07/20/2015 03:47 EDT | Updated 07/20/2016 05:59 EDT

Police too busy to rescue dog trapped in car during heat alert

A dog spent over an hour panting in a scorching hot car on Stoney Creek Mountain Sunday evening, a woman says – but despite repeated efforts, she couldn't get police to come help.

Hamilton police say a high volume of higher priority calls kept officers from the scene, but Stephanie Baran says that's just not good enough during a heat warning.

Without police there, city animal control says its hands were tied, too. So in the meantime, all Baran could do is sit there, watch, and debate – does she wait for police, or bust out a car window to save the dog, risking a mischief charge?

"I think it's completely unacceptable that the police didn't make it a priority to come and check on the state of the dog, especially when there was nothing I could legally have done to save the dog if he took a turn for the worse," Baran told CBC News.

That's a dilemma any person could face when dealing with a dog in a hot car this summer, where saving an animal in distress is not a cut and dried affair. Her dilemma became an online debate as others weighed in on whether she should smash the window and whether she had the legal right to.

Dog suffering during heat alert

There is no statute in Ontario that lets a concerned citizen break a car window with impunity, police spokesperson Const. Michael Hall told CBC News. "If a concerned citizen even with the best of intentions smashed out a window, there is still a chance they could be charged with mischief," he said.

"Certainly officers could break open a window if they thought it was necessary, but that's very specific to each case." Hamilton police have done this in the past.

Baran first noticed what she thought was a miniature pinscher sitting in a car with the windows cracked in Dollar Tree parking lot on Rymal Road and Upper Centennial around 4:55 p.m.

Hamilton was still under a stage two heat warning over the weekend. According to Environment Canada, it was 27 C at the time, with a humidex of 38.

The heat inside a car at temperatures like that can reach 38 C within 10 minutes, the humane society says. After 30 minutes, the temperature will reach close to 50 C.

"Your pet may suffer irreversible organ damage or die," the humane society's website reads.

After waiting for the owner for about 15 minutes, Baran called animal control, which then transferred her to police. Animal control said there was nothing they could do without an officer on scene.

"If the Hamilton police respond to the call, Hamilton Animal Services will respond to assist," city spokesperson Ann Lamanes said. "We unfortunately do not have jurisdiction to act without police presence."

But that response never came. Baran called police again at 5:15 p.m. to see if she could get an ETA on an officer's arrival, but the dispatcher couldn't say specifically. "I was told they couldn't find a free officer but that someone would be on their way when they could."

No police available to respond

She waited for 45 minutes, but no police officer showed up. Hall confirmed that they did receive a call about the incident, but just couldn't get there because of other incidents in the city. 

"Unfortunately due to the volume of calls, we just couldn't get to it," Hall said. Police are bound by logistics and priority sequence in these sorts of situations, he said, and calls involving humans have to take priority.

The owner did eventually show up just before 6 p.m., about an hour after Baran had shown up. "I had some choice words for her and told her I had called the police which may have scared her because she basically jumped in the car and sped away," she said.

The owner of the car has not responded to requests for comment.

Should a concerned citizen break a window to save an animal?

While many online debated what she could do, Baran, who works with animals, says she felt she could judge whether or not the dog needed immediate help.

"Morally, if I thought the dog needed medical attention, I would have done something to get him out of there, but the dog needlessly suffered while his ignorant owner shopped," she said. | @AdamCarterCBC