Who Let the Dog Out?
By Abe Lerner
Rescuing a Dog from a Hot Car: Hero or Criminal?
A debate is brewing over the arrest of Michael Hammons, stemming from a May 9, 2015, incident in an Athens, Georgia strip mall parking lot. The New York Daily News reported that upon noticing an unattended Yorkshire terrier in a locked Mustang on an 86° day, Hammons used the footrest of his wife’s wheelchair to smash open the car window, allowing for the dog to exit the car. The dog’s owner, Elantra Cunningham, returned to her damaged car in disgust, demanding that the police arrest Hammons. Local police took him into custody, charging him with criminal trespassing. He has since been released, and the charges were dropped by the local DA. Had the case gone to trial however, he could have potentially faced a $1,000 fine and a year in prison. For her part, Cunningham was cited by police for leaving a dog in a hot car.
Hailed as a hero in many circles for saving the life of a dog, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) announced, that it will be awarding Hammons the Compassionate Action Award. Many people are perplexed and angered by the ensuing arrest of someone who saved a dog’s life. In the words of Hammons, “I mean, glass, they make new glass every day, but she could never replace that dog.” They chalk it up to a society gone haywire that affords more protection to personal property than to the life of a dog. Others assert however, that people may not take the law randomly into their own hands, especially the irate owner who contended that merely being away from her car for five minutes was not grounds for breaking open her windows.
Examining this case more closely, will perhaps enable us to have a better grasp of the relevant issues. Georgia state law allows for the destruction of property (i.e. a car) to rescue children or the elderly. There is no provision however for rescuing animals. From a legal perspective, Oconee County Sheriff Chief Deputy Lee Weems explained, the police had no choice but to press charges, as the law does not sanction such activity, although personally he doubted that a jury would have actually convicted him. One could find fault with the scope of the law though as not being encompassing enough, especially when current society treats pets as members of the family.
A few additional factors merit being discussed. Accounts of the incident differ, as to the exact duration of the owner’s absence from her car. Cunningham acknowledged being away for no longer than five minutes. Hammons and other bystanders disputed that timeline, insisting that she was away for a more significant amount of time. When the thermometer exceeds 80° outdoors, temperatures inside a locked car can soar beyond 110°, dramatically increasing the chances of a dog to succumb to heat exhaustion.
Another point to ponder is that upon arriving on the scene, was Hammons aware that the police had already been alerted regarding the dog in distress? This detail too is contested, as some spectators maintained that he was informed that the police had been notified, yet still chose to act on his own. Others present said that Hammons acted instinctively, uninformed of an impending police presence. If indeed he was cognizant of the call to the police, would it have been more appropriate to wait for the authorities to arrive? This may be a judgment call though, requiring one to weigh the average Aspen, Georgia Police Department emergency response time, against the (disputed) length of time that the dog remained locked in the hot car. Borrowing a baseball cliché, it was a “bang bang play.” Split second decisions when a life is at stake are most definitely of the “bang bang” variety. With little margin for error and when seconds count, people often follow their instincts, not giving much thought to alternate courses of action.
Additionally, Hammons served during the Gulf War and subsequently suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) He is quoted as saying, “I’ve got PTSD, and I’ve seen enough death and destruction. I didn’t want anything else to happen if I could prevent it.” One could speculate that a war veteran, constantly reliving the painful memories of his buddies dying in combat, would react more aggressively when faced with a life and death situation, than a non combatant.
Although Hammons was eventually let off the hook and all is well that ends well, clearly this episode leaves us with more questions than answers. Should Georgia state law be amended to permit the destruction of property to come to the aid of pets as well? Even under current law, should one be actually arrested under such circumstances, when a dog’s life appears to be hanging in the balance? If help is on the way, should a Good Samaritan take a step back, and allow the authorities to handle the emergency? And finally, should we “throw a bone” to a veteran with PTSD, taking into consideration everything that he has sacrificed in defense of our country?
You make the call!
I welcome your comments on the subject…
Abe Lerner is a member of the pack at NutralifePet, a division of Nutralife Health Products, Inc., which has been selling high quality dietary supplements since 1996. NutralifePet, the manufacturer of Ultra Joint & Liver Support with SAM-e for dogs and cats, caters to the individual needs of each pet. NutralifePet…caring about animals, one pet at a time…