Baker signs bill giving leeway to free trapped animals
The most captivating presence outside the State House on Wednesday morning was also the smallest: a 9-week-old pitbull named Gumdrop.
Gumdrop can’t speak. She can’t lobby her state representatives or vote. The gray and white pup could barely even keep her eyes open, squinting as biting sun rays beamed onto Ashburton Park.
And though Gumdrop doesn’t know it, a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Charlie Baker could save her life and the life of all pets who may be left alone in hot cars by their owners.
The bill — “An Act to prevent animal suffering and death” — gives civilians and emergency crews certain rights to break the window of an unattended car if they see a pet inside suffering from extreme temperatures. Baker, state legislators, animal rights advocates, and a gang of camera-friendly canines held a press conference Wednesday to celebrate the new law.
“When they see an animal in distress, smash the window,” state Senator Mark C. Montigny of New Bedford said. “The animal comes first. The irresponsible owner, not so much.”
Montigny introduced the bill in June, and it passed unanimously in the Senate this month. The law also restricts people from tethering dogs for extended periods of time and from leaving dogs outside in extreme weather.
The law outlines provisions civilians must follow before breaking into a vehicle with an animal inside.
They must first make “reasonable efforts” to locate the owner, and call 911 before attempting to enter. Practical means must be used, and the rescuer must then stay with the animal near the vehicle until emergency workers arrive.
The law gives civilian rescuers immunity from criminal and civil liability.
Police officers, firefighters, and animal control officers have similar provisions under the law, although they can take the animal with them and leave a note for the owner on where to retrieve it.
“If people find themselves in that situation, first responders or regular citizens, I’m glad they’ll have the ability to” break into the car, Baker said. “Under state law, their act of Good Samaritan-ship will be protected.”
Pet owners who leave their animal in a car and expose them to intense heat or cold could be fined up to $500 and face animal cruelty charges, according to the law.
Montigny said the bill encountered some resistance from lawmakers who worried people would break into cars even if the animal was there for only a short period of time. But he said he expected that to be the exception.
“There is always some room for abuse,” the Democrat said. “But right now, the far higher order is that hundreds of animals are dying every year. Those who don’t die, it’s akin to torture.”
There is no centralized database for how many animals die each year after being locked inside unattended cars, according to Nadine Pellegrini, advocacy director with the Animal Rescue League of Boston.
Pellegrini said up to 10 animals were left in hot cars in Eastern Massachusetts in the last 35 days.
“The owner can be in a doughnut line, or a coffee line . . . and their animal is going to be in distress,” Animal Rescue League president Mary Nee said after the conference. “It’s such a short period of time.”
Massachusetts joins five other states that give civilians the right to break into an unattended car and rescue an animal, with California and New York also considering similar provisions.
There are more than 20 states that offer protections for first responders.
The law bans pet owners from leaving a dog outside during an official weather advisory, warning, or watch. It also restricts chaining or tethering a dog for more than five hours, or for more than 15 minutes from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
A Middleborough man was charged with animal cruelty last month after his dog chewed off part of his paw to escape from a leash. Officials said the injured dog was tethered for at least a day.
“No dog should ever get to that point where they’re willing to chew off one of their limbs to be free,” state Representative Lori A. Ehrlich, a Democrat from Marblehead said.