“Kitten Lady” Hannah Shaw Is Fostering a Movement
The lion-hearted animal advocate on rescuing her first kitten in a tree, designing an orphaned animal nursery, and becoming an Instagram sensation.
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Hot take: No one, including the most resolute of dog people, can resist a kitten. Hannah Shaw, a.k.a. Kitten Lady, knows this all too well. As more and more pandemic-fatigued people adopt cute little mischief-makers as emotional pick-me-ups, they’ve been turning to Shaw once the weighty responsibility of raising a helpless, delicate little creature kicks in.
Shaw got her start over a decade ago when she started fostering local strays. From there, she began posting helpful tips on her YouTube and Instagram accounts, the latter of which now has an audience of 1.2 million followers. A few years back, she wrote a seminal book, Tiny but Mighty: The Kitten Lady’s Guide to Saving the Most Vulnerable Felines, which went on to become a New York Times bestseller. Ever the multitasker, she also founded the nonprofit Orphan Kitten Club and picked up an ASPCA award for Cat Advocate of the Year. Not bad for a quirky, neighborhood cat lady!
We spoke with Shaw about everything from her very first rescue to building a kitten nursery at home to publishing a new book about foster care.
With a full-blown rescue operation, multiple cats that need frequent care, and your book projects, do you ever take breaks?
Prior to the pandemic, I feel like it was a little easier for me to have some balance to my life. A huge part of what I was doing was traveling around the country, teaching kitten care classes, and doing events. When all of that stopped for COVID, it kind of changed what I was spending my time and resources on.
We bought a property, which has made me more of a homebound person than I used to be. I have a nursery in my home, and we have a second building for my nonprofit Orphan Kitten Club on our property. It has truthfully become more difficult for me to leave. I also have two cats who have pretty significant medical needs now. I think that balance is so important in animal welfare, but I would be lying if I said that I was striking that right now — I pretty much work and care for animals.
Can you tell us more about the cats who need extra attention?
The first kitten I ever rescued is my cat Coco, and she is my best friend on earth. She is the reason that I became a cat person. She is the reason I learned about kittens and their needs and their challenges. I’m extremely committed to Coco. She was diagnosed with cancer in the fall and she started chemotherapy. As an unfortunate result of the chemotherapy, she developed FIP which is also another deadly condition. So she’s fighting two really difficult battles right now — but she’s doing amazingly because I am her full-time caregiver.
My other cat who has medical needs is Ferguson. I don’t keep my fosters — I’m a huge believer that “goodbye is the goal.” Ferguson was a really challenging medical case as a baby. He has significant kidney disease, which is thought to be very rare in kittens. When we were told that he would only live a few more weeks, we symbolically adopted him so that he got to have a home, even if it was just for two weeks with us. I don’t know, I’m a maniac — we just celebrated his one-year birthday! It’s honestly such a joy to be able to use the skills I have from working with neonatal kittens to help the cats who are my personal best friends.
What’s Coco’s story and how did you first get into kitten care?
I have been an animal lover my whole life but I was not involved in cat welfare. My early career was spent working for farm animal advocacy organizations. When I was 21 and living in Philadelphia, I went to a public park and saw a little kitten high up into a tree. I’m the least athletic person in the world, but I blacked out and ended up at the top of a tree saving the kitten. I remember putting her in my shirt and shimmying down the tree. I had no clue what I was doing. I put her in a box and was like, what do I do now?
Did you know you wanted to keep her right away?
I came to understand that in an animal shelter, kittens under eight weeks old were the first to be euthanized. I will say a lot has changed in the last 13 years — but at that time, it was not an option to take her to the shelter. I convinced my roommate to let me bring her home, and of course I fell in love with her. She is my baby. Shortly after that, I started seeing kittens outside all the time. I think that my eyes just opened to what was going on in the community, and I became very interested in helping.
You mentioned that you worked in farm animal advocacy earlier in life and you have famously fostered piglets. When did you start bringing other orphaned animals into your rescue?
When we moved to Southern California, that changed a lot about the [animals] that are in need. The San Diego Humane Society has a pretty incredible kitten program, which is really needed here because it is kitten season pretty much all year round because the weather is so mild. Our nonprofit Orphan Kitten Club takes on the really challenging cases; we take kittens who would otherwise be euthanized — kittens who have medical needs, who are underweight, who have some kind of congenital challenge.
When it comes to non-kitten animals, the truth is that a baby is a baby. We rescue piglets because there are a lot of pet pigs here, as well as farms, and, unfortunately, laboratories that test on pigs. It’s not something I actively seek out, but when a piglet is orphaned or sick, we’re super happy to help. And I’m just very passionate about neonates.
How did COVID change getting these babies adopted?
COVID had a really interesting impact on kittens specifically. Every once in a while in your life, you have a moment where things just change, and a big moment for me — when I felt like I suddenly was able to make quite a large impact — was at the beginning of the pandemic. It became immediately evident that shelters were not going to be able to be fully staffed, and animals were going to have to leave the shelters. I started a webinar series offering classes online that anybody could attend. I think there were up to 65,000 people watching live at one point.
A lot of people are afraid to foster because they have these preconceived ideas of what it takes to do it. My belief is anybody can foster, but not everybody can foster the same [animals]. Suddenly there was this huge need for animals to get out of shelters and simultaneously everybody was at home. People were also sad and scared and isolated — and nothing curbs that like a tiny kitten.
Can you tell us more about your nonprofit, the Orphan Kitten Club, and the grants it’s able to give?
I’m extremely proud that my nonprofit started the first and only grant program for kittens. It’s called the Mightycat program. We are so passionate about the hands-on work that we do, but we want other organizations to be able to do the same.
This grant program is 100% dependent on donations and we have been able to donate over a million dollars to 55 partner organizations throughout the U.S. — for everything from building kitten nurseries to helping them create their foster supply kits to helping with individual medical cases for kittens. We have even funded staff positions for shelters.
On top of everything else, you also have two new books coming out this summer!
I’m doing my first fiction books! One is a chapter book series for children called Adventures in Fosterland. They’re these beautiful stories of these baby animals having to overcome hardships. I also have an activity book for all ages coming out called Kitten Lady’s CATivity Book. I’m just so proud of these books, and I’m excited for people to get to read them. I’ve been bitten by the book bug!
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Tim Barribeau is a freelance writer, editor, cat dad, and “help your boyfriend buy a suit that actually fits for once” consultant. He was previously the Style and Pets editor at Wirecutter, and has bylines at a bunch of publications that don't exist anymore (and a couple that still do).