Something to bark about

Brattleboro is ahead of the pack in educating drivers about the dangers — and illegality — of leaving pets in parked cars

BRATTLEBORO — “Brattleboro is always ahead of the curve.”

That was the response of an employee of the animal protection division of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) who wrote to me after hearing Mary McCallum's commentary on Vermont Public Radio that addressed dogs being left in parked cars. A notable comment, I thought, given the sheer size, history, and scope of the MSPCA.

The radio commentary gave a respectful nod to Brattleboro for installing warning signs in our town parking lots regarding the danger of hot cars to pets. McCallum also referenced Vermont's strong animal protection laws and, specifically, the provision that authorizes removal of a distressed dog from an unattended vehicle by humane officers and other rescue personnel (it also absolves them of any liability for doing so).

Similarly, RedRover, the Sacramento, Calif. nonprofit parent organization of the resoundingly successful “My Dog is Cool Campaign,” wrote in a May press release: “Brattleboro, Vermont, has become a national leader in raising awareness about the dangers of leaving dogs in hot cars by posting signs last week warning drivers about the danger that hot cars pose.”

And lead is apparently what Brattleboro did.

Citizens in other Vermont towns, near and far, have since sought out information toward pursuing installation of signs in their respective parking lots.

Additionally, a small group of citizens in Virginia read about Brattleboro and is launching a similar effort.

In a recent letter to the editor of a Philadelphia area newspaper, Brattleboro was also lauded for including educational information to dog owners on all dog license applications and dog license renewal forms. This initiative was implemented in 2011.

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So what is behind these positive reverberations?

Despite the disturbing frequency of media reports of the appalling suffering and deaths of dogs left locked in hot cars across the nation, very few communities have been as proactive in prevention of this form of animal cruelty as Brattleboro.

The fact that this cruelty is unintentional and so widespread, and that dog “owners” are often grief-stricken after their dog dies a horrifying death in a parked car, points to the very root of this enduring tragedy: for far too long, we've had a dearth of practical information and meaningful action targeting prevention, through public education or effective policymaking, specifically intended to protect pets from roasting alive in a parked car.

Vermont is a rare exception in that our animal cruelty laws specifically recognize the potential problem and authorize removal of the dog, moving beyond the concern over individual private property rights that often results in “let's wait and see what happens.”

And, as one tearful Virginia woman made painfully clear while speaking to television reporters after both of her dogs died in a car, which was parked in the shade: “No one ever told me not to leave my dog in the car.”

Residents and visitors to Brattleboro will not likely ever be able to make a similar claim.

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Additionally, and somewhat ironically, Brattleboro is part of a larger society that seems to be increasingly acknowledging in many other ways that animal life is precious and of great value to human society - so much so that we want more animals in our lives, in our homes and businesses, and in our family configurations.

For example, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost three-quarters of U.S. households include pets. That's approximately 218 million pets for which, despite a very fragile economy, we spent a staggering $61.4 billion in 2011.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, 78.2 million pets are dogs. Nearly one-half of U.S. households (46 percent) include at least one dog; 40 percent of dog owners own more than one, including 12 percent, who own three or more.

The 2012 edition of the U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, derived from surveys of more than 50,000 homes, claims to be the largest, most complete, and most statistically accurate survey of pet owners and pet-related demographics based on national data, which makes even clearer the centrality of pets in our lives.

The reference is recommended as a resource for business plan development, for market and consumer-trend analysis, for strategic planning in business, and for guiding public policy and government regulation.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recognizes that pets can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, as well as feelings of loneliness, while at the same time they can increase opportunities for socialization, exercise, and overall activity levels.

These data explain why we are seeing the proliferation of pet products and services, animal-inclusive travel accommodations, routine pet visits and resident animals in many health-care facilities, and a growing tolerance of pets in our workplaces.

Most powerfully, we're also seeing shifts in how animals are viewed within our families and personal relationships.

According to 2005 research conducted by the Pew Research Center on social and demographic trends, a full 85 percent of dog owners considered their dog a “member of the family.”

This finding has held up in subsequent research. A 2011 survey of pet owners conducted by Kelton Research found that 81 percent of pet owners treat their dogs as members of the family and 77 percent talk about their dogs as if they were human family members.

Writing about the implications of this research in Psychology Today, Dr. Stanley Coren noted:

“Perhaps the most striking thing to come out of this research is that the pet owners of today seem to blur the lines between children and pet dogs in many ways. For example, 81 percent of those surveyed consider their dogs to be true family members, equal in status to children.”

Another striking finding in this research was that 73 percent of those surveyed would choose their pet over a human being if they were limited to having only one friend.

The survey also found that 90 percent of respondents reported that, should they face divorce, they would fight more passionately for their pet than for money.

Perceptions of the fundamental importance animals hold in our daily lives are surely reflected in the willingness of pet owners to put their money where their heart is, as annual spending trends on pets consistently demonstrates.

Not surprisingly, according to the Kelton research, our loyalty to animals is also translating into loyalty to companies that support animals.

Likewise, in politics, the love for pets can likely be a swing factor in casting votes; 66 percent of pet owners in the study indicated they would not vote for a candidate who is perceived as not liking pets!

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So it seems good sense that communities such as Brattleboro, San Diego, and Toronto are leading ahead of the curve by considering the safety and welfare of our beloved non-human family and community members.

Meaningful actions to protect them are not going unnoticed.

If the numbers, thus far, are any indication, our “fur babies” are already shaping our choices and, thus, our communities, organizations, and society in not-so-small ways that will likely become even more evident as time goes on.

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