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What to Do When You See a Pet Being Abused or Neglected

by David F. Kramer


During the summer months, animal lovers are often afflicted with a recurrent nightmare: You find yourself walking to your car in a crowded parking lot, looking forward to getting back into your air-conditioned vehicle, when you spy a panting dog carelessly left in a steaming car with the windows rolled up. For many pets, this nightmare is all too real, and despite local news stories and public service announcements, this tragedy still happens on a regular basis.


If you find yourself in this predicament, your first instinct may be to find something heavy to break the window and rescue that animal from its neglectful owner. While this may seem a reasonable reaction in the heat of the moment, it’s not always the best option—and certainly not one without potential legal repercussions, even when you know you’re in the right.


How to Help a Pet in a Hot Car – Should You Take Immediate Action?


So what’s the best action to take when you see a pet that appears to be in danger?


“While we don’t want to see animals locked in hot cars, we also want to be reasonable to our fellow human beings,” says Jack Griffin, director of shelter services for the Women’s Humane Society in Bensalem, PA. “You always want to try first to assess the situation. Go into the store and have the person paged. The car could be running with the air conditioner on. We want to at least make sure we’re trying before we jump in with both feet.”


Despite the best intentions of animal lovers, a private citizen taking action into his or her own hands unfortunately starts the game with several strikes against them. You may consider your own dog to be a member of the family with some basic rights, but in the eyes of the law, pets are still property.


Griffin offers some advice when it comes to taking an extreme action such as breaking a window to rescue an animal. “I don’t recommend this, because there can be further consequences. As a private citizen, you would most likely be responsible for the cost of the window. Most jurisdictions wouldn’t press charges against you because of the extenuating circumstances, but when you break a window, glass flies, and it could potentially get into a dog’s eyes or ears—and you would also be responsible for any injuries to that animal.”


Another factor Griffin brings up is that the rescuer is unfamiliar with the demeanor of an unknown dog, and there’s no way to predict how it might react. A dog could potentially attack its rescuer out of fear or even run away from them into oncoming traffic and be injured or killed.


“If you see an animal that appears to be in an immediate life threatening situation, for instance, trapped in a hot car, strangling itself on a collar, injured and bleeding, or suffering from heat stroke, call 911 immediately,” says Nicole Wilson, director of Humane Law Enforcement for the Pennsylvania SPCA.


“In these situations, the police and emergency services will have the personnel and tools to respond immediately, and it is very likely that a humane officer will not be close enough to prevent the animal’s death. Emergency services will respond in the fastest manner when there is a danger of immediate death,” says Wilson.


Once the animal is out of danger, that’s when you can start to get the ball rolling through the proper channels. The first step is to get in touch with your local SPCA to report the abuse; most groups have a dedicated hotline to receive reports of potential animal abuse.


How to Help a Pet in Freezing Temperatures – Should You Rescue it from the Property?


Pets at risk are certainly not exclusive to hot cars in the summer. Other pet lovers may have to grapple with the decision of what to do for a pet that is left outside in the cold winter months.


We might feel a pit in our stomachs when we walk by a dog that is tethered, caged, or kept in a yard during the winter. But the simple truth is that while it may be neglectful or, in extreme cases, cruel to keep your dog outside for long periods, it’s not illegal.


In fact, as long as a dog has access to food and water, shelter (even a simple awning as opposed to an enclosed doghouse or other structure), and some sort of moisture absorbing substrate on the ground (such as hay), having a pet that spends most of its time outdoors is permissible.


It’s the job of humane officers and SPCA staff to investigate and deal with matters of animal abuse; and they are far better suited to the task than the average citizen. A citizen who goes onto someone’s property to investigate what they believe is animal abuse, or to rescue a pet, can be charged with trespassing and theft of property. And depending upon the demeanor of the pet owner, whether that pet owner is also a gun owner, and whether your state has enacted “stand your ground” laws, trespassing can be downright dangerous.


“Humane Society Police Officers have the same powers under the law as police when it comes to investigating the crime of cruelty to animals. In Pennsylvania, these officers have full powers of search, seizure, citation and arrest,” says Wilson. “As in all matters of the law, in cases of animal cruelty there needs to be probable cause to believe that the animal is evidence of a crime. In most cases, a warrant is also necessary for the confiscation of animals.”


What is Being Done Legally to Protect Pets from Summer and Winter Weather?


Some conscientious pet owners do go all out when it comes to pet housing, with things like air-conditioned or heated doghouses, but these extravagances aren’t required by law.


In recent years, some local jurisdictions have enacted “red and blue” laws that go into effect to protect animals during extreme temperatures and weather conditions, but they are the exception.


(You can learn more about the measures being taken to protect pets from extreme weather conditions in the links below this article.)


Every state has its own set of animal cruelty laws, and they generally penalize two types of actions: intentional acts and failure to act (or neglect). Intentional acts, such as striking, beating, or similar actions, can lead to felony charges, but proving willful neglect is far more difficult. A prosecutor would need to find a causal link between the law, the facts, and the circumstances. In other words, the state prosecutor would need to prove that state law demands shelter from the elements for a pet, that extreme weather conditions necessitated that need, and that the pet owner was neglectful in failing to provide shelter.


Next: How to Tell if a Pet is Being Starved, Abused, or Neglected