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.
"I think it bodes really well for all of the animals in West Valley and Taylorsville that we've seen so much success so quickly," Gonce said, "and it can only get better from here."
Best Friends defines a no-kill shelter as any facility where at least 90 percent of the animals that go into the shelter leave there alive. The remaining 10 percent may not survive for a variety of reasons, including health problems or temperament concerns.
"It's a place where in no case is it necessary to put animals to sleep because they always find homes for them if they're healthy," Castle said.
There are 11 such shelters in Utah, and another 11 on the cusp of reaching that goal, he said.
"The public has started to demand that their agencies do this," Castle said. "There is without question a trend toward the agencies feeling more of an obligation to achieve (no-kill status)."
Andrea gets credit for getting the ball rolling in West Valley City. Her story shined a spotlight on the shelter and rattled the cages of animal welfare advocates throughout the valley.
Coombs was among the more vocal critics of the shelter in the aftermath of Andrea's ordeal. She spent two months nursing Andrea back to health, all the while wondering how many others animals had gone through something similar.
Through a public records request, Coombs obtained emails and a few written notes that indicated there had been problems with the gas chamber or its operation on at least nine occasions since the shelter's opening in September 2009.
An internal investigation by shelter officials in January concluded that the problems were caused by employee error, not equipment malfunction.
That explanation satisfied Coombs, and actions by city and shelter officials in the following months proved to her that West Valley City Animal Services was committed to shaking its stigma as an uncaring facility.
Those were difficult months for shelter and its employees, said Davis, operations director.
"I knew I had a dedicated and loving staff," he said, "and they were being ridiculed."
Shelter officials knew they were opening themselves up to criticism when they made Andrea's story public. It was the shelter who called the news media, not the other way around.
Despite the backlash, city and shelter officials say it was the right thing to do. After all she'd been through, Andrea deserved a home — and she got one.
Davis got a few things, too. His repeated requests for increased staffing at the shelter to hire an adoptions specialist was OK'd and has been in place since May.
In addition, West Valley City and Taylorsville jointly agreed to a $90,000, two-year contract with Best Friends to provide expertise and implement programs to increase adoptions and reduce euthanasia at the shelter.
"It helped us move in the direction we always wanted to go," Davis said. "It speeded up the process by about five years, probably."
"I think it's worked out well for the community," Coombs added. "Only good has come of it."
Today, Andrea continues to be a healthy, happy member of Karilyn Brown's family. She shows no signs of the trauma she went through nearly a year ago.
"It took her about three months to really adjust to everything," Brown said. "Now, she just wants love all the time. She started to purr; she never did that before. She's doing really good."
Brown also has been monitoring the progress made at the West Valley City animal shelter.
"It used to be a death sentence for (animals) there," she said.
Now, she speaks highly of the shelter and its employees. And she's proud of the role Andrea played in the turnaround.
"It brings me to tears when I see all the changes that have been made," Brown said. "It's amazing. I tell Andrea she's a hero."
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