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So, maybe I did over react. Perhaps. That does seem to be the growing consensus. And, upon sober second thought – even though there wasn’t a whiff of any intoxicant on my breath at the time – I’m willing to consider the possibility. But some things really get me worked up and I’m then inclined to shoot from the lip.
It was a beautiful spring day in mid-June – one of the first really fine days when you can taste summer in the air. Birds were singing, a soft breeze was blowing and the sun was shining in an almost-cloudless dome of blue. And the dogs were barking. That’s what yanked me out of my blissful reverie – the sound of dogs barking: close-at-hand but also in an odd, slightly muffled way.
A quick look around and I couldn’t see anyone walking a dog or even a stray on the street. And then my attention was drawn to a small car parked on the curb in front of my neighbour’s house with two large dogs locked in the backseat. The windows were down an inch or so, under the June sun.
Now, dogs barking is nothing new to me. Our own mutt barks up a storm when she recognizes the sound of our car approaching the house or someone on the doorstep. Our neighbourhood in the east end of Toronto is practically a regional extension of the Kennel Club – dogs of any and all sizes and breeds make their homes here (along with their owners). So, barking is part of the normal ambience of the street, and not a problem. But this sounded different.
I looked around and didn’t see anybody on the street or on any of my neighbours’ steps, and I didn’t recognize the dogs or the car. Surely, I thought, they haven’t been left for long; but how long? I could feel the bliss of the day ebbing away, slowly replaced by concern and rising anger. The dogs didn’t seem in much distress – certainly not as much as I was – as I thought about children and pets mindlessly left in cars on hot days, and the grim possibilities that too often follow.
A stranger came out of my neighbour’s house with their dog in tow, and I called to her, “These your dogs?” “Yeah, what of it?” she shouted back. We were clearly off to a good start. My back was up (was this when I overreacted?). “I was thinking of what to do, maybe to call the Humane Society or the cops about dogs left in a hot car.” Yeah, maybe that was a bit over the top.
She responded with defiance: It was none of my business, I was an idiot, I should go someplace a lot warmer (think hell-fire and brimstone), etc., etc. A lot of colourful, although not particularly original, language was sprinkled liberally throughout for emphasis. As a dog walker (professional, at that!), she insisted she knew what she was doing: She had opened the windows, it wasn’t that hot out and she was only gone a minute. No big deal. She hurled a few more f-bombs at me as she crammed the third dog into the back seat, climbed behind the steering wheel, started the car and revved the engine hard for added effect.
Of course, the intelligent arguments, the sensible replies, the whip-smart wit that could have made sense of the situation never came to me. I managed to stay reasonably calm, even though my anger was bubbling away. I blathered about the risks and the irresponsibility (especially with someone else’s dogs) but was totally bowled over by the tirade of abuse and justifications as she squealed the tires in her getaway.
And that’s the problem isn’t it? Every summer, small children, dogs, cats and occasionally even an elderly person are left in a hot car. Many die a cruel, unnecessary, completely preventable death, because of negligence. And, dare I say stupidity, or would that be a further overreaction? And always, always, there are the same justifications and rationalizations accompanied by tears and regrets. “I was only going to be a minute.” “It didn’t seem that hot out.” “There was a breeze and I left a window open.” “The car was in the shade when I parked.”
I’m not particularly proud of my little encounter. I don’t like being on the outs with anybody, including so-called professional dog walkers. And, I’m still struggling with the question of whether I went overboard. Yes, she was possibly only gone a few minutes. It really wasn’t very hot out, and, indeed, the windows were open a bit. Plus, my opening gambit may not have set the tone for the kind of conversation I’d hoped for. Upon sober second thought, the risk to the dogs was probably minimal.
But anybody who has opened a closed-up car on a sunny day – even in mild weather – knows how hot it can quickly get. A minute turns into 15 in the blink of an eye. The gentle breeze disappears. The sun inevitably moves across the sky and the shade evaporates. Life is full of unintended consequences – especially for the vulnerable ones who trust us to care for them, be they two- or four-legged.
I’m wondering if that’s what really got me so worked up that otherwise-perfect June afternoon. Every day, the papers are full of news about how the vulnerable and helpless are neglected or abused. A caregiver kills elderly patients in a nursing home, refugees are denied a safe haven, children are taken away from their families in the name of national security. The list goes on and on. The voiceless and powerless suffer and die at the whim of those who thoughtlessly wield their power and indifference, unless someone takes a stand. Sometimes that begins with speaking up for dogs locked in a car on a sunny day. Sometimes that means being on the receiving end of more f-bombs than you can swing at. Sometimes, I guess, that means overreacting today to prevent the hand-wringing, tears and regrets of tomorrow.
Daniel Benson lives in Toronto.