We need more people to adopt. We need people to volunteer and provide those foster homes that are so critical. We need to expand the message of spay and neuter and make sure that all of our neighbors understand why that is so important. —Arlyn Bradshaw, Salt Lake County Councilman

SALT LAKE CITY — A group gathered Sunday to put an end to the killing of animals in Utah shelters.

The Best Friends Animal Society and a coalition of 36 other animal welfare organizations in Utah, hope to make Utah a no-kill shelter state by 2019 through educating shelter employees, increasing the number of animal adoptions, and spaying and neutering animals — including feral cats — before releasing them.

Best Friends launched its No-Kill Utah campaign Sunday in front of a crowd of nearly 100 at The Leonardo, 209 E. 500 South.

To meet the no-kill criteria, shelters in the state must save a combined 90 percent of animals that come in. Currently, 23 of the state's 56 shelters are no-kill.

"We feel we're at the point where we're dealing with the high-hanging fruit," said Gregory Castle, chief executive officer of Best Friends Animal Society.

Roughly 10 percent of animals in no-kill shelters are euthanized for medical or behavioral reasons.

If successful, Utah would become the second state in the U.S. with a 90 percent pet survival rate, joining New Hampshire.

Pit bull mixes Mel and Baby Girl, and a cat named Spunky joined in the festivities Sunday, representing the animals whose lives could be saved through the initiative.

Mike Mower, deputy chief of staff for Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, said the No-Kill Utah initiative will be another area in which the state excels.

"On behalf of the state of Utah, on behalf of our 3 million residents, we want to speak out for all those whose voice consists of a woof, a bow-wow, a meow, a (hiss) or whatever it is the fox says and to reach out on behalf of all of those Utahns who don't have a human voice and to say, 'Thank you,'" Mower said.

Salt Lake County Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw said he adopted a pet from a rescue group 10 years ago. He encouraged more people in the community to get involved in saving shelter animals' lives.

"We need more people to adopt. We need people to volunteer and provide those foster homes that are so critical. We need to expand the message of spay and neuter and make sure that all of our neighbors understand why that is so important," Bradshaw said. "And of course we need money, so we need the community to donate."

After the ceremony, Ellie McMurrin, 9, was petting Mel. Ellie, who has two dogs at home, walked into the event with a plush puppy zipped up in her sweater — two other plush puppies stayed in the car — and wearing a chihuahua T-shirt underneath.

"She is a huge dog lover," said Tammy Hayes, Ellie's aunt and a volunteer for Best Friends Animal Society.

Ellie's eyes lit up as she and her aunt looked at black and white photos taken by photographer Sarah Ause Kichas. The exhibit features photos of animals that represent the mission of No Kill Utah, like Spunky the cat, who's available for adoption; labrador-collie mix Duke, who was adopted into a home where he's learning to overcome shyness; and Mini, a chihuahua, also adopted.

The exhibit will be on the third floor of The Leonardo through April 7.

Ellie's takeaway from the event?

"Saving animals is important," she said.

Utah is one of 23 states with animal shelters that save up to 90 percent of shelter animals. Salt Lake County Animal Services and West Valley City Animal Services are among the no-kill facilities.

Best Friends is partnering with other shelters and facilities to help the initiative grow. The animal society will also consult with shelters in Utah that are trying to become no-kill.

"It's important for a number of reasons. The most obvious for animal lovers is the humanity of it. The fact that healthy animals are dying in shelters simply because they can't be found a home is tragic and very inhumane," Castle said.

"But it's also important because it saves the public money, believe it or not. It costs money to have these stray animals come into shelters, to shelter them for a while, and … it even costs money to kill them, if that's the end result," he said.

No-Kill Utah is modeled after the No-Kill Los Angeles initiative that began in 2012. The city is on track to be no-kill by 2017.

The initiative is a new iteration of the No More Homeless Pets Coalition, created in 2000. Since that time, Utah shelters have decreased the number of animals killed annually to 18,000 from 46,000. In 2013, the pet save rate in Utah was 70 percent. January saw a jump to 77 percent, with 90 percent of dogs saved.

Estimates of animals killed per year in the United States range from 3 million to 4 million. The wide range is in part because of differences in reporting methods.

A few organizations, including Asilomar Accords and the Best Friends Animal Society, are working to streamline efforts to measure the save rates of animals and set specific standards that define which animals are adoptable.

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