How Insta-famous Cat, Smush, Uses Social Media for Good
A loud-mouthed, bread-stealing feline with a cleft lip is saving cats around the world.
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To the Rescue is a column about visionary animal advocates.
On social media, finding voices that are genuinely concerned with doing good can seem impossible amidst a sea of well-meaning (but often one-note) fluff. Occasionally, though, you find people who are not only delightful, but also want to make the world a better place. And one of them happens to take the form of a loud-mouthed, bread-stealing cat with a cleft lip.
You may know Smush the cat from her star turn on the Dodo, People, or, given that you’re reading The Wildest, from her ultra-popular Instagram account, @smushofficial. But who you might not have heard of is Shannon Jackson — photographer, animal advocate, and Smush-mom. When Smush the cat rocketed to internet fame, Shannon did what most of us like to think we would do with a newfound platform: she decided to use her powers and voice for good.
Jackson is someone you want to spend more time with from the moment you meet her. She gives the vibes of someone who is on a first-name basis with both her local dive bartender and coffee shop barista. And it quickly becomes clear that one thing she’s extremely passionate about is animal welfare. Surrounded by a small family of rescue cats, Jackson explained that she got involved in animal rescue as a photographer. At one point around 2013, she and her ex were looking to adopt a dog, and she was struck by the low quality of the images of the pets in rescue listings. She started offering her services to not only photograph the animals, but also teach others how to do it, so that rescue organizations could better present their animals to the world.
In fact, the first dog that Jackson photographed ended up coming home with them — a rescue Greyhound, who started her down the path of working with Greyhound rescue organization Grey2K, as well as photographing Spayathon (free spay/neuter initiatives in Puerto Rico), and working with a shelter vet medicine program at the University of Florida.
But it was a rescue video of Smush that went really big and gave Jackson a huge platform — when using the cat’s voice. “It just went viral,” she says. “I’ll never forget it because I was in my office at work and my phone kept buzzing… As soon as Cats of Instagram posted her, it was crazy. And then the Dodo contacted me, and then People magazine.” Smush gained 10,000 followers in one day, and, as Jackson puts it, she ran with it.
Jackson uses the revenue from Smush’s website to help fund her rescue advocacy work, which (before the pandemic) included a lot of travel and talking. “It’s opened up a lot of opportunities for me also to help others… I’ve done talks on using social media for good. I’ve done workshops on how to photograph animals and use social media to help the animals get adopted,” she says.
Smush and Jackson’s current platform is #fightforcats, working with FOUR PAWS international to combat the cat meat trade in Southeast Asia. Partnering with local groups, they’ve succeeded in raising awareness, closing meat factories, and re-housing rescued animals. “I have this huge platform,” says Jackson, “I’m going to use it. Let’s spread the word about this.” She managed to fundraise $12,000 in one week, and without trolls coming out of the woodwork to use the topic as a way to attack people. “We haven’t had any Asian hate or anything like that.”
Jackson is eager to keep using her platform to keep helping animal rights groups — as well advocating for people at the same time. “I talk about mental health a lot with Smush too — I love that. It’s like Smush just talks about everything. Smush talks about body positivity; she’s like ‘I love my belly,’ you know? It’s basically subliminally putting good messages in people’s minds.”
Social media has also put Jackson in touch with other fantastic people, like Sterling “TrapKing” Davis, who travels around the country in an RV, TNR-ing cats and giving talks (keep your ears tuned for a potential podcast by Jackson and Davis). Or famed singer Rob Thomas and his wife Mari, who have the animal advocacy group Sidewalk Angels (check out Rob Thomas serenading Smush at 46:00 in this video).
What’s next for Smush and Jackson? Well, Jackson is hoping to do some more work with Grey2K and a campaign with Smush. And she plans to keep using her platform to advocate for a world that’s better for animals and people. So maybe social media isn’t so terrible after all.
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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).