German shepherds that were being transported from Chicago to a training center for police dogs in Michigan City, Ind., died in the heat on Thursday after an air-conditioning unit that was being used to keep the animals cool failed, the local authorities said.
The Lake Station Police Department, which responded to a chaotic scene at a gas station off the interstate in Lake Station, Ind., did not specify in a statement issued on Friday how many dogs had been en route to the training center or how many had died. A local animal rescue organization in Hobart, about three miles south, estimated that 18 dogs had been in the vehicle and that at least eight of them had died during or after the episode.
The driver had been stuck in a traffic delay for two hours and had not been aware of the air-conditioner’s failure because the dogs were in a separate cargo area, the statement said. The driver was alerted to their distress when he heard some of the dogs barking.
The area near Hobart reached highs of at least 91 degrees on Thursday, according to the Chicago forecast office of the National Weather Service.
The Police Department said it responded to 911 calls after the driver of the vehicle stopped at a Road Ranger convenience store, and, seeing that the dogs were in distress, began to remove their crates.
Jennifer Webber, executive director of the Humane Society of Hobart, who went to the gas station to provide assistance on Thursday, said in an interview on Sunday that she was “heartbroken” by what she saw and by the conditions of the transport truck. She said that some of the dogs died from heat stroke while “seizing and convulsing” at the scene, and that other dogs appeared to have died in their crates, which had very small water bowls.
“It was something I’ve never experienced and hope I never do again,” she said, adding, “It’s not safe to travel with animals when temperatures are that high.”
Ms. Webber said that four of the dogs were dead or died at the scene and that at least four others had to be euthanized after being taken to an animal clinic, though the police did not confirm that account. She said that the gas station allowed for its convenience store to be used to cool some of the animals.
The Humane Society, which is a contractual partner of the Police Department, said in a statement on Friday that care and safety protocols had not been followed in transporting the dogs. The nonprofit said that it had recommended all of the animals be seized until “compliance was proved” by the owner, but that the request was denied by a sergeant at the scene.
Chief James Richardson of the Lake Station Police Department said in an email on Sunday that the department would not be issuing any further statements until an investigation was completed. The dogs are owned by a business that trains police dogs, he said, but they are not assigned to any specific police department yet. “Lake Station had no affiliation with the business,” he wrote.
In its statement issued on Friday, the Police Department called the episode a “freak event” and said it had determined that the deaths were not the result of “an act of animal cruelty or neglect but a mechanical failure” of the air-conditioning unit.
“The scene was chaotic and took an emotional toll on all that were involved in trying to save as many canines as possible,” the department said.
Ms. Webber said that around 60 people had been at the scene trying to help, but that care for the animals had been provided by people that lacked proper knowledge or experience.
“It shook our staff to the core, our community to the core,” she said. “We’re quite traumatized frankly.”