To save a dog, would smashing car windows be legal?

To save a dog, would smashing car windows be legal?
By Melissa Wilson
OpenFile Toronto
June 11, 2012

The ethics of stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family have been debated endlessly, but while it’s easy to talk theory, when it comes to actually breaking the law to prevent harm, the question gets a lot trickier.

In light of not one, but two instances in as many days where a dog was left in the back of a scorching car (and in the earlier case, the chocolate lab died), one of our readers asked: Would I be charged with something if I saw a dog in distress in a locked car and broke a window to get it out?

The answer is, of course, it depends.

“That’s a very good question,” says Constable Tony Vella of the Toronto Police Services, who would not comment on a hypothetical situation. “I would need more context to it.”

Vella offers the example of a person coming across a child left in the back seat of the car. “Let’s say you can hear the child yelling, ‘I need help! I need help!’ and the person feels if they don’t break the window right now, the child will die. So you smash it, but you’re acting in good faith. The question is, is that child really in that much distress, or should you just call the police?”

Vella says the same would apply to a dog left in the back of a car, and suggests that “the smartest thing to do is to just call the police, call 911, and let them handle it.”

“If you come across a dog in distress in the back of a car, and call 911, the police and fire will be there in one or two minutes,” he says.

The charge for smashing someone’s car window would fall under mischief, says Vella, which is a criminal offense, and can result in a fine or an arrest. “If charges are warranted, charges will be laid,” he says.

And what happens to the owner of the dog in question? That depends, too. In the case of the chocolate lab, the owners — a 21-year-old man and a 20-year-old woman — have been charged with causing unnecessary suffering to an animal, under the Criminal Code. The temperature reached 30 C that day.

In the case of the second dog, left Monday (high of 28 C) in a parking lot at Sherway Gardens but rescued in time, the owner was charged a fine of $260. This charge falls under Chapter 349 of the City of Toronto Municipal Code, on the responsibility to care for animals, which reads:

“Every person who keeps an animal within the City’s boundaries shall provide the animal or cause it to be provided with adequate and appropriate care, food, water, shelter, exercise, attention and veterinary care as may be required.”

In this case, the charge was for failure to provide water to the dog, according to Vella.

So, to answer the original question, the police have the discretion to lay charges or not, but yes, you could be charged with a crime if you smash a car window to save the life of the dog inside, so it’s really up to you if you think that’s worth the risk.

But hopefully it won’t come to that, and pet owners everywhere will get the message that leaving your pet in the back of a hot car is a stupid idea, especially if this summer continues to be a scorcher.

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