Powerful new tools designed to protect dogs left in hot cars in Nanaimo have failed to save a single pet or punish a negligent pet owner in the nine months they’ve been in place.
And that is considered a good thing.
Nanaimo bylaw manager Rod Davidson said the entire point of the city’s new bylaw is to protect animals and raise awareness. In the 19 reports made to the city since the new regulations went into force Sept. 1, the dogs were either discovered in safe conditions, or had already departed before enforcement officers arrived.
“It’s more education than anything else. The last thing this city wants is a pet in distress,” he said. “The message we want to get out there is don’t leave your animal in the car by itself.”
Nanaimo’s regulations are part of a growing push by Island communities for giving bylaw and animal control officers increased power to issue fines to owners who leave dogs in distress and take action to rescue animals if necessary.
Under B.C. law, RCMP intervention, or a special constable of the SPCA is needed before action can be taken to rescue the dog. But Nanaimo’s new regulations empower bylaw enforcement officers to respond to complaints, determine if rescue action is necessary and slap offenders with a $500 fine, the heftiest on the Island.
SPCA animal protection and outreach officer Erika Paul said the city is not unique in its bid to improve regulations. The Capital Regional District, Duncan and a majority of municipalities in the Greater Victoria area have all made recent changes aimed at improving the way they can respond to an animal in distress.
However, the key link is getting provincial laws changed so bylaw and animal control officers don’t have to wait for RCMP or the special SPCA constables to arrive to take action. Police may have other priorities and, at the moment, there are just four special SPCA constables for the entire island.
“Where it gets tricky for us, is we are not legally allowed to enter a vehicle. RCMP can, but we can’t,” Comox Valley SPCA manager Emily Priestley said. “So when we attend, we basically just monitor the situation, but if we think the animal is going into distress then we would have to call the RCMP.
“So municipalities where such bylaws are enacted, that’s really helpful, because it (would give) the animal control guy, or the bylaw officer, the ability to go into the car and remove the animal. A lot of the time that involves breaking windows.”
According to Davidson, Nanaimo’s regulations are made more effective by a policy of quick response.
“We don’t want a good Samaritan to take a rock and smash a window,” he said. “We’ve made it a priority so if they get a call, they respond right away.”
Nanaimo officials determine whether a dog is in distress by measuring the interior temperature with a heat gun. The danger point in an unventilated car is set at 23 degrees. Paul said other communities have written bylaws allowing officers more discretion in deciding when an animal may be in distress.
“Each dog is different; the breed, weight, age — all of these things have to be taken into account,” she said.
Cowichan SPCA manager Sandi Trent is hopeful local and provincial changes are coming soon that can help improve response in her community.
“We’re still bound by the law. Moving up-Island certainly is in the plans.”
With Island weather heating up again, officials are bracing for an uptick in calls. The SPCA recorded 34 across the Island in May, down slightly compared to the amount it received during last year’s extraordinary heat.
“Last year was a big one,” SPCA call centre manager Stephanie Sheffield said. “There has been a lot of news coverage and that helps.”
Trent said her office has recently been averaging two or three calls a day, but none have actually resulted in a dog in distress. That is increasingly common, as awareness of the issue grows.
People see a dog in a car with the windows up and are immediately concerned, even though frequently the dog has not been in the car long or the temperature is within an acceptable range. Paul remembers a report where the car was actually running, with the air conditioner left on keeping the dog comfortable inside.
“People are so passionate about it,” Paul said. “Often when we do come, we spend a lot of time defusing the crowd.”
Officials endorse a “better safe than sorry” approach with an eye on awareness and keeping tempers in check.
“Getting them to page the owner and getting them to return to the vehicle so the animal never gets to be in distress,” Sheffield said.
Davidson is good with the fact that since the new Nanaimo bylaw has been implemented, the city has yet to issue a fine.
“We’ve never had to, and, once again, we’re not in the business of fines. It’s about education.”
Davidson said no one deliberately puts their pet in a dangerous situation. But circumstances sometimes lead people to make quick decisions they later regret. His advice is simple: if it’s hot, take your pet with you.
“Put your dog on a leash, walk him over and tie him up,” he said. “It’s the lack of air flow that’s the problem. A chihuahua is going to handle it better than a Newf or a Bernese mountain dog.”
He’s said the city is satisfied the new regulations seem to be working on a practical level.
“You know, I’d have to say we are. It allows us that we can respond in a timely fashion,” he said. “What we tried to do is we wanted to have something that protected the animals.”
Vancouver-area MLA Selina Robinson has introduced at private members' bill in a bid to get the provincial law changed.
Paul hopes the attention placed on the issue works to improve both regulations and public awareness.
“It’s unfortunate the topic is coming up every year. You wonder when it will get to a point where it’s unnecessary.”
— with a file from Terry Farrell
Animals in distress
Vancouver Island animals in hot car reports recorded by the BC SPCA.
May 2016: 34 (200 province-wide)
May 2015: 45 (246 province-wide)
May 2014: 17 (183 province-wide)
May 2013: 15 (118 province-wide)
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