Artist sheds light on pet overpopulation with 5,500 paintings of doomed shelter dogs

Kentucky-based artist and animal advocate Mark Barone is on a very important mission, and his paintings are literally a matter of life and death.

According to the An Act of Dog website, this represents 4 percent of the 5,500 planned paintings. (Photo credit: AnActOfDog.org)

When his beloved dog Santina passed away at the ripe old age of 21 years, he thought about adopting another pet from a local shelter. But Barone soon realized he’d like to do more than add another rescue dog to the family — he wanted to help shelter dogs everywhere. Barone’s partner, animal welfare advocate Marina Dervan, tells Dogs Today that Barone was hesitant at first to learn about the plight of shelter dogs because he feared what grim news he’d hear.

“That’s why it’s going on!” she remembers telling her partner. “Because people don’t want to see. But we need to be a voice for the dogs and focus on a solution.”

“I’d come home after work, tired, and Marina would be sitting there at the kitchen table, crying about the videos she saw that day,” Barone told The Louisville Cardinal in November 2012. “So finally we started talking about it and what we could do. The next day I told her to find me the number of how many dogs are killed in the United States each day.”

The final tally — a whopping 5,500 dogs. Shocked by the sheer number of adoptable dogs euthanized in shelters every year due to issues like pet overpopulation and facility overcrowding, Barone and Dervan decided they wanted to do their part to change what they realized was a broken system long in need of repair.

Together, Barone and Dervan decided to establish a project they call An Act of Dog, a large-scale art and advocacy project that aims to spread awareness, initiate social change, and urge shelters to adopt what they describe as an 11-step “no-kill” model in order to save as many homeless animals as possible. As part of the project, Barone plans to create paintings of 5,500 dogs, dogs who for one reason or another ended up in the shelter system and were ultimately euthanized. The collection in its entirety — 5,500 paintings — would represent the number of dogs who lose their lives each day.

“When we first started, an organization called Dogs in Danger would post the upcoming kill dates for dogs at the shelter,” Dervan tells ABC News. “The ones that didn’t make it would go in to their memorial and we would paint them.”

Many of the dogs Barone and Dervan learn of before immortalizing them on canvas are nameless, only identified by a long string of numbers given to them at whatever pound or shelter was their final home. While Barone ensures the faces of these dogs will be remembered, Dervan makes sure to give each one a name of their own, an identity.

A brown and white dog named Breeze is depicted in one poignant painting, her face solemn, her eyes cast downward, looking away from the viewer.

“Breeze was killed because she was shy and frail,” Dervan explains, remembering the sad story of the dog behind Barone’s emotional piece.

She tells Dogs Today about Oreo, another dog who lost her life just as she was getting it back again.

“Oreo was thrown from a six-floor apartment building in Brooklyn by her owner and rescued and physically rehabilitated,” says Dervan. “She had two broken front legs and a fractured rib. She made a full recovery, yet was considered aggressive and destroyed, despite the public protests and the experienced rescues who had committed to taking her into their sanctuary and rehabilitating her.”

The final photographs of Oreo, the ones Barone used to create her painting, show the doomed shelter dog acting far from aggressive.

“Pictures of her with shelter staff, just prior to her death, show her rolling around on the floor with them, belly exposed, passive and playful,” Dervan remembers.

At almost two years into the An Act of Dog project, Barone has completed 3,500 paintings, with 2,000 more to go to reach his initial goal of 5,500. He and Dervan hope to establish a permanent nonprofit museum to house the completed paintings, a place where visitors can learn about the pet overpopulation problem and get inspired to be a part of the solution. They are looking for a city or a philanthropist willing to take on their unique and important vision.

The pair also plan to raise $20 million dollars to help aid in the creation of no-kill shelters, rescue organizations, spay and neuter programs, dog rehabilitation groups, and marketing campaigns aimed at saving homeless animals.

“We are trying to raise awareness and spread education on the topic,” Dervan explains.

Meanwhile, Barone is currently hard at work in his studio, creating new paintings, memorializing more dogs lost to the system. According to a September 2 Facebook post, Barone is working on a very special painting of a dog who lost his life last summer due to Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) overseas, a dog who’s face and name everyone will be sure to recognize.

Lennox, the dog destroyed at the orders of Belfast officals in July 2012 because he looked like a Pit Bull Terrier — a breed that is banned in the Irish city — is Barone’s latest muse. Despite a worldwide campaign launched by Lennox’s family and other passionate animal advocates who’d hoped his life would be spared, poor Lennox lost his life. But Barone and Dervan hope his painting will inspire change on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Mark is in the middle of painting ‘Lennox,’” the post reveals, “who will help lead the way for eradication of this most heinous law.”

To learn more about Mark Barone, Marina Dervan, and An Act of Dog, or to make a donation in support of the An Act of Dog mission, check out the project’s website. You can also visit the project’s Facebook or Twitter feed for updates.

Sources: Dogs Today, The Louisville Cardinal, ABC News, An Act of Dog