BOSTON — Good Samaritans who break into cars to rescue pets from the summer heat or winter cold would not be liable for damages under a proposal to toughen the state's animal cruelty laws.
Police, animal control officers and the general public would be allowed to use "any means necessary" to "protect the health and safety and well-being of an animal" under a bill approved by the state Senate on Tuesday, provided that the rescuer has made reasonable attempts to find the owner.
Sen. Kathleen O'Connor-Ives, D-Newburyport, one of the bill's sponsors, said the proposal allows bystanders to intervene to save cats or dogs without fear of liability for damaging someone's vehicle.
"They wouldn't have to wait idly by until it's too late, where the animal is near death or dies because too much time has passed," she said.
The bill, backed by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society, would also have to approved by the House of Representatives and Gov. Charlie Baker.
Locally, the bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover and Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester. Reps. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, and Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, are also co-sponsors.
The proposal slaps pet-owners who leave their animals locked in an unventilated car with a $75 fine for the first violation and up to $300 for repeated violations.
O'Connor-Ives said the bill includes "common-sense" safeguards to protect private property, such as requiring non-law enforcement bystanders to call 911 or contact police or animal control officers before they enter someone else's vehicle to rescue an animal.
At that point, they must not use "more force than reasonably necessary" to free the animal, and they would have to stay with the animal until police or animal control officers arrive.
Police officers who enter a vehicle wouldn't be permitted to search it.
"You couldn't just break someone's car window and run away," O'Connor-Ives said. "You'd have to make a good faith effort to contact police."
Veterinarians say dogs and cats do not sweat like humans do, and thus have no way to cool themselves in hot conditions.
On 80-degree days, temperatures inside a vehicle can reach 99 degrees or more in 10 minutes — even with windows rolled down — according to Dr. Virginia Sinnott, a veterinarian in the critical care unit of MSPCA's Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.
"When the sun is shining through the glass windows, heat gets trapped in the car," Sinnott said. "If a dog is left in the car under those circumstances, they can't dissipate the heat, their body temperature starts to rise and they can get heat stroke."
Heat stroke, if untreated, can lead to dehydration, irreversible organ failure, brain damage and even death.
"We thankfully don't see it happen that often in Massachusetts — maybe once or twice a year," she said. "And it's almost never intentional. Someone runs into the store to get milk, gets distracted talking to someone, and forgets that their pet is in the car."
In March, a French bulldog named Cocoa died after being left inside a van in a parking lot in Brockton, according to news reports. The owner of the van was charged with animal cruelty.
The bill approved by the Senate Tuesday was part of a raft of legislation aimed at putting more teeth in the state's animal cruelty laws. The measures included a requirement allowing municipal inspections of private kennels to crack down on so-called "puppy and kitten mills" and another prohibiting dog owners from tethering canines outside in extreme weather conditions for more than 15 minutes.
At least 22 states — including New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine — have laws that prohibit owners from leaving pets unattended in vehicles or that allow police to intervene to rescue animals in distress, according to the Humane Society.
"We need to protect these animals who are suffering so unintentionally," said Stephanie Harris, state director for the Massachusetts chapter of the Humane Society. "We don't think law enforcement or the public should have to wait while an animal is suffering."
Christian Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.