South Carolina

SC woman whose dog died in hot car: ‘No one feels worse about it than me’

A Hilton Head Island woman who left her dog in her locked car for nearly four hours Tuesday had been transported to the hospital after falling outside a grocery store while she was intoxicated, according to a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office report.

The 55-year-old woman fell and hit her head outside the Bi-Lo at Center Circle around 7 a.m. Tuesday. Four hours later, her 12-year-old golden retriever was found locked inside her car, the report said. Sheriff's deputies had to use entry tools to get the dog out of the vehicle.

The dog was removed from the car around 11:20 a.m. and taken to Heritage Animal Hospital, where it later died, according to a Sheriff's Office news release.

When she fell and was taken to Hilton Head Hospital, she didn't tell anyone she had driven to the shopping center or had a dog in her car, the report said. The woman, Bonnie Hinnant, said Wednesday she was knocked unconscious from the fall and was unable to tell anyone about her dog, Maddie, being inside the car.

Hinnant said Wednesday she had recently lost her job and was struggling with severe depression and anxiety. Maddie was her only family, she said.

"No one feels worse about it than me," she said. "Maddie was all I had. I would never hurt an animal."

Hinnant said she awoke Tuesday in Hilton Head Hospital around noon to a deputy in her room, who told her that Maddie had died from the heat in the car. Hinnant was still hospitalized Wednesday afternoon, recovering from injuries like cuts to her face she suffered from the fall.

According to the report, Hinnant told deputies she had gone to Bi-Lo to purchase alcohol and a few other items after drinking "two handles" of alcohol the night before. Hinnant admitted to drinking before her fall, but said she had only gone to the store to purchase batteries.

She brought Maddie because the dog loved to go on rides in the car with her, she said. Hinnant was charged with animal cruelty, a misdemeanor in South Carolina. The charge can result in up to 30 days in jail and fines, Sheriff's Office Capt. Bob Bromage said.

The estimated temperature in Beaufort County when Maddie was pulled from the car Tuesday was 87 degrees, with a heat index at 91 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. At 90 degrees, the inside temperature of a car can heat up to almost 140 degrees, said Dr. Marikay Campbell, veterinarian at Port Royal Veterinary Hospital.

Campbell said dogs can feel the effects of heat inside a car within five minutes. As their body temperature rises, blood cells and body tissue begin to break down. As their internal temperature rises over 107 degrees, dogs can suffer permanent and potentially fatal brain and organ damage. They'll also go into shock from the heat.

"It's pretty brutal," Campbell said.

Pritchardville resident Tonia Voegele said Wednesday she called the Sheriff's Office after seeing the dog in the car when she entered and exited the Bi-Lo.

Voegele said the dog was pressed against a back window when she entered the store, making it seem as though it was breathing through a cracked window. When she returned and the dog had slumped down, she knew something was wrong.

Voegele said she never thought to smash the window to get the dog out. Now, she wishes she had called authorities once she first saw the dog.

"I feel like I didn't do anything," she said. "I wish I had called when I first pulled up."

Bromage said the situation was properly handled by the those who found the dog. He urged people who find animals locked in cars to call law enforcement before taking matters into their own hands, unless there is a clear emergency at hand.

Bromage said a person could be charged with vandalism for breaking a window to rescue a dog, depending on the circumstances of the incident. Factors like the necessity of breaking the window or if the dog were in distress would determine whether to charge a person.

Bromage said he did not know of any Good Samaritan laws that protect people from a lawsuit in those cases.

Hinnant's charge fell under Hilton Head's municipal code for animal cruelty, which is used if a dog is caused pain or suffering, Bromage said. In unincorporated Beaufort County, it is illegal to lock an animal in a vehicle.

Hinnant's friend Martha Kay said Hinnant had been extremely depressed since losing her job managing a local Hallmark store and had been drinking heavier recently. The two had met working at the store and stayed close; Kay said Hinnant was kind and caring to everyone she met and adored Maddie.

"Maddie was her whole world," Kay said. "This is just the worst thing in the whole world for her. She would not hurt a fly. I know she is devastated."