A growing push by Vancouver Island communities aims to give bylaw and animal control officers increased power to issue fines to owners who leave dogs in hot cars 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 regulations adopted in Nanaimo last summer 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.
According to SPCA animal protection and outreach officer Erika Paul, Nanaimo 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.
“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.
According to bylaw manager Rod 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.
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.”
Few of the calls actually lead to the discovery of a dog in distress, but officials endorse a non-confrontational “better safe than sorry” approach with an eye on raising 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.
“People are so passionate about it,” Paul said. “Often when we do come, we spend a lot of time defusing the crowd.”
Davidson is OK with the fact that since the new Nanaimo bylaw was implemented Sept. 1, the city has yet to issue a fine. He 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.
Vancouver-area MLA Selina Robinson has introduced a 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)