By Renee DiNino / Photography by Todd Fairchild
Sherry DeGenova and Susan Levy met at a Tea Dance on a Saturday night in July 2007, at a bar in Ogunquit, Maine called Mainestreet. Neither was looking for a relationship; it just happened.
As Levy puts it, “I was on the dance floor and caught her looking at me. After several glances, I waved her over and she said, ‘You have the best smile I’ve ever seen,’ and then we danced.”
There was one more test to pass: DeGenova had her partner in crime with her, Pizon, a golden retriever mix, who went everywhere with her. After the Tea Dance, Levy met Pizon, who approved – in fact, DeGenova recalls, “I’ve never seen him take to someone so fast.”
After three consecutive days together, a relationship was born, and pets were soon to follow! Levy had two cats, Peanut and Boo. DeGenova came with Pizon as well as two cats, Chablis and Finny. Levy was in the military and stationed in Maine, then Washington, D.C., and DeGenova had her dream job as animal control officer with the City of Hartford Police Department.
After a two-year, long-distance relationship – including a gift of Batali, a rescue shepherd/lab mix, from DeGenova to Levy, they were finally able to unite households in 2009. Levy was able to transfer her station to Connecticut, where she achieved the title of chief petty officer.
Once the household was fully combined, there were tears of sorrow at the passing of fur babies over the Rainbow Bridge and tears of joy for the new additions – all rescues. They had dogs Pizon and Batali, along with Lola, a white pit bull who came from the streets of Hartford. They also had cats Finny, Boo, Malado and Lily.
The couple has a dedicated room for fostering cats and kittens in need, which has led to the adoption Ziggy and Gilligan.
“Sherry has the biggest heart,” says Levy. “Her passion for animals is beyond reproach and she makes me laugh until I pee.”
Their relationship was public to select friends and family but remained largely private because of Levy’s military career. Passion is what drives both women in their personal and professional lives.
Levy is now a retired chief petty officer, having served with the U.S. Coast Guard for 27 years. Her career serving our country led her from drill sergeant to recruiter, from sea marshall to head chef for the secretary for Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.
Levy is the owner and founder of David James Catering – named after her brother David, who died at the age of 32 from complications of AIDS, and her father James, who passed of heart disease at the age of 66. Her business caters to a wide range of clientele, running everything from small parties to large corporate affairs, weddings and more. David James Catering has also donated services to many animal-related causes, including the “Bark Twain Bash…It’s the Cat’s Meow” at the Mark Twain House to benefit Kenway’s Cause animal rescue.
She was inspired to take on her catering full time because of the discrimination she felt from her beloved service with the Coast Guard. She actually wanted to continue her service to our country but, due to the current administration and pressure, she decided it was best to retire.
“In my opinion, it was because I was a strong woman who stood my ground,” she says. “Sherry and I had to keep our relationship a secret because of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ This lasted three years. My shipmates thought I was dating someone named Steve who could never make it to any functions.”
DeGenova’s career as an animal control officer came about from years of unintended animal advocacy and work. Raised with her two siblings in Stratford, she often found herself rescuing neighborhood animals, from stray dogs to injured birds.
“My dream was to be an animal control officer for an inner city and have my own rescue,” she says. “This has always been my childhood dream.”
She began her journey in 1997 as the animal control officer in Stamford, then took the opportunity in Hartford in 1999. She soon discovered this was not merely a job, but her life’s passion.
In June 2011, Sherry DeGenova received a call regarding a dog found along some railroad tracks. When she arrived at the scene, she noticed a black plastic garbage bag saturated from the puddle that surrounded it. While she was approaching the garbage bag, it suddenly moved, and when she opened the bag, she was instantly brought to her knees – a nearly lifeless, abused, neglected, emaciated and innocent soul was found clinging to life. A gentle soul thrown out like garbage and left for dead.
Their eyes made a connection and she knew he was pleading for her help. She immediately scooped Kenway up and drove to the vet as fast as humanly possible. The pup was placed on intravenous fluids, body warmers and all of the necessary medical assistance to facilitate his recovery. Sadly, he didn’t make it.
Unfortunately, this type of abuse is seen way too often and, in many instances, these poor innocent souls don’t stand a chance at survival.
In the dog’s honor, she named him Kenway, which means “brave warrior.” She knew Kenway had fought very hard to live; the condition he was found in showed he fought every day. He was an adult dog that resembled the size of a puppy. His breed was almost unrecognizable but he was a pit bull mix.
Thus, Kenway’s Cause was born, and is led by DeGenova. The organization supports adoptive families as well as rescue organizations should a dog that is adopted from the Hartford shelter have pre-existing medical conditions or even behavior issues. The goal is to provide relief to help with treatment or rehabilitation. Donations to Kenway’s Cause, a 501c3 nonprofit, also help provide medical care for dogs that need immediate treatment while in the shelter or would otherwise be euthanized.
DeGenova is supported by her peers behind the badge at Hartford PD, many of whom adopted from the shelter. Over the years, she has been able to show the great relationship among the city shelter, Kenway’s Cause, and the community. She says the police department also supports her relationship with Levy.
“I still have the same passion I had 20 years ago – in fact, I feel my voice is stronger today,” DeGenova says. “Typically, the average burnout time for an animal control officer is five years.”
Her commitment to her work is a strong as her commitment to Levy. “I love the way we laugh and how she accepts that sometimes I bring my work home, in the form of new pets,” DeGenova says. “She’s always there to support me and my animal rescue.”
After President Barack Obama abolished the policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the couple was free to enjoy a healthy and public relationship. And a beautiful wedding was soon in the works! They were married on July 25, 2015 in Provincetown, Mass. – beachside, with all of their pets as part of the bridal party, along with family and friends, shipmates, and fellow animal advocates. In honor of their beloved Pizon, who passed before the wedding date, each guest was given a bottle of homemade “Pizon Red Wine.”
The women say pets, and the unconditional love they give, are the best things in life.
And the current dog count at the time of this article? There’s Donovan, a recent Rottweiler-mix rescue from Hartford who was abused and injured from a car accident with a bum leg (but don’t tell him that!), and Lola is still the queen of the house. The canine contingent recently expanded with the addition of Luigi, a 5- to 6-month-old foxhound mix who was found tied to a pole on the streets of Hartford during the July heat wave. DeGenova discovered that Luigi was not only suffering from the heat but from a shattered femur, cigarette burns, and compression fractures on both of his front legs. She says he’s now a permanent part of their family. The family cat count includes Malado, Lily, Ziggy, and Gilligan.
DeGenova and Levy continue to be a fierce couple, making a difference not only in the lives of their pets, friends and family, but also in the community.
“It’s important to be the voice for those that cannot speak,” DeGenova says.