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Before you bust that stranger's car window to rescue a dog, you'd better be sure it's necessary, according to San Diego County Animal Control officials.

"In 15 years on the job, I've probably pulled ten dogs out of hot cars — and been to ten times that many calls where the dog was fine," Lt. Mitchell Levy said. "The new law is really vague and we are expecting to see our call volume increase."

Assembly Bill 797 went into effect on January 1, providing immunity from being charged criminally or sued for breaking into a car — as long as the dog is in "imminent danger" and the rescuers take some sensible steps.

Peace officers and emergency responders already had those protections, according to the bill's authors. Before they act, would-be rescuers need to be sure they're proceeding legally and correctly. It's the only part of the bill that isn't vague, Levy said.

Not like the people I found surrounding my car in a Mission Beach parking lot last spring, getting ready to smash my car window to get my pup out. Their first mistake: failing to observe the car was unlocked. I pointed that out to them in colorful language when I came around the corner and saw a man with a brick thumping it on my car window. Under AB 797, the car has to be locked.

Second, the animal has to be in acute distress.

"That means the dog needs to go to the vet immediately," Levy said. "That's our litmus test: does the animal need to get out of there and then be taken straight to the vet?"

The would-be rescuers who saw my pup may have mistaken his sound sleep for death — it was night, after all, so they were making their observations in the dark. But with the windows open a third of the way, they were able to quickly wake him up. He doesn't bark much, but no one had ever seen that as a life-threatening condition before...although he may have tricked them by feigning starvation.

So there I was, with a lathered-up mob of Mission Beach dog-rescuers staging a nighttime raid because I had abandoned my dog. (The plan was to take him for a walk in a great spot after a 30-minute meeting.)

"Did you call the police?" I asked. They all looked at each other and went back to scolding me while I got my sweater out of the car. It was cold. I took that as a "no."

If it happened today, they'd still be wrong. AB 797 says that before rescuers act, they have to contact law enforcement.

Levy said, "If someone calls and says, 'I'm going to break a car window,' we send someone as soon as we can. Ninety percent of the time, the dog doesn't need rescuing, and by the person's description, we can tell them that. People don't always understand it's not illegal to leave a dog in a car."

The mob mentality I saw isn't unusual, Levy said.

"We walk into that all the time. We get there and there's a mob that wants to take the dog, and we can see it's not the heat that's stressing the dog; it's being surrounded by strangers staring and pointing and making noise that's got the dog stressed. When they're under stress, they pant....

"These are people with good intentions. We're going to be seeing a lot more calls like this."

That cool night in Mission Beach, I opened the car door and went for clarity and brevity. "The dog is fine. Fuck off," I said. That was too much for Brick. He shoved me. My pup snarled and snapped at him. He kicked at the pup whose life he'd been ready to save, and the pup dodged the kick and lunged at him again. The cop driving by saw that part. So I was glad when he stopped to see what was going on — especially with the nearly bitten Brick still waving the brick. He listened to them, took their info, and sent them on their way — even though they wanted to stay to perhaps see me interrogated and handcuffed, maybe tasered.

"Good citizens," he said while he scratched the pup's cheeks. "I would have been here sooner if they called it in."

 Under AB797, would-be rescuers must:

  1. Determine that the car is locked and there is no reasonable way to get into it.
  2. Decide that the animal is in imminent danger.
  3. Contact law enforcement, fire and rescue, or animal control first - and ask them to come.
  4. Use the least force and do the least damage it takes to get to the animal.
  5. Stay with the dog in a safe place until emergency responders arrive. If the best choice is to take the dog for emergency veterinary care, they're required to leave a note with contact information and the present location of the dog.
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