Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
WEST VALLEY CITY — It all started with Andrea, the black, long-haired cat that refused to die.
On Oct. 13, 2011, Andrea survived two cycles inside the carbon monoxide gas chamber at the West Valley City animal shelter. Thought to be dead after the second gassing, she was placed in a plastic bag and inside the shelter's cooler.
About 30 minutes later, an employee heard meowing coming from inside the refrigerated room.
In the months that followed, the cat's cries were joined by rumblings in the community about possible problems with the gas chamber and concerns about the shelter's euthanasia practices.
Today, those same voices are praising West Valley City Animal Services for listening to their concerns, taking them seriously and making a commitment to increase adoptions and reduce euthanasia at the shelter.
"I think Andrea was the catalyst for change," said Janita Coombs, director of the nonprofit Community Animal Welfare Society.
Support from the city councils of the two municipalities the shelter serves, West Valley City and Taylorsville, and assistance from Best Friends Animal Society have sparked what animal welfare groups are calling "remarkable" improvements in just a few months.
Save rates for dogs and cats since June have improved 73.5 percent from a year ago, according to Best Friends. That means 73.5 percent more animals are leaving the shelter alive, either through adoption or West Valley City Animal Services' trap, neuter and return program for feral cats.
"That's pretty remarkable," said Gregory Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society (formerly No More Homeless Pets in Utah). "Even when you have quite a lot of people working on it, it's pretty unusual that you get that speed of success."
Since partnering with Best Friends on June 5, West Valley City Animal Services has conducted a pair of adoption promotions that have exceeded expectations. The shelter's Kitty Palooza in June and July found homes for 62 kittens. That was followed up by a $5 Felines program sent more than 100 vaccinated and spayed or neutered cats home with new owners.
Other ongoing adoption events include the Seniors for Seniors program, which pairs pets ages 6 and older with senior citizen owners at no cost, and a $50 adoption deal for pit bulls.
On Saturday, West Valley City Animal Services took another step toward increasing adoptions by opening its doors on weekends. The shelter at 4522 W. 3500 South is now open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays, in addition to the 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday schedule.
"Extending our hours provides additional opportunities to those who may not be able to visit the animal shelter during the week," said Kelly Davis, shelter operations director. "Connecting adoptable animals to potential forever homes during these extended hours is an important step to reaching our no-kill goal."
Shelter officials also quickly embraced Best Friends' trap, neuter and return program for feral cats — or, as the nonprofit group prefers to call them, community cats. Through the program, community cats are picked up by animal control officers or residents, brought into the shelter to be vaccinated and spayed or neutered, and then returned in the areas they were found.
"These cats are living in these neighborhoods," said Anna Gonce, executive director of Best Friends Animal Society. "The best thing we can do for them is get them spayed and neutered, vaccinate them so they remain healthy and then allow them to keep living their lives where they were."
Gonce said West Valley City Animal Services is well on its way to achieving no-kill status — a commitment made by both the West Valley and Taylorsville city councils.
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