How many dogs are euthanized in shelters every year? It’s impossible to get a truly accurate count, even if you restrict yourself to the United States, and in a way, the question is meaningless. At a certain point, the numbers blur together and become abstractions. As an old truism says (often misattributed to Josef Stalin), “A single death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.”
Since 2011, Mark Barone and Marina Dervan have been engaged in an art project called An Act of Dog that strives to make the numbers less abstract and give them heft. They started with a statistic: that 5,500 dogs are euthanized in shelters every day, a total of about 2 million per year. (The source of An Act of Dog’s statistics is unknown, but they’re not far from those of the Humane Society, which estimates that three to four million dogs and cats are euthanized annually by shelters.)
To memorialize those lives, Barone has been painting the portraits of 5,500 dogs who have been euthanized in US shelters. So far, he’s painted over 4,000 portraits. That includes a special set of 19 paintings that depict dogs that were euthanized by Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary, a no-kill shelter in Delaware which closed in November. Although most of the dogs were given to other shelters or rescue groups, the 19 were put down because Safe Haven considered them “unsuitable for adoption.”
The goal is much more than one of representation. While the paintings themselves constitute a museum and a memorial, the organization does fundraising for no-kill shelters and other methods that they hope will keep dogs alive. Their goal is to amass $20 million. According to an interview with HLN, Barone and Dervan have already used their own retirement funds on making An Act of Dog a reality.
“The art will be here long after I’m gone,” Barone told HLN. “The dogs that were killed become part of the solution. Art speaks volumes. That’s why we had to do this.”
Although the numbers of dogs euthanized by shelters seem huge, it’s worthwhile to also remember how much they’ve declined in recent years. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that in the 1970s, shelters were euthanizing 12 to 20 million dogs and cats per year, and that Americans owned 67 million. Now, American homes have about 35 million pets, and the HSUS estimates that shelters euthanize 2.7 animals. That’s a huge change in a few decades, even if we still have a long way to go.
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