MILLVILLE — All Cristal Perez thought she was doing was helping a small dog that she felt was suffering while it was left inside a car at the Longhorn Steakhouse last week.
But Perez said the comments she made to the dog’s owners about the situation Aug. 11 resulted in her being fired as a waitress at the restaurant where she has worked since May 2014.
The dog’s owners were a couple she was serving, and Perez said they complained to management about her comments. The Mays Landing resident said she immediately received a four-day suspension and was fired when she returned to work Sunday for violating restaurant policy about giving customers a good dining experience.
Perez, 23, said she wasn’t the only person concerned about the dog. She said she overheard two other customers call city police about the animal, which she could only describe as cute, small, brown, black and white.
Perez said she told the couple that leaving the dog in the car was “wrong” and that she told the woman “she was lucky to be leaving before the cops came.”
Longhorn communications manager Hunter Robinson said the animal in question was a special-needs dog that was left in the car with the air conditioning on.
“The dog was never in any danger,” Robinson said. “The police never came.”
The company wants all its customers to be treated respectfully, and company employees who notice anything that they believe to be illegal or unethical should report it to a manager, who will then address the issue, he said.
Perez said the dog’s owners said they had left their car and its air conditioning system running while they dined, which took about an hour, but she said she was nonetheless worried about the animal.
“He was pretty active,” said Perez, who formerly lived in Vineland. “He was panting pretty heavily. It looked like he was having an anxiety attack.”
The National Weather Service reported the high temperature in the city on Aug. 11 as 84 degrees, with the heat index making it feel like 90 degrees. Information on the website for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals states that the temperature inside a parked car can soar to between 100 degrees and 120 degrees “in just minutes” on a 78-degree day.
PETA is condemning Perez’s firing.
“In any situation that has a compassionate citizen doing something to help an animal, most people would be rewarded and not get a pink slip,” said PETA Outreach Coordinator Dan Carron. “Those people should be looked at as heroes and not lose their jobs.”
Carron said he understands the need for restaurants and other establishments to have rules to ensure a good customer experience.
“But where do you draw the line when an animal is in danger?” he said. “The rulebook goes out the window.”
Carron said there are no accurate statistics about how many dogs are left, or do die, in hot cars, because so many incidents go unreported. That’s beginning to change as people increasingly use social media to document those incidents, he said.
Perez isn’t the only employee to be fired because of incidents involving dogs left in cars on hot days.
One incident that drew international attention occurred at a Walmart in Kemptville, Ontario, Canada, in July 2013. Store pharmacy technician Carla Cheney was fired after confronting a customer about leaving his dog inside his car on a hot day and then reporting the incident to police. The incident occurred before Chaney started her work shift.
Officials with Walmart Canada said Cheney violated company regulations about how to deal with pets in danger.
As to the incident at Longhorn Steakhouse, Perez said she acknowledged to management that she probably made the couple feel uneasy.
“I would have apologized, but I’m not sorry,” she said.
Perez said there is a bit of irony.
“I don’t even like dogs that much,” she said.