Sue Kamell, the 89-year-old founder of Pet Rescue in Harrison, reminisces about her lifelong commitment to putting animals first.
On a quiet street in Larchmont that overlooks the harbor sits Sue Kamell’s art-filled, gray-shingled home. What used to house a menagerie—due to Kamell’s four-decade legacy of rescuing pets—is now guarded by “only” eight American Shorthair cats, most notably Silvio. He keeps watch by the screen door and, given his name and temperament, could easily have been cast as “Don Cat-leone” in the feline version of The Godfather.
Five years ago, Silvio was left at Kamell’s home by a woman who said the cat would be picked up the next day. He’s managed to grow on Kamell, even though he bullies the other cats, probably because she’s got a soft spot for the difficult ones.
This scenario epitomizes how Kamell, 89, finds herself still working on behalf of pets in need some 34 years after she founded Pet Rescue, a nonprofit in Harrison that helps find homes for needy animals. People literally give their pets to Kamell when they can no longer care for them, since locals know she won’t turn an animal away. “If you have two cats, what’s one more… another litter box?” says Kamell, who downplays her work, even though her organization has found homes for an estimated 15,000 Westchester animals.
After growing up in Flushing, Queens, with a pharmacist father and a stay-at-home mother who dabbled in art, Kamell moved to Manhattan to attend Columbia University, where she received a master’s degree in art history—a good foundation for her own love of painting. Years later, she also received a master’s degree in social work but practiced for only two years. “To me, the animals were always more important than my painting or social work,” Kamell shares.
She married in 1956 and rescued her first dog, a shepherd mix named John, in front of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue in 1957. A second rescue dog, Julia, also a shepherd mix, soon followed. You could say this was the unofficial start to the long and winding road that would become Kamell’s life’s work.
Julia gave birth to a litter of puppies a week after Kamell, her spouse, and their two young children moved to Larchmont, in 1969. Kamell then placed an ad in a local paper, looking for people to adopt the pups. “I got a call from the woman who was the head of the Central Westchester Humane Society, in Elmsford, saying she’d like to meet me, but of course I knew it was because she wanted to recruit me [to volunteer],” Kamell says.
After volunteering at the Elmsford shelter for many years, Kamell saw firsthand just how many local animals desperately needed help. “I once tried to count the dogs at the shelter. I got as far as 500. They were tied everywhere; it was a horror. I just realized there had to be a better way,” she recalls.
That better way turned out to be the 1982 genesis of Pet Rescue, which initially relied on volunteers fostering dogs in their homes. “We learned out of necessity that fostering was the best way to go for the dogs, but we had to let people know that these were not dogs that were bred; they were animals that were once someone’s pet, so we came up with the name ‘Pet Rescue.’ I didn’t like the name at the time, but it described what we did in the fewest number of words,” Kamell explains with a laugh.
Her organization now had a name, but Kamell never had a formal plan in mind. “I just let it happen, and it expanded over the years,” she says.
Over time, it was imperative that Pet Rescue be as nimble as possible in order to survive. From foster homes to kennels to Kamell’s home in Larchmont—which served as the organization’s headquarters for many years—it was a complicated network. While also being located at times in White Plains and in Holmes, NY (in Dutchess County), the organization now resides in an expansive new facility that opened in Harrison in 2014. Previously home to the Westchester Shore Humane Society, everything from the dog walks to the roof has been refurbished or replaced.
But in the 1990s, Pet Rescue hit a lull, losing most of its volunteers. “So, I thought it would be a good time to get out of rescuing and really focus on my painting,” Kamell recalls.
Art has been a lifelong pursuit for Kamell, who turns 90 in April. In addition to having worked as an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, her own paintings have been exhibited in several galleries around the country, as well as in juried art shows. “I like to paint mixed-breed dogs because they don’t get as much focus as purebreds,” Kamell says. In 1994, she entered an art competition held by the Dog Museum in St. Louis, which is dedicated to fine art devoted to the dog. “I was amazed that they accepted my work, because they usually focus on hunting dogs, like in 18th- and 19th-century British works. I like to show oppressed-looking animals in my work, to draw attention to their plight,” she says.
Although Kamell tried to stay focused on her artwork, a chance meeting with a woman named Ruth Frumpkin drew her back into animal rescue. A kindred spirit who was just as passionate about rescuing cats as Kamell was about dogs, Frumpkin joined Pet Rescue, and together they opened a cat shelter in New Rochelle, in 2008, aptly named The Cat Castle.
In June, Pet Rescue celebrated three milestones: the second anniversary at their Harrison home, a ribbon cutting for the brand-new “Kitty Cottage” (where The Cat Castle animals were moved), and the unveiling of a commemorative wall that helps raise money for Pet Rescue through the sale of commemorative bricks honoring people’s pets.
Despite her accomplishments and age, Kamell shows no signs of slowing down. She recently edited a book called Love Stories: People and their Rescued Cats and Dogs, a collection of letters and photos from Pet Rescue adopters about what their pets mean to them. Proceeds from the sale of the book go toward continuing Pet Rescue’s mission.
She’s also writing another book, about her experiences in rescue, which Kamell says she hopes to finish soon.
As to her overall life mission, the foreword in Love Stories sums it up best: “Love, that overused word, is truly the best one to describe what underlies all of this. First, it’s the love of the volunteers that take in orphaned animals. Then it’s the love of the adopters who commit themselves to these cats and dogs. And finally, it’s the love that these former cast-offs give back to us.”