Vaughan Mills Pet Patrol Aims To Stop Animals Being Left In Hot Cars

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As the hot summer days continue to blaze away, there's been one uncomfortable situation that continues to pop up in news stories — family pets being left in sweltering cars while their owners go shopping.

A reckless gesture by pet owners, if they leave their beloved animal in a hot car for too long, it runs the risk of discomfort, dehydration, and in extreme cases, death.

The employees at the Vaughan Mills shopping centre, just north of downtown Toronto, don't want that to happen on their watch, so they've created an innovative program to look out for our furry friends called the Vaughan Mills Pet Patrol.

What the Pet Patrol does is quite simple: on hot days two staff stand at each entrance to the shopping centre parking lot, checking each car to see if they've got a pet on board. If they do, the vehicle owners are reminded of the dangers of keeping their pet in in a hot car.

Considering Vaughan Mills is one of the biggest and busiest retail destinations in Canada with some 250 stores and more than 13 million annual visitors, creating and maintaining the Pet Patrol is no small scale operation and a very clear gesture on behalf of our furry friends.

Samaritanmag spoke with Vaughan Mills general manager Stephen Gascoine about their innovative program.

How does the Pet Patrol program work?

"We started this in July 2012 and it was the result of a pet being left in the vehicle on an extremely hot day here at Vaughan Mills and the pet unfortunately passed away. So as a result of that, we realized that people just generally aren't getting the message as well as they should about the dangers pets face, as well as children, being left in hot vehicles. So what we did was we initiated the Vaughan Mills Pet Patrol and the way this works is on heat alert days — if there's a heat alert issued by environment Canada or the city, or if temperatures are greater than 30 degrees Celsius — we will engage the Pet Patrol.

"That involves two guards located at each of five main entrances into the shopping centre. What we do is we'll stop the cars and inquire if they have any pets with them today and if they answer yes we remind them of the dangers of pets left in a vehicle on a hot day. And if we have concerns or anything that may raise an alarm bell we'll monitor afterwards via our camera system, via our mobile patrols throughout the parking lot, just to try to ensure we do as much as we can to reduce the incidents or potential incidents of pets being left in vehicles on hot days."

What has the response been like from visitors?

"Because it's unique and because it's more of an educational program for our customers it's been overwhelmingly positive. Most people are, 'Oh, I can't believe you're doing this,' 'That's fantastic.' We've received many, many positive tweets, positive comments on social media and positive emails. There's a very small percentage that comment that it's causing a very minor delay in entering the property, but you're gonna get that anywhere really.

Do you know of any other shopping centres with a program like this?

"I'm not aware of any other shopping centres in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] who do something like we do. They may increase some of their security patrols in their facilities, they may be looking a little more for pets in their vehicles, but there's nothing specific like this. This is something that is over and above our regular security. So we still have our regular patrols in the parking lot looking for whatever we're looking for, including children in vehicles, we still have our cameras on site being monitored from our control centre, but in these situations where the temperatures do get hot, this is in addition to that. It's specifically about looking keeping our eyes open for pets in that situation. It's over and above."

When you say "over and above," does that mean there's an extra cost to you doing something like the Pet Patrol?

"Yeah, there is. We have to pay additional monies for the additional guards. So we'll have on average between 10 and 12 additional guards per day on roughly an eight hour shift. And on an average year we'll probably do it roughly between 20-30 times per year, so it is — and I won't say exactly how much — but it is substantial increased cost to employ the Vaughan Mills Pet Patrol."

How many animals do you figure the Pet Patrol has helped or dangerous situations for them that may have been prevented?

"I don't know if I have the exact total, but I'll give you an example: What we witness on an average day. We generally see between 20-50 pets being brought into our property, the Vaughan Mills parking lot, on an average day. That's what we witness when we have the Pet Patrol out there. This year alone we've had 30 incidents where we've actually discovered pets in vehicles and five of those we had to contact the York Regional Police. Fortunately, before a situation occurred where we had to enter the vehicle, or the police had to enter the vehicle for the safety of the pet, the owners did return. I'm not sure if any fines or charges were issued at that point, but that's what we've seen so far. And we've had roughly 20 days where we've engaged the Pet Patrol this year."

If the Pet Patrol were to find an animal in distress in a hot car, what are your legal obligations? Do you call the police and wait for them to break a car window?

"We don't actually have to (wait for police), because it is private property and we are allowed by law to breach a vehicle for safety concerns. So if we did encounter a pet in a vehicle and it was in obvious distress and panting quite a bit, looking like it was in discomfort, we will breach the vehicle before the emergency services or York Regional police arrive. Generally speaking, as soon as we find a pet in a vehicle — or a child, which does happen from time to time — the police are instantaneously contacted. And the response is usually pretty good, 5-10 minutes maximum. But if we're worried about the situation escalating and becoming dangerous we would take action before the police arrived."

Have there been any recent situations close to that take action phase?

"We have not, thankfully. Knock on wood."

Are people starting to get it? That you shouldn't leave your dog trapped in a hot car? Or are you still seeing this over and over?

"I'll be honest with you, at the beginning of the summer, it's almost like there's an amnesia factor that happens, people forget about the concerns, forget about the dangers. And then once the media gets ahold of it and reminders go out there seems to be a higher level of knowledge of the dangers of a pet inside a vehicle. By and large I don't feel I could comfortably say there's been a significant drop in occurrences and therefore an increase in peoples' knowledge or understanding of this issue. Maybe a little bit, but it hasn't been significant."

At Vaughan Mills do you have any resources for pets on site like place to tie up pets, water stations, that sort of thing?

"No, we've looked at a few options. Operationally and logistically it seems really difficult. So our comment is enjoy the day shopping, Vaughan Mills is fantastic, but please leave your pets at home. And should they bring them with them, then we try to encourage, make them aware of the dangers of having a pet left in a vehicle."

Watch this video experiment in a hot car by a veterinarian.

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.