Op-ed: ‘Code Blue’ needed for city’s backyard blizzard dogs


Every winter, like clockwork, animal protection organizations and elected officials are inundated with frantic pleas from people all over the five boroughs, desperate to get help for howling, suffering dogs left outside of homes day and night during snowstorms, freezing temperatures, and even as blizzards hit. These dogs aren’t strays, homeless or lost. They are instead purposely and cruelly being kept outside in backyards by their owners in all types of extreme weather — often all year long.

All too often, when concerned neighbors call 911 worried that dogs might die if not brought inside, there is little, if anything, the police can do by law to do to protect the imperiled souls from freezing to death. If you are shaking your head asking, “How can this be?” we are right there with you!

Guess what: In the greatest city in the world, it is perfectly legal to force man’s best friend to languish outside during a raging blizzard. As long as the dog is not visibly starving to death, and any kind of “shelter” is available, even if it is flimsy and unheated.

This is a citywide problem that needs to be addressed, and we have a simple solution. Antiquated, inadequate laws that allow merciless treatment of animals must be transformed in a city that calls itself progressive and compassionate. This is a Canine Code Blue situation and requires an appropriate response.

The recent snowstorm that dumped nearly a foot of snow across the city brought numerous emergency Code Blue cases of outdoor dogs that needed help, and most sadly did not get it. Both of our offices were flooded with messages from desperate residents alarmed that several dogs in a Bay Ridge backyard were kept outside while snowflakes and temperatures fell. Photos and calls to actions were posted all over social media – the phone number of the local precinct was posted instructing people to politely beg NYPD officers to go to the house and get the dogs inside.

Officers did respond to the scene, but were told by the dog’s owner that they were “hunting dogs” meant to stay outside year long. Officers noted that there were shelters in the backyard where the dogs were left outside. It took dozens of calls to the precinct and a New York City Councilmember getting personally involved to ensure that officers returned to the scene to convince the dog’s owners to bring them inside for the night.

However, according to the NYPD, it was done “on his own accord,” not necessarily because NYPD determined a law was being broken. This is just wrong. And had a Councilmember not personally made this request, we doubt the dogs would have been brought inside at all. This was not an isolated incident. The next day, people contacted our offices begging for help for the exact same kind of Code Blue dog situation in other parts of Brooklyn and Queens.In many of these cases, the dog owners say that their dogs are year-long “outdoor dogs,” meaning they are not allowed inside — even during blizzards and heatwaves. It is important to note that no dog should ever be kept outside in extreme weather — regardless of what justification their owner makes.

You’re probably wondering why there aren’t already laws on the books prohibiting dogs from being kept outside in the harsh elements all year long. The problem is that the laws that do exist are unclear and therefore hard to enforce. New York State Agriculture and Markets Law section 353-a and 363-b address cruelty to animals and “appropriate shelters for dogs left outside.” But what constitutes appropriate shelter? When cops show up to a house during a snowstorm and see flimsy shelters in a backyard, how can they know if it constitutes “appropriate shelter?” These life-or-death situations cannot be left up to interpretation and guesswork.

We don’t blame the NYPD for this — they’re being thrown into situations they are not equipped to handle. We blame needlessly vague and toothless laws. Only a handful of NYPD officers are part of the important NYPD Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad, the only unit with any formal training on animal cruelty laws.

Regular New York City cops are not trained in how to enforce these laws, and in fact, the animal cruelty laws are not even in the penal code — they are in the New York State Agriculture and Markets Law — which cops are not expected to learn or even know exist! So, this means that the overwhelming majority of the time, the NYPD officers responding to an animal cruelty call are not even aware of these laws or how to enforce them. This makes no sense!

Our proposal to solve this problem is to introduce legislation that mandates that any time there is a “Code Blue” for winter nights when the temperatures drop to 32 degrees or below, or a winter storm hits the city, and anytime there is a New York City heat advisory in effect — backyard dogs must be brought inside a home or be taken away.

As another winter is upon us, we cannot let more dogs suffer in the brutal cold and die. We must take steps to provide them with the mercy they deserve. They say the greatness of a society and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. It starts here. Let 2020 be the last year on record that the cruelty of dogs forced to endure treacherous weather conditions outside is allowed in New York City.

Justin Brannan is a New York City Councilman who represents the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and Bath Beach. Edita Birnkrant, is the executive director of New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets (NYCLASS).