Alleged hot car case perp, facing charges, could be said to have gotten away with it because neither child nor dogs died
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee––Chattanooga State Community College student Shea Amber Anderson, 24, on April 29, 2016 got away with three of the most egregious alleged crimes of neglect that a parent and petkeeper can commit: Anderson at about 2:00 p.m., near the hottest time of day, allegedly left her small child, a white pit bull, and a black puppy together, unattended, in her locked white SUV, with the engine and air conditioning on, but the air conditioner reportedly ineffective, while she attended a class at the Branch Center for Advanced Technology.
The child, the pit bull, and the puppy were rescued by police, who responded promptly to a call from a passer-by.
Anderson was charged with child abuse and neglect, plus two counts of cruelty to animals. But, no matter the severity of any sentence Anderson may receive if convicted, she escaped the worst possible consequences of her actions. Neither the child nor the dogs died from overheating. Neither the child nor the dogs put the SUV into gear. The pit bull did not attack either the child or the puppy.
When alerted to such situations, McKamey Animal Services director Jamie McAloon told WRCB reporter Michelle Heron, “Someone has to get on scene there quickly. If we can’t get the dog [or child] out via the owner coming back or opening the car door, then we will probably have to break a window.”
666 child deaths since 1998
According to “Heatstroke Deaths of Children in Vehicles,” a web page maintained by Jan Null of the San Jose State University Department of Meteorology & Climate Science, 666 children have died in hot cars since 1998, an average of 37 per year, with a high of 49 in 2010 and a low of 24 in 2015.
Of the victims, 356 children were forgotten by their parents or other caregivers; 189 involved children playing in an unattended vehicle; 111 children were deliberately left unattended in a vehicle, as in the Anderson case; and in one case the circumstances were unknown.
3,300 dog deaths over same years
Data collected by ANIMALS 24-7 indicates that about five dogs die in hot cars for every human, meaning that the probable toll on dogs from 1998 through 2015 would be circa 3,330.
A further indication of the frequency of animals being left stranded in hot cars comes from data collected by the Ontario SPCA during the summer of 2014. From mid-July through mid-August, the Ontario SPCA received 354 calls about suspected cases, investigation officer Brad Dewar told Toronto Star staff reporter Brian Platt. Some of those calls, however, were almost certainly about the same cases, and Dewar offered no hint as to how many of the calls were in response to verifiably dangerous situations.
“Good Samaritan” laws
So-called “Good Samaritan” laws in 20 states specifically protect passers-by who break into locked cars to rescue distressed humans from extreme heat, cold, or other life-threatening conditions, according to NoHeatStroke.org.
According to a “Table of State Laws that Protect Animals Left in Parked Vehicles” compiled and posted by Rebecca F. Wisch at the Michigan State University Animal Legal & Historical Center, “Nineteen states have statutes that specifically prohibit leaving an animal in confined vehicle.”
These states include Arizona, California, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.
“Conditions have to endanger life”
“Most of these laws,” says Wisch, “add that in order for a person to violate the law, the conditions have to endanger the animal’s life. Some of the statutes specifically state that extreme hot or cold temperatures, lack of adequate ventilation, or failing to provide proper food or drink meet this definition. Other laws are more vague and just require that the conditions are such that physical injury or death is likely to result.”
Relatively few states, however, have legislation that protects people other than police and firefighters who rescue animals from locked cars.
PETA honored rescuer
Courts tend to be reluctant to prosecute cases involving authentic rescues of animals from hot cars. In May 2015, for example, charges were dropped against U.S. Army veteran Michael Hammons, of Athens, Georgia, after Hammons smashed a car window with his wife’s wheelchair to rescue a dog. The car owner insisted that Hammons be charged, but later decided otherwise. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had in the interim publicized the case by honoring Hammons with a special award.
The Anderson case came about a month after Florida adopted legislation allowing passers-by to break into locked vehicles to rescue either vulnerable people or animals who are believed to be “in imminent danger of suffering harm.”
Tennessee adopted similar legislation earlier in 2016.
