The frigid weather that has gripped much of the United States this winter brought death for several dogs who were left outside or abandoned in the cold without any way to stay warm. Many states already have laws that penalize people for leaving dogs out in extreme weather, and some states have even added new laws that have been in effect for less than a year that add harsher penalties for those who endanger pets. This is the first winter that those new laws will be enforced. As 2018 begins, the country has some of the strictest laws yet, so why are people still leaving dogs in the cold to die, and what can we do about it?
Where Are Dogs Dying, And What Laws Are In Place?
In Toledo, Ohio, a dog was found frozen to death this winter on a porch. Three others were found in Franklin County, Ohio and another was found in Butler County, Ohio. This is in spite of the fact that Ohio Revised Code 959.131(C) states that it is illegal to confine an animal without food, water, or shelter from extreme elements “if it can reasonably be expected that the companion animal would become sick or suffer.” Violation of this law is a second-degree misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine.
In Illinois, a Shih Tzu froze to death on a porch when a couple had an argument and one of them took the dog and left it outside. In another Illinois county, a pregnant black Labrador was left outdoors and gave birth in the cold. When the Humane Society was finally called to the scene, seven of her eight puppies had died, and she and her surviving pup were showing signs of hypothermia. A law in Illinois went into effect in 2016 that makes it a class A misdemeanor to leave pets outside in extreme weather with fines up to $2,500 if injury or death occurs as a result.
In Detroit, Michigan, a dog froze to death after being abandoned in the cold outside of a shelter. The person who left the animal didn’t tell anyone it was there, and the dog died over night. In Indiana, a dog was left in a cage and abandoned in the woods. That dog froze to death, unable to even escape to try to find shelter. In Connecticut, a dog was found dead after being tethered to a small shelter in the cold. The owner was in jail for drug charges and claimed to have made arrangements for the dog to be cared for. All over the country, dogs are dying in the frigid weather this year.
Pets are being left in the cold even though many states have laws and penalties that fight against it. All 50 states have some animal cruelty laws, though leaving a dog out in harsh weather isn’t covered by all of these states. Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Nevada, New York, Maine, Massachusetts, and other states and local municipalities have laws that specifically address weather when it comes to endangering pets. Within the past year, the state of Washington passed a law prohibiting the tethering of animals in extreme weather. New Jersey also passed a law that carries a $100 penalty for first time violators and a $200 fine for second offenders who leave their dogs tethered outside in harsh conditions. Pennsylvania passed Libre’s Law, which says pets can’t be tied up outside for more than 30 minutes when the temperature is below freezing. Violators can face felony charges and fines of up to $15,000 and seven years in prison. So with more laws in the United States than ever before that are meant to protect animals, why are dogs still being left in the cold to die?
Are Penalties Strong Enough?
New Jersey’s new law carries what, in my opinion, is an abysmally low fine for leaving a dog outside, but Pennsylvania’s new law carries a pretty stiff penalty. Do stronger penalties discourage dog owners from leaving dogs outside? Do they stop people from abandoning pets in the cold? Many states have had similar laws for some time, some with fairly steep consequences, but dog are still dying.
For the most part, penalties are only a deterrent if people know about them. Since some of these laws are relatively new, there may be a lack of knowledge about them, and that can contribute to people continuing to leave dogs outside. However, the people who would bother to know about laws concerning leaving dogs outside in bad weather are usually the people who wouldn’t leave their dogs out in the first place. Responsible dog owners know that leaving pets outside in this weather can be deadly and wouldn’t dream of risking their dogs’ safety. Those are the kind of people that would already know their local dog laws anyway.
We may be able to help some pets by spreading the word about the laws in our area and the penalties that are carried for violators, but would that be any more effective than sharing knowledge about cold weather safety? Couldn’t we try to make it clear to inexperienced owners that dogs are meant to come inside and be a part of the family, rather than living tied up outside alone? Penalties are an important incentive for people to follow the law, and larger penalties are even better because more people are likely to take notice, but it’s only a part of the work that needs to be done.
Can The Laws Be Enforced?
One issue that lawmakers in small municipalities have is that they do not have the resources to enforce the existing laws, and sometimes that means they won’t even bother to make a law at all. Small towns may not have a Humane Society anywhere even close to their area, and they may not have a dedicated animal control officer, either. This would make it very difficult to have someone that could arrive on the scene, determine if there is evidence of a crime, and remove any animals from danger.
On the other hand, large cities have problems enforcing laws, too. I can speak from experience living in a large city that police often feel they have “more important” things to do than help an animal, especially if you make a call in the middle of the night when a dog might have been left outside for hours. Also, animal control isn’t always available 24 hours a day. By the time someone shows up on the scene, it may be too late, and a dog might already have died.
So how can the existing laws be enforced to protect pets? Perhaps those of us that care about dogs can push our legislators to dedicate more resources to helping animals. We can work to provide law enforcement with education on the new laws and how to care for animals on the scene of a crime. Animal protection laws are a great idea, but they’re useless if we can’t make sure people are following them and being held accountable when they break them. Ultimately, this should be the start of a larger conversation that involves law makers, citizens, and law enforcement. These laws shouldn’t just be signed to gain political points. There should be a clear plan, and we all need to work together to help animals in our community.
Are Violations Being Reported?
Have you ever seen a dog left out in the cold and thought that they’re probably fine and their owners are likely to be keeping an eye on them? Maybe you’re right, but maybe you’re not. Under-reporting of animal cruelty or neglect may contribute to the fact that dogs are dying, even though laws are in place. It’s important for us as dog lovers to know the signs of an animal in distress. Educate yourself on what hypothermia in dogs looks like. If you see a dog outside, check later to make sure they have been brought in out of the cold, especially if you know the owner has been in trouble for mistreating animals in the past. If you see signs that the dog is being neglected, knock on a door and tell the owner you think something is wrong. If they don’t respond or are unwilling to help the dog, report the crime. Learn your local laws, too, as this will help you determine what violations are being committed. It’s better to be overly vigilant and call the police to potentially save a dog’s life than to regret that you did nothing later.
Too often, people just pass by and assume everything is alright. Police and animal control can’t be everywhere at once, so it is our duty as concerned dog lovers to help when we can. It may be the difference between life and death for a dog. If we don’t report what we see, there’s no way to hold irresponsible owners accountable and keep dogs safe. Laws will keep being broken if there are no consequences.
As mentioned earlier, sometimes law enforcement officers won’t be available to arrive and take care of a dog, so what you do next is up to you. I can’t advise you to break the law, but in that situation, I know I couldn’t leave a dog to die. I would have to stay with them, try to warm them, and maybe even attempt to bring them inside, even if it meant facing some kind of legal consequence. But always try to contact proper law enforcement before taking matters into your own hands.
What do you think we can do to make sure that dogs are protected from the cold? Do we need more laws, harsher penalties, better enforcement, a more informed public, or a combination of many factors? Let me know in the comments below!