This article first appeared in the AHHerald on July 10, 2003 in the Lemonade Stand column by Carol Barbieri.

I almost committed a robbery the other day.  I came this close to stealing a dog right out of a car in a bank parking lot in Atlantic Highlands.  I didn’t know the dog and I didn’t know the owner.  If I had known the owner, I would have given him a piece of my mind and educated him about the dangers of leaving a dog, unattended, in the backseat of a hot car on a hot day.

But I chickened out.  The problem was, I really didn’t know myself what the dangers of leaving a dog in a hot car on a hot day were.  And my husband and I own two dogs.  I mean, common sense told me that, if I were sweating buckets, within two minutes of turning off my car engine and opening the windows, the poor dog in the car next to me was suffering immensely, since his owner had only left a couple of windows open a mere crack.  But I didn’t know specifically how dangerous it was for a dog to be left in a hot car, and for how long.

I was also ignorant about my rights as a citizen to do anything for the dog.  Could I make a citizen’s arrest?  Could the owner prosecute me for attempting to steal his dog?  Could the owner merely tell me to “mind my own business” and drive away, only to continue leaving the dog in a hot car again and again?

All I know is that, when the owner closed the car door, leaving the poor animal inside, my stomach began to form a knot.  The owner didn’t even seem to make an effort to rush.  Maybe that’s because the temperature was already almost 90 degrees in the shade and he himself was feeling the effects of the heat. 

I looked at the clock.  It was almost 11:00 in the morning.  I looked over at the dog.  He appeared to be a standard poodle, but he could have been a mix.  All I know is that he had fur like a standard poodle and that it looked like that fur was keeping him pretty warm.  I couldn’t imagine wearing a fur coat on a day lie that.  My heart went out to him.

Not even a minute went by when the dog started to bark.  He was also pacing back and forth on the backseat and looking frantic.  The knot in my stomach grew tighter.  I did nothing.

Another minute went by and the owner still wasn’t back yet.  The dog was barking even more frantically.  That’s when I began to consider my options. 

Suppose I just opened the door and held the dog near the open door?  At least he would get more air than he was currently getting.  But would the owner be upset with me for implying that he was an unfit pet owner?

What if I grabbed the dog by his collar and let him out of the car for a few minutes?  The owner would certainly understand my act of kindness, wouldn’t he?  If the door was locked, and I had to break the window, would I be liable for the cost of repairing it?

I even considered calling the Atlantic Highlands Police Department from my cell phone. 

“Hello, officer.  I’d like to report a man who has left his dog in his car on this stifling hot day.  The perpetrator is currently in the bank.  No, no, he’s not robbing the bank, he’s just inside bank.  But he left his dog all alone outside in a hot car.  I’m calling about the dog.  You’d better get over here right away.  The dog isn’t looking too good.”

Would the police officer laugh me right off of the phone?

By the time the owner of the dog appeared, I had explored all of my options and had exercised none of them.  The owner had been in the bank for nearly five minutes.  God only knows how high the temperature had risen in his car by then.  God only knows how much that poor dog was suffering.

But I sighed with relief, now that the owner was back.  Relief that the dog was going to get attention and relief that I wasn’t responsible anymore to do anything.

Me, me, me!  When you get right down to it, I was thinking more about the consequences to myself than I was about the consequences to that dog.  I felt like I had failed him.  Well, I had. 

I promised myself right then and there that I would never let that happen again.  I vowed that would I educate myself about the dangers of leaving a pet in a hot car.  So I did.

What I learned is that, it doesn’t even have to be that hot outside for a car’s inside temperature to rise to a life-threatening level for a dog.  The inside of a car can heat up to 100 degrees within a few minutes, even if it’s not nearly that hot outside, because the car traps the heated air.  On a warm day, the temperature can reach 120 degrees in no time at all, even if the windows are left partially open.

Dogs are even more susceptible to heat than humans are, because they can’t perspire to cool their bodies like humans can.  According to the Humane Society of the United States, a pet can quickly suffer brain damage or even die from heatstroke or suffocation when he is trapped in high temperatures.  And often the dog dies an agonizing death.  Very young dogs and very old dogs are even more susceptible to the heat.  I didn’t know that!

I also didn’t know that animal cruelty is a felony in the state of New Jersey.  In August of 2001, our state became the 32nd state to classify animal cruelty as a felony offense, with penalties of up to 18 months in prison and fines of up to $10,000 (or both).  And according to NJ law, leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle under inhumane conditions is considered “animal cruelty.”

All I do know is that, the next time I see an owner leave his or her dog to suffer in a hot car, I’m writing down the license plate of the car and reporting the owner.  Or maybe I’ll talk to the owner and tell him to sit in his car for a few minutes, under the same conditions, and see how much helikes it. 

Animals don’t have options, but humans do.  If a dog is “man’s best friend,” then it’s only fair that man be the “best friend” he can be to his dog. 

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Allan Dean

Allan Dean is editor, publisher, and founder of the Atlantic Highlands Herald. Published since 1999 and selected in 2000 by the Borough of Atlantic Highlands as one of their official newspapers, making...