Letters to the Editor

Police hyperbole vs. pet personification | Letters

A short unattributed blurb in The Mirror on Aug. 24 was titled “Pets and hot cars just don’t mix.”

The Federal Way Police Department asserts that “leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle is dangerous to the animals.”

This is a ridiculous absolute that cannot reasonably be substantiated. Certainly it can be said that leaving an animal in an unattended vehicle for an extended amount of time, in hot weather and with the windows closed, can be dangerous.

Beyond that, the Federal Way Police Department is engaging in hyperbole.

Federal Way police go on to assert that “consistent temperatures above 70 degrees have led to an increased number of calls related to leaving dogs in vehicles in an unsafe manner.” While indeed there might be an increased number of calls of this nature, the calls are in no way indicative of an increase of cases where an animal is being confined in an unsafe manner.

In the first place, addressing weather above 70 degrees as hot or dangerous is a fallacy that could only occur in Washington state. This year has been extremely mild, and there have been only a handful of days this summer where the temperature has exceeded 80 degrees.

Based on my own experience, I believe that it is far more likely that the increase in the number of calls is indicative of a lack of knowledge on the part of the caller and an evolving phenomenon that I will describe as the personification of our pets. The bottom line is that a dog confined in a car should not be the sole basis for a 911 call. In short, there should be a clear indication that the animal is in distress, and reasoned knowledge that continued confinement will harm the animal.

The Federal Way police then tell us that “city code allows Federal Way police officers to “enforce this violation as an infraction” with a first offense costing $100. The problems begin with the fact that city code derives its authority from state law. In this case, the city presumes to enforce state statute RCW 16-52-080. A violation of the statute can result in misdemeanor charges with a potential jail sentence and fine.

The statute essentially says that it is unlawful to transport or confine an animal in an unsafe manner. The problem with the statute is that it is a look-good, feel-good piece of legislation that completely lacks any guidelines for determining or defining what is an unsafe manner in which to confine or transport an animal.

Overall, the law provides no analysis, no measurement mechanisms, nor any examples of behavior or circumstances that would lead to a violation. This leaves the law open to a wide array of ridiculous interpretations inclusive of simply locking a pet in a vehicle for a short amount of time.

This makes the statute, however well intended, unconstitutionally vague.

Into this vacuum step police officers with little or no training and experience in animal care or health. Private citizens also come from a variety of experiences. In contrast, a person raised on a ranch or in a rural area is likely to have a different experience and perspective than does a city dweller who may have little practical experience with raising animals.

By example, a professional dog trainer or even a bird hunter with dogs would treat you as a fool if you objected to the manner of confinement and transport of their animals. Dogs confined in a ventilated trailer or vehicle is a norm and the animals are watered and checked every couple of hours. Note that this is a much gentler version than what occurs with the transport of livestock such as cattle, pigs or chickens.

Meanwhile, in the small suburban metropolis of Federal Way, you are more likely to experience the other end of the spectrum with true experience in animal husbandry being relatively low. Not to say that they do not have pets, just that they have limited practical knowledge in how to treat them.

Often such people tend to emotionally personify their pets. These are the people who are automatically offended or horrified upon seeing a pet in a locked vehicle. Taken to extreme, you have some owners (or animal lovers as they call themselves) objecting to the discipline of a pet, confining a pet, or even objecting to placing a pet upon a leash. These are people whose pets ride in their laps or are otherwise transported in air conditioned luxury.

I hate to see an animal mistreated or abused. However, I also dislike seeing the ridiculous extent to which this law is being applied and interpreted. Assuming that this statute is not quickly struck down in state or federal court, Federal Way needs to institute a comprehensive training program for all police officers. The training should be conducted by a licensed veterinarian and address issues such as how long a pet should reasonably be confined in a closed vehicle without ventilation or water, etc.

Such a standard established on a municipal basis as the definition of state statute is not likely to be considered constitutional. Yet it may act as a motivator to the Legislature to clean up their mistake.

Further, such an approach is far more reasoned than the status quo in which officers of various backgrounds and experience impose their own personal judgment on how the law should be interpreted.

Ultimately, that is the problem, without any clear standards established by the legislature; officers are left to interpret intent and application on the basis of their own experience tainted opinions.

Additionally, under the status quo, pet owners are equally at loss when they arrive at the juncture of leaving their pet in a vehicle while they run into the grocery store or a doctor’s office.

Given the laws, lack of clarity and specificity, I would suggest that Federal Way officers err on the side of conservative application of the law. Look for symptoms of clear physical distress. Work from a standardized symptom and treatment information as provided by a veterinarian. Do not rely on emotion and citizen concern.

Understand that a barking or whining dog is not an inherent indication of distress. A dog confined in a vehicle is not reason enough for intervention or application of enforcement measures. Look instead for clear symptoms of dehydration or heat prostration.

In the realm of preventative care and intervention, look for pets in vehicles that have been there for some time in truly hot weather. For you native Washingtonians, 70 to 80 degrees is not hot. Also look for pets in vehicles with closed windows.

David Koenig, Federal Way

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