But claims that a person is trying to rescue an animal––or a child––have been made by people who were in truth trying to steal dogs, kidnap children, rob cars unaware of the presence of occupants, or just commit vandalism.
And even the existence of legislation to protect “Good Samaritans” may not fully protect intervenors, including those who summon police and/or firefighters, instead of taking direct action themselves.
In Longmont, Colorado, for example, passers-by Shannon Dominguez and Alan Mason became alarmed in July 2014 when they saw a small boy alone in a car parked in direct sunlight, with all of the windows rolled up.
“When the boy’s mother, Krista Riddell, 27, returned to the car and realized Dominguez had called authorities,” reported KDVR, “she became enraged, striking Mason on the face and threatening to beat up Dominguez.”
Riddell then “jumped in her car, backed up, and accelerated toward the couple.” Mason suffered “internal and external bruises. Dominguez was less fortunate. Her left leg was crushed, and she now is confined to a wheelchair. Doctors have told her she may never walk normally again.”
Riddell, said to have “a lengthy criminal history, including assault and numerous driving violations,” was charged with assault, hit-and-run, and child abuse, but in February 2015 plea-bargained a sentence on only one charge of vehicular assault.
Boulder County District Judge Patrick Butler in April 2015 “said he doubted Riddell’s sincerity,” wrote Longmont Times Call staff reporter John Bear, “and pointed to numerous statements she made during her pre-sentence investigation, when she expressed disdain for prosecutors and lied about her use of marijuana while pregnant.” Butler nonetheless sentenced Riddell to serve only 10 days in jail plus nine months on work release, and to pay “more than $23,000 in restitution, perform community service and attend anger management classes,” Bear reported. Butler did not send Riddell to prison, said Bear, because she was pregnant.
Paid caregivers convicted most often
Allen G. Breed of Associated Press in 2007 crunched the numbers on 339 cases of humans dying in hot cars. He found that charges were filed in 49% of the cases, 81% of which brought convictions. In cases involving paid caregivers, such as childcare workers and babysitters, 84% were charged, with a 96% conviction rate. But only 7% of the cases involved drugs or alcohol.
The Breed findings appear to be echoed by the data in the ANIMALS 24-7 files. Easily the stiffest sentences meted out in hot car cases involving animals are to paid caregivers, not self-described rescuers, breeders, hunters, or animal hoarders whose negligence results in comparable numbers of deaths.
British Columbia dog walker Emma Paulsen, for instance, in January 2015 drew six months in jail, a 10-year ban on keeping any animal, and a lifetime ban on caring for any animal in a paid capacity.
“After six dogs died of heat stroke in her truck, Paulsen lied and said they had been stolen,” summarized CBC News.
In cases in which animals die of hypothermia in the vehicles of their owners, courts appear to consider the loss of the animals and resultant grief to be in themselves a significant punishment.
But prosecutions of hot car deaths of animals remain relatively rare.
ANIMALS 24-7 receives information on fewer than a dozen cases per year actually going to court.
“There is no national clearinghouse for cases of infant hyperthermia, no government agency charged with data collection and oversight,” wrote Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post in his March 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning expose “Fatal Distraction.”
Former sales and marketing executive Janette Fennell, of Kansas City, however, collects relevant case information through her own small nonprofit organization Kids & Cars.
The people who leave children to die in hot cars, Fennell told Weingarten, “tend to be the doting parents, the kind who buy baby locks and safety gates.”
“Failures of memory, not love”
Summarized Weingarten, “These cases, she says, are failures of memory, not of love,” an observation which may also be true of the majority of animal deaths in hot cars. Typically these deaths occur because the doting petkeeper cannot bear to leave a dog, or sometimes a cat or other pet, home alone.
“For years,” Weingarten continued, “Fennell has been lobbying for a law requiring back-seat sensors in new cars, sensors that would sound an alarm if a child’s weight remained in the seat after the ignition is turned off.”
Such a device could protect animals as well, but auto makers have resisted the idea as unprofitable.
