Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary stood for a no-kill ethic in animal care. But since it euthanized 19 dogs just before it closed in mid-November because of financial problems, its plight and that of the dogs have become a national rallying cry.

A Kentucky artist who has undertaken a project to paint portraits of 5,500 dogs put down at American shelters has memorialized the “Safe Haven 19” and plans to include them in a museum exhibit intended to provoke questions about shelters that euthanize.

“We all saw the story” of Safe Haven, said Marina Dervan, of Louisville, Ky., whose partner, Mark Barone, is painting the portraits. “In a no-kill shelter, it’s hard to imagine what on earth went wrong there.”

Safe Haven had been scheduled to close at the end of November, but on Nov. 14, it announced on Facebook that it was closing and “remaining dogs on-site were transported to shelters and rescue groups where they can be made available for adoption.”

It also said that some dogs under its care were “unsuitable for adoption” and were “humanely euthanized.”

Dervan and Barone are founders of An Act of Dog, the nonprofit effort to paint the 5,500 portraits – as many animals as are euthanized in shelters around the country each day, they say.

Their passion was sparked by the death of a dog Barone had for 21 years. While searching for another dog to adopt, they concluded that animal shelters willing to euthanize animals because of overcrowding or aggressiveness were “broken,” Dervan said.

That’s a disputed point in the animal-care world. Some major organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, don’t subscribe to no-kill principles, saying they don’t account for some dogs’ temperament, especially after long kennel stays.

Keeping animals in kennels for months or years at a time, they say, can lead to ‘shelter shock’ – dogs so antisocial they can’t be safely adopted. Pit bulls, especially, have a reputation for turning dangerous in kennels, and it’s hotly contested whether they’re genetically predisposed to do so.

That’s the condition the Safe Haven 19 were in, according to statements made by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – which sent staff to help Safe Haven in its final weeks – and the Delaware Division of Public Health after the shelter’s closing.

Emily Knearl, a DPH spokeswoman, said in November that most of Safe Haven’s dogs “had been in captivity for an extended period of time, some over a year, with little-to-no enrichment or behavioral intervention.”

The dogs that were put down, Knearl said, “had documented aggressive behaviors that posed a risk to shelter staff, other animals or both.”

Dervan said she and Barone reviewed the profiles of the 19 dogs on Safe Haven’s website, which included descriptions of their temperament. Many were pit bulls; others were mixes of pit and different breeds.

None of the profiles, Dervan said, indicated the dogs were dangerous; many described them as “laid-back” or promised a dog “would do well with older children.”

“Nineteen dogs went from one description to completely the opposite,” Dervan said. “There was something not in the open about how that got handled. We’re not involved in the politics, but we’re using the art for social change.”

Barone took three days to paint the 19 dogs, based on photos sent to him by former Safe Haven staff and volunteers. He has painted around 4,000 dogs in all and expects to reach his goal of 5,500 by next summer or fall.

Board members in charge of Safe Haven when it closed have stayed quiet, aside from issuing a brief statement acknowledging some dogs were euthanized.

Diane Meier, a board member who resigned in mid-2012 to protest what she saw as insufficient efforts to adopt dogs out, said she doesn’t trust the temperament tests, performed with the ASPCA’s help, that painted the dogs as antisocial.

An ASPCA spokeswoman, Emily Schneider, has noted the group helped Safe Haven adopt out 86 dogs and said the organization conducted behavioral tests at Safe Haven that categorized the 19 as having “severe behavior issues.”

“People who had seen the dogs recently vouch that that’s not true,” Meier said. “It is a bald-faced lie to say they were severely aggressive.”

Barone’s decision to memorialize the Safe Haven 19 gave solace to many disillusioned Safe Haven supporters, who had held candlelight vigils for the dogs in Lewes and Wilmington.

“Aside from whether it changes anything, for the volunteers who are so devastated, this is part of the healing process for them,” Meier said. “It’s like, wow, these dogs mattered.”

Before it collapsed and closed, Safe Haven had won a contract to provide dog-control services for Kent County. A Kent County Levy Court hearing this summer, held shortly after the contract began, first publicly exposed how quickly the shelter’s costs were outpacing its revenues, and when the Court canceled the contract, it hastened Safe Haven’s demise.

Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, who represents the district that includes Safe Haven, said in an interview that he is concerned about how the shelter’s board managed it into ruin. If questions still linger about how the shelter was run by the time the Legislature reconvenes in January, Smyk said he’ll ask the state House of Representatives Agriculture Committee to hold a hearing.

“They failed almost immediately. What I’m concerned with is what went bad in the management of this so we don’t repeat the same mistakes,” Smyk said Wednesday. “If something isn’t resolved by the start of the legislative session, there’s a very strong possibility that this will be looked into.”