead pulled into the parking lot at the Goody’s department store here and spotted a terrier in the back seat of an old Dodge pickup, its windows cracked maybe half an inch.

She checked the thermometer on her dashboard, which read 91 degrees, and then she checked on the dog, which lay motionless with its eyes closed.

She looked around for the owner, hoping that he’d only dashed into a store for a few seconds, but she didn’t see anybody. So she called 911 and reported a dog inside a hot truck.

“Then I opened the door,” she said. “Wouldn’t you?”

Craighead’s rescue attempt is illegal. North Carolina permits police, firemen and rescue squad workers to open up a hot car if they believe an animal is in danger. But not ordinary passers-by. To which I ask, what’s more important, the sanctity of a car door or the safety of a overheated pooch?

Before I tell you more about this beach dog, let me tell you what happened in Georgia a few months back.

An Army veteran smashed the window of a Mustang parked at a mall when he saw a Pomeranian mix inside. Georgia law allows this for a child, but not an animal, so he got arrested when the owner protested.

“It didn’t matter,” Michael Hammons told a local TV station. “Glass, they make new glass every day, but they could never replace that dog.”

Authorities dropped the charges a few days later.

Now let me tell you what happened in Tennessee last month.

The legislature passed a new law allowing anybody to break into a car to free a slowly roasting animal, provided they’ve first dialed 911, checked the surroundings and left a note for the puzzled motorist. So if she’d been visiting Knoxville, Craighead would have committed no foul.

But outside the Goody’s, her rescue attempt wasn’t exactly welcomed.

The dog was only sleeping, and it stirred when she opened the door. Then the owner returned with his family, speaking only Spanish, confused but not upset enough to press charges. Morehead City police gave Craighead a warning and explained she could have been arrested.

“They treated me like I was a criminal,” said Craighead, 59, who lives in Raleigh, adding that the truck owner got no similar lecture. “This was a teachable moment.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue and, sorry to go all wishy-washy, but it’s complicated. I talked to Capt. Haywood Wilder with Morehead City police and he told me there was some confusion at the scene because somebody else had called 911 about another dog in another car, and officers at the time thought Craighead might be calling repeatedly.

But regardless, he said, there is no statute protecting citizens in North Carolina if they take vigilante justice on a hot Dodge. Until we have a good Samaritan law, you shouldn’t go taking a crowbar to somebody’s windshield. Or even open the door. Good intentions can go awry in a dozen different ways.

“If you sit down and think about it,” the captain said, “What if that owner said, ‘I’m missing $2,000 out of that car?’ ”

Picture it being your vehicle. I’m a pretty even-tempered fellow, but if I walk back from buying a pack of gum and find you fiddling around with the door on my pickup, the first word out of my mouth isn’t going to be “Thanks.” What if the guy in Morehead City had a temper as hot as his truck?

Here’s the other thing: If we do legalize vehicular dog rescue, how do we decide when it’s hot enough, and whether the window is low enough, and whether the errand is long enough, and whether the pet is suffering enough? Does anybody, anytime get a free pass for busting into a car as long as there’s a beast inside? What about reptiles? Are you safe leaving a pet snake in the back seat? What if it’s a hairless dog? I’m getting silly, I know.

So here’s my columnist’s conclusion: People who leave dogs in hot cars ought to be locked in a room full of fleas. For a week. With only Alpo and a bowl of lukewarm water with ants floating in it.

I applaud Craighead for her kind heart and her chutzpah. I definitely think the truck driver should have gotten the sternest talking-to. Maybe we can cure this form of animal injustice just by spreading this truth: Plenty of people out there love dogs enough to mess up your car, and even it’s illegal, they’ll take the heat.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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