A tragic mistake made by a Bridgehampton family on a sweltering day in July killed their dog—a mistake some say was criminal.
The 6-year-old mixed Lab was left in the car, which was parked on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. When the family returned, they found her unresponsive.
She was already dead when Dr. Andrew Pepper, a Sag Harbor veterinarian who makes house calls, arrived at the home of the family, whom he declined to name. “I didn’t really press them for details as to where or when,” said the veterinarian, who has known them for years and had taken care of the dog “since they brought her home as a puppy.”
“They were really devastated,” he said.
Since 1986, Suffolk County law has prohibited the confinement of pets in an unattended car if the conditions endanger their welfare. New York State law also prohibits the confinement of companion animals, with slightly lower fines for the violation.
Dorothy Frankel of Noyac is a longtime animal rights advocate who successfully lobbied Southampton Town to put up signs in public parking areas, many of them in Sag Harbor, warning drivers not to leave pets in vehicles. She said mounting public awareness and a renewed willingness to enforce the law are helping, but more still needs to be done.
“It’s sad that it takes a death to jolt people,” Ms. Frankel said. “I’ve been trying to do this for a long time. I’ve gotten those signs up, but when you hear news like this, it’s very disheartening.”
Ms. Frankel, who said education is key to eliminating the problem, believes enforcing the confinement law will serve as both a deterrent and a tool for education.
“People get very angry when you tell them how to properly take care of their own animal,” Ms. Frankel explained. “Nobody is accusing you of anything—it is just about letting you know the dangers, because they are very real. But when no one is there to prevent the confinement, then we need to enforce the law,” she said.
“If you see this, you need to call the police,” she continued, praising Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano for his desire to put the exact law on the signs themselves in that village. “The problem is, this happens and there is no recording of it. Legally, veterinarians are supposed to report everything like this. Yes, I think Dr. Pepper should report them—it is a crime. It’s animal abuse, even if it is not on purpose.”
Ms. Frankel, who said she heard about the death through a grapevine of animal activists, hasn’t expressed to Dr. Pepper, whom she knows, her opinion about reporting the family, but she said that others definitely have.
“I know a lot of people are in contact with him. I don’t know how many people he has to hear it from,” she said. “The problem lays here. You love your dog, you bring him with you everywhere you go. Usually, the people leaving them in danger really do love their animals. But there is no excuse. Please, leave your dog at home.”
Roy Gross, chief of the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said that no report had been filed with his agency in relation to the July 22 incident, but he would like to see one come across his desk soon.
“A car takes three minutes to get to 120 degrees, even with the windows cracked. Can you imagine how an animal can suffer in those conditions?” asked Mr. Gross. “Picture yourself in a fur coat in a car in 120-degree heat. I think that answers it very bluntly. No excuse for that—it is criminal. If someone left an animal in the car, they should be prosecuted.”
According to Mr. Gross, not only can people be charged with a violation for illegally confining an animal, but animal cruelty laws also come into play when there is a death. A misdemeanor charge can result in up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine with a conviction.
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who lives in Sag Harbor, this week proposed a bill that would upgrade the penalties for confinement of an animal at the state level. State fines would replicate those Suffolk County already has in place—$250 for the first offense and $500 for subsequent offenses.
More important to Mr. Thiele, the prosecutor would “need not prove that the driver of the vehicle had knowledge of the dangerous confinement. Rather, a prosecutor will only have to show that the companion animal was confined in dangerous conditions.”
The assemblyman said the inspiration for the bill was a number of complaints stemming from the Sag Harbor area during the heat wave.
In the case of the mixed Lab left in the car on the turnpike, however, Dr. Pepper said he doesn’t see the need for prosecution. “I don’t think there is any need to report them at this point,” the veterinarian said. “Punishment doesn’t really affect behavior. What will change things is education.
“If I felt they were cavalier about it, maybe then we should prosecute them—but isn’t the death enough of a punishment?” Dr. Pepper asked. “Should you lock people up for stupidity? They feel bad enough—there was no intent. They said they’ll never buy a dog again.”
The point, several people said, was to prevent more tragedies.
“It’s not just charging people, it’s educating people,” Mr. Gross concluded. “If you see something, say something, whether to a police officer or the person themselves. You don’t want this to happen to you, trust me. Safeguard your animal like your child.”