“People think this could never happen to them”
“There are a few aftermarket products that alert a parent if a child remains in a car that has been turned off,” Weingarten found. “These products are not huge sellers. They have likely run up against the same marketing problem that confronted three NASA engineers,” who “began to work on just such a product after one of their colleagues, Kevin Shelton, accidentally left his 9-month-old son to die in the parking lot of NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The inventors patented a device with weight sensors and a keychain alarm. Based on aerospace technology, it was easy to use; it was relatively cheap, and it worked.
But, Weingarten added, “The inventors could not find a commercial partner willing to manufacture it. One big problem was liability. If you made it, you could face enormous lawsuits if it malfunctioned and a child died. But another big problem was psychological: Marketing studies suggested it wouldn’t sell well.
“The problem is this simple: people think this could never happen to them.”
“Famous Persons Act” no defense
But some very well known people have learned that it can, including former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne M. Kirkpatrick. Kilpatrick in June 1999 was fined $45 for leaving her poodle Jasper in her car with windows tight shut on a 90-degree day in Bethesda, Maryland.
Neither had the mythical “Famous Persons Act” spared the Lady Bute, Diane Percy, of Edinburgh, Scotland, in February 1999. Percy was fined $1,500, and was prohibited from keeping pets for five years, after her mother’s Rottweiler and Finn spitz died in her car from heat exhaustion even though Percy left a window three inches open.
“It was a just sentence,” Percy told media.
Richmond SPCA chief Robin Starr
The best-known person in the world of animal advocacy to discover that it could happen to her was Robin Starr, for nearly 20 years the chief executive of the Richmond SPCA in Richmond, Virginia.
Starr’s husband Ed on August 19, 2009 put Louie, their 16-year-old deaf and blind cocker spaniel/poodle mix, into the back of his wife’s station wagon as she prepared to return to work after a 10-day vacation, but forgot to tell her that he had.
Robin Starr found Louie when she started to go to lunch at noon. Louie died around midnight after veterinarians were unable to restore the pet’s kidney functions, reported Jeremy Slayton of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Exonerated by a police investigation, and strongly defended by the Richmond SPCA board and donors, Starr still heads the Richmond SPCA.
Case publicity may have saved lives
The most publicized animal or human death in a hot car of 2009, the Starr incident may have helped to prevent deaths during the last five weeks of that summer. The 2009 toll of children left in hot cars was the lowest in a seven-year span.
But Robin Starr, like hundreds of others who have left children or animals to die in hot cars, was viciously ripped in online commentary at the time, and continues to be attacked over the Louie death via social media.
“They have to be monsters”
“Ed Hickling believes he knows why,” wrote Gene Weingarten in his Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé. Hickling, a clinical psychologist from Albany, New York, told Weingarten that humans “have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.
“In hyperthermia cases,” Weingarten explained, Hickling “believes the parents [or pet caretakers] are demonized for much the same reasons. ‘We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters.”
John Van Zante
But the key to preventing left-in-car death cases is reminding parents and petkeepers who drive that such accidents can happen to them, so that every driver reflexively checks his/her whole vehicle to ensure that no animal or human is left behind in hot sun, or that none who are left for even a few minutes are without adequate shade and air circulation.
The longtime national leader in hot car death prevention is John Van Zante, publicist for the Rancho Coastal Humane Society in Encinitas, California. Beginning in 2000, as then publicist for the Helen Woodward Animal Center, Van Zante has each July summoned media to watch as he sits inside an enclosed vehicle parked in direct sunlight until the temperature inside reaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
On July 13, 2009 the temperature inside a closed Helen Woodward Animal Center van rose from 77 degrees Fahrenheit to 110 in seven minutes, and reached 147 in 25 minutes.
“People always say, oh well I left the windows cracked,” Van Zante told CBS-8 of San Diego after his 2015 demonstration. “That makes the difference of about five degrees. If it’s 140 degrees in the car, big deal you made it 135 degrees. Whoop-dee-do! You’re still going to lose your dog.”