It's a sweet existence for Gilbert, Lamb Chop, Secret Squirrel, Little and Goo — all dogs adopted by Sally and Chris Mars.

The canine quintet has the run of a red two-story house in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis ("when your name is Mars, you have to paint your house red," said Chris). Their lives today are a far cry from what had appeared to be their destiny. All of them were plucked from misery — abused, neglected, abandoned, hoarded or overbred in a puppy mill.

"He's the reason we have five dogs," said Sally, 55, gesturing to her husband.

"I'm not built to foster," admitted Chris, 58. "I get too attached."

After years of volunteering with animal rescue organizations, the couple founded their own last February. Mutt Mutt Engine began with the goal of helping one dog a month. Their project quickly exceeded their dreams. By September, the fledgling nonprofit had helped 55 dogs escape desperate fates.

Mutt Mutt Engine benefits from the talents and notoriety of its creators. Sally is an accomplished photographer and television commercial producer. Chris has earned international renown as a painter; his first career making art was as drummer in the Replacements, the legendary Minneapolis rock band.

Chris combined his talents to produce a Mutt Mutt Engine jingle and video on his Facebook page. More than a million viewers have tuned into his animation, which promotes the dog rescue with an original earworm-inducing ditty. It features Mars' singing, playing and drawing, with an irresistibly rendered scruffy pooch in bib overalls boogieing with other dogs that fly through clouds and land in new homes.

"What we're doing with Mutt Mutt Engine is a small piece in the bigger rescue community," Sally Mars said. "We manage the moving parts for many people working hard for positive outcomes. That's our niche."

'A unique miracle'

Mutt Mutt Engine has become a crucial link in a chain that brings dogs to adoptive homes.

Sally has built connections with small rescue organizations in Mexico and elsewhere that help dogs without owners. She uses social media and her personal network to find travelers who will escort those dogs to partner rescue and foster groups across the U.S. Travel costs are underwritten by Mutt Mutt Engine and its donors.

Sally manages complex logistics to coordinate transport for animals and ensure that they arrive at an airport with proper documents and vaccinations — and have passed temperament testing to prove they will be ready to bond with new owners.

"Mutt Mutt Engine is a unique miracle. I want to send Sally water so she can turn it into wine," said Elaine Seamans, who founded the At-Choo Foundation, which arranges medical care and short-term foster families for street dogs from Tijuana, Mexico, to prepare them for permanent homes.

"When we meet them, these dogs are dirty and matted, or anemic, with skin ulcers and crusty eyes. You can see their pain. They need time and adjustment but when we take them to the airport, they are ready to be good family pets. They are so incredibly grateful," Seamans added. "Mutt Mutt Engine expands our reach and makes the world bigger."

Andrea Grigg has volunteered to escort several dogs for Mutt Mutt Engine, mostly from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. A dog lover and weekly business traveler thanks to her career in hotel asset management, Grigg has found it an easy way to help.

"An animal doesn't have a voice or a way to change its fate. Only humans can do that. It's the best feeling, knowing you are impacting a little life while you are traveling from point A to point B," Grigg said.

Mutt Mutt Engine's mission extends to supporting small rescue startups in far-flung places, where the concept of responsible pet ownership is often new.

"People ask, aren't there local dogs who need help?" Sally said. "Minnesota has a culture of rescue; there are not many strays and there's lots of infrastructure to take care of them. [Minnesotans] bring dogs here from other places, rescuing a lot of them from the South. We just moved the border."

'Love lottery'

Married 31 years, the Marses met on a blind date in 1987, shortly after Sally impulsively moved to Minneapolis to work at the Electric Fetus record store. When her only local acquaintance heard that Sally had a fine arts degree, she offered to set her up with a guy who was a painter, not mentioning that he was in a band.

"As soon as I saw him, I knew who he was," Sally said. "But then, and now, Chris' musical fame is the least interesting thing about him."

On the their first date, their fix-up friend joined them for a movie at the since-demolished Cooper Theater, sitting between Sally and Chris and holding the popcorn that the trio shared.

"We both stuck our hands in the bucket at the same time and our hands touched. My stomach flipped over and that was that," Sally said. "We've been together ever since."

Sally grew up "all over," attending 12 schools in as many years. Her father worked for Red Lobster, opening restaurants around the country. The one constant in her life was Inky, a medium-sized mutt of uncertain heritage.

"He was truly my best friend. I still think about him."

Chris grew up in a Minneapolis home with "too many kids to have dogs, too." The youngest of seven, he started banging on pots and pans as a toddler and got his first Sears drum kit at age 10.

When he dropped out of Minneapolis Central High School after 11th grade, he was making music and working odd jobs. He fell in with the Replacements, and recorded and toured with the band for a decade. He played on only a few songs on the Replacements' final album in 1990 and exited while the band was still on the road. He subsequently released several solo albums. While he continues to write and record, he has not joined recent reunion shows with his old bandmates.

The self-taught drummer has since become an acclaimed self-taught painter, with his surrealistic pop artwork hanging in prestigious galleries, a few museums and the homes of collectors who pay up to $60,000 for one of his originals.

"I just say we're self-employed. Since we both work out of the house, we can drop everything some days to do the dog stuff," said Chris.

Both suggest that this is the right time of their lives to build their nonprofit together. They have the time, the means and the affection to spare.

"I had a weird, unconventional, lonely life growing up but a waterfall of good fortune came to me," Sally said. "I met the best person in the world and have the wild love of good dogs. I won the love lottery."

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.