Californians can now legally break into cars to rescue animals

January 2, 2017

By now, everyone knows that it's a terrible idea to leave pets in cars, especially during the warmer months. And yet, we've all seen pets trapped in cars. 

Sometimes, owners crack their car windows thinking that will help keep interior temperatures low, but in fact, it doesn't do much. Even on a pleasant, 72-degree day, the temperature inside a car can soar to 116 degrees within an hour, putting animals' lives at risk.

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And that raises the question: when you see an animal left in a car and you're worried about its safety, what's the right thing to do?

As of yesterday, the answer for Californians is, "Free the animal by any reasonable means". That's according to Assembly Bill No. 797, which was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown back in September and went into effect on January 1. 

What the law does

Until now, California has allowed animal control officers or other officials to remove animals from vehicles when the animals have been perceived to be suffering from excessive temperatures, lack of food or water, or other dangers. In such cases, pet owners have been responsible for paying for medical treatments, food, shelter, and the cost of housing an animal before taking it home.

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Now, that same right extends to everyday people. But before you go bashing in car windows to rescue every pup in the parking lot, you'll need to do these things:

  • Identify the danger the animal faces (e.g. heat, cold, lack of ventilation).
  • Contact the local police, fire department, animal control agency, or 911 service before attempting to rescue the animal.
  • Use the minimum force necessary to enter the vehicle. In other words, don't break five windows when one will do. And of course, first make sure the car isn't locked.
  • Stay with the animal near the vehicle in a safe location until the authorities arrive.
  • Immediately hand over the animal to the authorities .

Do all that, and you'll be in the law's good graces, meaning that you won't be subject to any fines or fees, including charges of property damage.

As for animal owners, if someone is forced to rescue your animal(s) from a vehicle, you could be charged up to $500 per animal and thrown in the pokey for up to six months.  

Don't live in California? The Humane Society has some tips on what to do in other states when you see animals locked in vehicles. 

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