Death in a Hot Car

a summertime horror story


This is an absolutely tragic and dreadful story of the death in a hot car of three beloved dogs told first hand by the devestated author of that tragedy. This story was posted to me by the owner, in hopes of warning others. I have edited it a bit for clarity and added formatting and , " to protect the guilty", I have changed the dogs's names and omitted the owner's name and other identifying details.

Death in a Hot Car

It all began the first Monday in June when I went to a nearby library to send an email, as my computer was still boxed following relocation.

Pulling into the parking lot, the car came to rest close to a group of pine trees bordering the rear of the property. Though the temperature was already in the eighties and climbing, the AC was doing a heckuva job keeping us cool; "us" being Able, a female whose alpha-dog status remained unchallenged over the years; Baker, a diminutive mix breed who tugged on everybody's heartstrings, Girl, an affectionate sweetie, the most recent addition to the group; and me.

Unmarried, with two grown children, these "girls" were now my immediate family; as loving and expressive a furry threesomeanyone could ever hope to have.

With the car in parkand locked, I left with the engine running and the air conditioning going full blast, satisfied that my canine friends would nod off in the coolness of the automobile, awaiting my return; a routine that we had down pat for the past few summers.

About 45 minutes elapsed and I returned to the car to give my buddies a break. As they saw me approaching there was the customary barking and three tails awaggin’. Ten minutes later, having done their business in a field behind the library, and having quenched their thirst (always carry water), they happily returned to the polar-like conditions in the car.

Realizing the temperature was still climbing and the humidity already oppressive, I returned to the computer and cut the message short indicating that It was just too hot to leave the dogs unattended much longer, even though we’ve been through this scenario scores of times.

As I was preparing to leave and print some documents, I remembered I failed to send another email. Still seated, I was quickly going through my copy-paste-and-compose routine, when I was interrupted by a concerned stranger who asked, "Do you have dogs in your car?" I replied I did "but not to worry, its running and the AC is on."

Apparently satisfied, he left and I resumed typing.

Another fifteen minutes elapsed and with the second email on its way, I went to retrieve the documents from the printer. As I was gathering the material the same individual returned and said rather sternly, "Your car is NOT running!"

In a flash I was out the door and racing to the rear of the parking lot. A sense of foreboding took hold as I approached the vehicle. He was right. The engine was not running and there wasn’t any movement within; not one tail wagging, not a bark. As I unlocked the door, none of them were in their customary spots on the seats, front or rear. Instead, Girl was lying on top of Able; both fifty pounderscrammed on the floor between the driver's seat and the foot controls, while Baker was gruesomely contorted on the floor in the rear - all dead! 

Having spent the better part of my life with dozens of pets and large animals, it didn't take a vet school graduate to realize that I had perpetrated a terrible and irreversible tragedy upon those I loved and adored. Purple tongues and gums, glazed eyes and non-existent heartbeats told the whole story. Predictably, the direct mouth-to-mouth resuscitation I applied to each one proved futile. I literally loved my best friends to death. I drove out of the parking lot in a state of shock.

Mindful that an automobile as well as its air conditioning system are mechanical devices, I thought I had done right, having had the car serviced regularly and the AC recharged just weeks before in anticipation of the upcoming hot weather. Lulled into complacency by the success of our routine the previous summers, I failed to consider that any of the services (ignition included) could be disabled by an exuberant pet and didn't feel the urgency to check on their well-being every ten minutes or so.

(Pam's note : a mere ten minutes CAN be enough to heat a car to lethal levels !!!)

Although I've benefited from their unconditional love, un-abiding devotion and no-questions-asked-friendship, I failed to reciprocate responsibly. They certainly deserved a better fate. Even though my tears have dried, this calamitous memory will remain indelibly etched in my very being for the remainder of my life.

I have buried other friends who have succumbed to injury and illness. This threesome, however, was cremated together, just as they lived - romping and enjoying a lifestyle of freedom and camaraderie. They now occupy a spot at my bedside, which will serve as a daily reminder that loving anyone or anything requires a constant mindfulness that things can go wrong, and to take the proper precautions to avoid possible tragedies. Love and continuing displays of affection are simply not enough.

I've been told that I would be foolish to submit this confessionto the press, that I would be an easy target for a fine or sanctions by the appropriate authorities. And that I’d be the object of scorn and ridicule by animal lovers everywhere. I acknowledge these possibilities. But there could be no harsher punishment than living with the tortuous images of my loved ones seeking to escape the inferno in that automobile. To remain silent as to their fate would be a coward's way out.

As the heat of summer engulfs us, if this letter prevents just one pet, OR ONE CHILD, from suffering the same agonizing fate, then retelling this tragedy will have borne some fruit.

May God bless their souls and give me the strength to correct my inexcusable failings.


In the aftermath of every tragedy, we all seek answers in our quest to fathom the unfathomable. The next day I drove to my mechanic's shop in an effort to find out, How could it have happened? While seated behind the wheel, in response to my question, he simply pushed the AC button with his index finger. The air conditioning was now off; it was that simple. A black sedan, parked in the broiling sun, running and re-circulating the air within (the fan was still on), is a deadly combination. The dogs, limited in their ability to fight off the affects of super-heated air (they don't have the luxuryof perspiring), could not remain alive very long.

This doesn't explain why the car wasn't running. To sort things out, one has to know the nature of Able, the alpha-dog. Of the dozens of dogs that I’ve had over the years, she was from another canine planet; at the risk of being anthropomorphic, nearly human.

