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Help! Time running out for captives

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In the back of the building, in the last row of cells, the inmates are waiting for a stay of execution.

The cells are noisy with all types of them clamoring for a visitor's attention — tall, short, black, white, yellow. They pace the concrete floor, nervous and confused. One minute they were running free, the next minute they were stuck in this 4-by-4-foot cage.

Their only crime is this: Nobody wants them.

The dogs at Sandy Animal Control — most of them healthy, beautiful animals — leave this place in one of two ways: adopted or dead. They have five to 10 days for someone to claim them before their time is up and they are put to sleep, permanently. Just a quick injection of pentobarbital, and it's over. Then they are incinerated.

It is a regular part of his job, but an animal control officer named Wayne says, "It doesn't get any easier." If the dogs are healthy and have good personalities — translation: adoptable — the officers tend to let the dogs stay longer. "We've got a German shorthair we've had two or three weeks," Wayne says.

So many dogs, so few homes.

It's like this in shelters all over America, where euthanasia is widely accepted, even as repulsive as most people find it. Some think it doesn't have to be that way. There's an organization called No More Homeless Pets in Utah that has undertaken an ambitious project — to rid the state of euthanasia by 2005.

In 1999, Utah became the first state to undertake such a statewide project and qualify for a large grant from a San Francisco-based organization called Maddie's Fund, which provides millions of dollars for groups assisting unwanted pets. In the four years since then, Utah has reduced the number of euthanized dogs and cats by 11 percent and increased adoption by 31 percent.

"It's made a difference," No More Homeless Pets spokeswoman Temma Martin says. "That's why this is so exciting."

But the people at her organization need your help. They can't do it alone. If people don't adopt grown dogs and cats instead of buying puppies, if they don't spay and neuter their animals, it's an uphill battle no one can win. In 2001, the last year statistics are available, Salt Lake County Animal Shelter took in 12,222 dogs and cats — and destroyed 6,729 of them.

"Nearly 2,000 of them were kittens," Martin says. "People think kittens always get adopted, but 1,507 of them were euthanized."

There are 56 shelters in Utah that collect unwanted dogs and cats. There are about 24 rescue groups in Utah that rescue as many animals as they can handle from the shelters and keep them until they are adopted, even if that is never.

No More Homeless Pets in Utah promotes and provides help for spay/neuter programs, organizes adoption events and runs what is essentially a showroom floor called Furburbia in the Cottonwood Mall in which animals from various rescue groups from around the state are showcased for the public to shop and adopt.

Petsmart and Petco, two pet stores that sell pet supplies but not puppies and kittens, also provide floor space each weekend in which to showcase animals from the rescue groups. The group's Web site www.utahpets.org provides pictures and information on pets up for adoption.

The problem is that people tend to prefer puppies, which means buying from pet stores, which in turn buy from infamous "puppy mills" that mass produce the animals with little care for genetic problems in breeding stock that later manifest themselves in poor health. Then there are the private breeders. On a given day, there can be more than 100 ads in the Deseret News for litters of puppies up for sale.

"If you adopt, you're voting against euthanasia and pet overpopulation," Martin says.

Martin points out that "adoption is not enough. No matter how hard we work, the only way this will succeed is if people spay or neuter their pets."

If you're in the market for a pet, they're waiting for you down on death row at the local animal shelter.

Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesdays. E-mail drob@desnews.com.