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Failure to rescue: A doggone shame

Barry L. Adams has made it a mission to educate dog owners about the dangers of hot cars. For more information and resources, visit

“Together, we can build communities where animal cruelty is unacceptable.”

– Nicole Forsyth, president and CEO of RedRover


I recently read where a man fried an egg in a skillet placed on his dashboard on a hot day. Within 90 minutes, the egg was completely cooked, and an accompanying photo showed that it even had crispy brown edges.

That article and image made me recall how many times I burned the backs of my bare legs when I was a child after jumping onto hot vinyl car seats and how, even on a sunny day in the freezing cold of winter, the interior of a car can be very warm and comfortable.

Those memories make a recent incident of failure to rescue two dogs locked inside a hot vehicle in an open parking lot even more disturbing.

More accurately, this was a case of refusal to rescue.

Several weeks ago, some friends and I spent a leisurely hour at a local flea market. We returned to our car around 2:30 p.m. to escape the worst of the afternoon sun’s heat and humidity.

As we approached our car, we heard barking and saw two dogs in the black truck parked next to us panting heavily and trying to push their snouts through the windows, which were cracked open about five inches. Looking inside the truck, we also noticed they had no drinking water available.

Knowing that the interior of a car can reach 116 degrees within an hour when the outside temperature is only a mild 72, or 120 degrees in 10 minutes on an 85-degree day, I knew these dogs were in real danger.

Additionally, leaving windows cracked does not help prevent harm or suffering to a dog left inside.

My friends stayed with the truck while I sought assistance. I approached the parking attendant, who was standing about 30 feet away directing more cars into the open field.

I pointed to the truck and told him there were two dogs inside that were panting heavily.

“I know. I’m not getting involved,” he said.

Shocked by such a pointed reply, given the circumstances, I told him the dogs were in serious danger.

“I’m not getting involved,” he repeated.

Totally amazed and disbelieving, I asked him why.

“This is private property, and that truck is someone’s private property,” he reasoned.

When I reminded him that murder is not allowed even on private property, or in privately owned vehicles, his determined façade cracked a bit.

“I got in trouble for trying to help a dog in a car once,” he explained. He went on to tell me that the owners of the vehicle became overtly hostile when they learned he had opened the car door to help the distressed dog.

I told him that he did not have to confront the owner and urged him to call 911 immediately. I explained that it was illegal in Vermont to leave an animal in a vehicle in a way that endangered its health or safety, and that the police would support us and rescue the dogs.

His face again became stony, and he repeated, “I’m not getting involved.”

Stunned and perplexed, I could only shake my head and utter, “Wow.”

I rushed to find the office, or anyone with a phone. Before I returned with one of the owners of the flea market, the owners of the truck had also returned and left.

* * *

Social psychologists have long questioned why individuals do not act to provide assistance or life-saving intervention (including simply calling for help) while they personally witness harm, violence, and suffering of others.

Numerous high-profile cases have been documented where witnesses stood silently by in emergency situations that resulted in physical harm or even deaths that could have been prevented had anyone intervened.

Attempts to explain the inaction of bystanders, who could otherwise take action to step in, reveal powerful forms of socially constructed “groupthink” that lead to the failure to rescue.

For example, when individuals collectively see that others are doing nothing, despite a dire situation, they minimize the situation and convince themselves that doing nothing is justifiable and appropriate.

This form of “bystander effect” was effectively captured in an episode of ABC News’s What Would You Do?

Over a period of hours, hidden cameras filmed pedestrians walking by a large barking dog locked in a “hot” car parked on busy city street.

Despite the sun beating down on the car and the hot temperatures on the street, individuals noticed the barking dog, looked around at other bystanders who were not responding, then ignored the dog and walked away.

Other explanations propose that witnesses assume that someone else is going to intervene so they don’t do anything themselves, or that others are more capable or qualified to intervene, such as police officers or medical personnel.

Whatever the reasons attributed to bystanders failing to respond and rescue, most believe it is not due to the absence of caring. Rather, human compassion and concern is somehow overwhelmed by fear of social embarrassment, fear of overreacting, misinterpretation of what is actually happening, fear of personal harm, or fear of legal consequences for getting involved.

* * *

Whatever the dynamics of fear that result in the bystander effect, I believe that more people’s inaction on behalf of dogs left in hot cars is rooted in our often-unexamined capitalist social values.

These values have led to the legal recognition of dogs as the private personal “property” of their “owners,” rather than living, feeling creatures who deserve, and whose survival depends on, proactive human bystander action.

Although we know dogs demonstrate strong loyalty through the inter-species bonding between them and humans, and that they feel and express happiness, suffering, pain, and grief, we still largely honor the sanctity of private property ownership (for example, locked car doors and windows).

We value this ownership over the need to call for help, or over the need to open a vehicle and save these beings from horrific suffering or death, a point made painfully clear with the flea market parking attendant.

In addition to fear of possible consequences for acting on what he inherently knew was wrong, he justified his inaction with an argument of the rights of private-property ownership, hoping that would send me on my way.

So that dog “owners” can enjoy shopping at a flea market?

If you find a dog left in a hot car, call 911 for help. Give the location, color and make of the car, and license plate number. Don’t wait for someone else to.

If the dog is in obvious risk of heat stroke, rescue the dog and immerse it in cool water. Then seek veterinary care.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #156 (Wednesday, June 13, 2012).

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