So bonded and determined to either locate or be with me, when left to her devices, her accomplishments have become topics of conversations. Tearing through screens, pushing open casement windows and then jumping off eight and twelve foot roofs (as witnessed by neighbors), or simply pushing aside a washing machine that was blocking a doorway was child's play for this 50 pound furry friend. Impossible was not part of her makeup.

Despite her alpha dog status, there was also a profound sensitivity about her. Nightly, she would groom the others. And over the years when I would have to lay to rest one of her playmates, while the remaining dogs would stop and briefly sniff the remains of a dog or cat (and one time a goat!), she posted a vigil the entire time I was digging the graves, intermittently whining, pawing and nudging them in an effort to illicit a response. She bonded to quadrupeds and bipeds with equal dedication. I cite these examples because her determination and brilliancewas not to be denied and likely played a significant role in their final moments.

It's probable that Girl disabled the AC, for she had a habit of lying on the front seat and extending her legs, which would have certainly brought her paws with reach of the AC control button. As the automobile began to heat up within, Able realizing that something was amiss, ripped the windshield wiper control lever from the steering column (it was broken off and laying on the floor). She did this so she could get at the key in the ignition switch. Why so? Over the years, Able was so conditioned that whenever we left the car, I would turn the key off, remove it from the ignition switch and the doors would open. That, and the fact that I always used the key to gain entry, indoctrinated her with associating the key with opening the car doors. There is little doubt that this is what happened for the key was ultimately found on the floor, between the passenger seat and the passenger door, far removed from the ignition switch!

Whether the AC was turned off or it simply wasn’t cooling the interior sufficiently, is immaterial. The engine was ultimately turned off. With the car no longer running and the interior getting hotter by the minute, exacerbated by the panic of the dogs within, it took only 25 minutes from the time they re-entered the cold car for them to succumb. Being able to reconstruct what probably occurred, however, doesn’t absolve me in any way of shirking my responsibility by not checking on them more frequently.

During the weeks following this tragedy, every time I activate the air conditioning, I relive that God-awful moment when I found their lifeless forms. Although I’ve always enjoyed the comfort of an air conditioned car, it’s now a bittersweet reminder of my feckless ways.

That bard from Scotland, Robert Burns, a far wiser man than me, put it best: The best-laid schemes of mice and men, Gang aft agley.Or in real world terms, had I been mindful of Murphy's Law which broadly states, Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, this epilogue and the tragic tale preceding it wouldn’t have seen the light of day. And Able, Baker and Girl would still be cavorting and loving unconditionally as they did for so many joy-filled years.

Though time will blunt the acute pain I'm dealing with, it will never erase my failings as their guardian, nor should it. If my loving threesome could have articulated what they were feeling in their final moments, it’s not unreasonable to assume that they could very well have been those found in the 22 Psalm... "Why hast thou forsaken [us]?...why art thou so far from helping [us], and from the words of [our] roaring, [we] cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not."

However the fatal scenario played out, it matters not. I beseech those who have loved ones - pets, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews - NOT to take a page out of my book of poor judgment and irresponsibility. If any readers, as a result of reading this tragic tale, were to alter any practices that put children and/or pets at risk, then the passing of Able, Baker and Girl, though catastrophic, would not have been completely in vain. I pray that this will be their legacy.



the reply I sent him :

I feel extremely sorry for you and I understand and appreciate the depths of your grief. I know that you will carry this with you for the rest of your life.

Knowing how much dogs adore going for rides, I am sure that yours would not have easily agreed to being left in the safety of your home, yet had they stayed home they would have remained alive.

It's ironic that if instead of trusting the air-conditioning, you had after parking in the shade left all four windows open (assuming either some kind of screen or window guard over the opening or else that the dogs were reliably trained to never every exit through the open window) and put a reflector shield on either front or back window (whichever the shade might move away from), your dogs would have been OK though a lot less comfortable than in an air conditioned house.

It's also a great pity that some busy-body like me did not happen to come along at the right moment to either open the door (if unlocked) or to break the damned windows.

It is incredibly hard to know that your mistake of judgement , your lack of awareness of the risks, however good your intentions, caused your dearly loved friends to die, and to do so with intense suffering.

I know this because I too once caused a dog to die, and to do so with some minutes of panic and suffering, by a moment of bad judgement. In a moment of bad judgement I left a dog in a situation in which it was possible for him to hang himself -- a potential I did not foresee though I should have done so -- and he hanged himself and died while I was inside the house on the phone trying to get an adoptive home for him. Good intentions and bad judgement. And enormous remorse.

I don't know what kind of answer you will find for yourself. Do try to remind yourself that it was a mistake, not any bad intention, that caused this tragedy. It was ignorance , not malice. Unfortunately the total of harm done in world by ignorance or error is greater than that done by malice : most people are not seriously malicious , but we all make mistakes and we all are ignorant in various areas.

Honor their memory, and do continue to share their story to warn others and thus prevent some of the similar tragedies that would otherwise occur. Somewhere along the way you have to find a way to live with yourself and forgive yourself. You know that these dogs would forgive you in the time it takes to wag their tails. When I was coming to terms with my own remorse and guilt, I often pictured myself being called into a Court of Judgement --- and I knew that my Defense Attorney would come forth and turn out to be the dog I had killed. That he would have forgiven me. Possibly a similar image would help you.

Possibly you could consider getting in contact with your local SPCA or some local dog Rescue groups and offer to be a foster home for dogs that they are trying to save. A foster home is the place where dogs who have been left on Death Row get re-born into a new life, often after a baptism with flea soap, and get a new name of hope, and learn how to live as happy and civilized housedogs. They live in the foster home until the right adopter comes along. I've been doing this for almost 20 years and I can tell you that it is very gratifying work.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 7/25/05 revised 8/7/05
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