When Julie Castle stopped by an animal sanctuary in Kanab back in 1992, she had no idea it would change her life.

Castle is the new CEO of the Best Friends Animal Society, which has become the largest and best-known no-kill animal group in the country. And she’s determined that Best Friends will lead the effort to end euthanizing shelter animals by the year 2025.

“I’m very confident,” Castle said. “It’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s definitely doable.”

The announcement Tuesday was cheered in the Utah animal community.

I think she has made an amazing difference not just for Best Friends, but for the state of Utah,” said Jamie Usry, development director at the Humane Society of Utah. “And for the whole country, with all of Best Friends’ partners. She’s just a great and passionate animal lover.”

Castle grew up in a family with pets — as many as a dozen dogs — but this is not what she thought she’d be doing with her life. The Southern Utah University graduate was headed for the University of Virginia law school when “one of my friends begged us to stop at the sanctuary. And none of us wanted to because we were tired and out of money.”

But her friend prevailed, “and I just fell in love with the place and the vision of the founders — the no-kill ethic. So I decided I wasn’t going to go to law school. Basically, I just sort of gave up everything and moved to Kanab.”

Castle was Employee No. 17 at the nonprofit, and she did whatever was needed, from animal care to answering the phones; from leading tours to installing sprinklers.

At the time, Best Friends was “really living hand-to-mouth. We were an $800,000 organization, and, literally, we were raising money by sitting out in front of grocery stores asking for donations. “

Today, Best Friends is a $130 million organization with locations in Kanab, Salt Lake City, New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles, with programs in “nearly every state. We blossomed into the leader of the no-kill movement.”

“It’s really one of those rags-to-riches stories,” Castle said. “I don’t think any of us really expected it to turn into this.”

The animal sanctuary in Kanab — which generally houses 1,600-1,700 animals — is only part of the effort. Castle opened the organization’s Salt Lake office in 2000 and served as executive director of No More Homeless Pets in Utah — a coalition of 166 rescue organizations, animal control agencies and veterinarians that has helped cut the number of euthanized pets in the state by more than half; 87 percent now survive. She also led the organization of NKLA (No Kill Los Angeles) and helped expand Best Friends’ partnerships to more than 2,200 organizations across the country.

Castle succeeds longtime CEO Gregory Castle — her husband — who was one of the co-founders of Best Friends back in the early 1980s.

It’s a monumental time for us because it really is a passing of the torch from a founder-based organization to a new generation,” she said. The co-founders “bought the land back in 1983, and they broke ground in 1984. And none of them knew how to build anything.

I joke around with them, like — if you had put a business plan together back then, people would have laughed at you because it was, ‘Hey, let’s go set up an animal sanctuary in one of the most remote parts of the world, and hope it works,’” she said with a laugh.

Castle is making a big push for No Kill 2025 — to end the euthanizing of healthy shelter pets in the next seven years.

“If anyone can do it, Julie Castle can do it,” said Usry. “It’s a hard goal, but we all thought back in 2012 that it would be impossible to make Utah a no-kill state by Jan. 1, 2019. But thanks to Julie and a lot of other people, we’re on track for that to happen.”

Best Friends is hosting a conference in Silicon Valley this month to bring together rescue organizations and tech firms — including Google and Facebook — in an effort to find answers.

Shelters are not required to report how many animals end up in the facilities and how many survive, so Best Friends went county by county around the country to compile that information. And the plan is to target the seven states that account for half of the pets euthanized in America: Texas, California, Alabama, North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida and Mississippi.

The thing is, we know how to do this,” Castle said. “It’s not like other causes where they’re still searching for a cure or an answer. … We know how to save lives and create change in the shelter system.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the first name of retiring Best Friends CEO Gregory Castle.