The Kitten Lady
Hannah Shaw, known by her millions of social media followers as the Kitten Lady, has built her life around rescuing the tiniest, most vulnerable creatures — some only days old! She joined us on Zoom (where we all meet now!) with her cat Coco to talk about how her rescue work has expanded since the pandemic started, her first venture into kitten rescue and how she has somehow also become the “piglet lady.”
You’ve rescued and rehabilitated so many tiny creatures, but where did your love for animals truly begin?
I would say that I always loved animals growing up, but the real love was when I was 12 years old and made the decision to become a vegetarian. I grew up in Manhattan and didn’t have the opportunity to be around a lot of wildlife or farm animals. When I was 12 years old I went to a state fair for the first time and I saw a mama pig and her babies. Interestingly enough, I’m fostering a mama pig and her babies right now! I was so excited because I had never seen a pig before, but I noticed that one of the piglets was injured. I went and tried to tell an adult, and the adult said, “Well, you eat bacon, don’t you?” And that changed my life because I was simultaneously having this moment of being so excited to meet an animal and also had someone being so callous about the animals.
That was the day that I started identifying as an animal person. I took a stand that I wasn’t going to eat pigs or other animals anymore, and my whole family thought that it wasn’t going to last. A couple of years later, at 15, I found out more about animal agriculture and made the decision to be vegan. Along with that, I became very interested in advocacy. I started doing a lot of advocacy work even before I could drive. I would do as much animal activism as I could, which was really just handing out flyers. I used to go to concerts and set up tables to hand out flyers about animals. It’s interesting because even though I primarily work with felines now, my initial rooting in animal welfare was advocating for farm animals.
How did you transition a love for animals and a passion for activism into a life dedicated to rescue?
*Right on cue, a tiny head – black and furry – popped in front of Hannah’s on the Zoom screen. Hannah introduced us to Coco the cat, her very first kitten rescue!*
When I was 20, I was working with children. I was in a park one day and I looked up into a tree and saw a little kitten looking down at me. I thought, “What in the world!” I had never rescued an animal before, but I knew I had to rescue this kitten even though I had no skills and no idea what I was doing. I was wearing sandals, so I borrowed somebody’s shoes and I climbed the tree. I got this little crusty kitten down from the tree and I felt really good for about 30 seconds. Then I was filled with the dread of not knowing what to do with this tiny kitten. I brought the kitten back to my office, and, since I worked with kids, I had lots of hot dogs in my fridge. I thought, “Sure, she can probably eat hot dogs!” So I chopped up hot dogs to feed this one month old cat.
That was 12 years ago now and Coco is my best friend in the world. She totally changed my life because she is the animal that took me from an animal advocate to being an animal rescuer. I took her home knowing nothing and it’s amazing to me that this cat survived! The first thing I fed her is a hot dog, so that tells you how much I used to know. I took her home, and thought maybe I’d just foster her. After about an hour of having her, I knew she was my cat and I was a cat person. People tell me, “Oh, you do such amazing work — I wish I could do this.” And I think anybody could do this! If I could learn how to rescue, then anybody can learn how to do it.
After rescuing Coco, did you find your calling in cats and rescue?
Interestingly enough, a few weeks after that, I found another kitten in a tree! And those are the only two kittens I’ve ever found in trees. I thought it was crazy that there were so many kittens in trees. But I knew I couldn’t keep all of the kittens I found, so I did foster her and found her a home with my friend. After that, one of my friends found a newborn kitten in the alley and asked me for help. I thought I could help since I’d rescued a couple of kittens. When I got there, the kitten fit in the palm of my hand and I just cried. I didn’t know it was possible to save them when they were this young. He turned out to be my first bottle baby. He’s 11 years old now, lives with my friend in Hawaii and has a great life!
You do one rescue, then another. Then someone finds out you’ve rescued, so they bring you a kitten, and you do more. Then people start handing out your number and the next thing you know, you’re the “Kitten Lady.” For my first several years of rescuing I didn’t try to be a kitten rescuer. I lived in Philadelphia, where there were kittens everywhere and no one knew where to bring them. I got kittens from colleagues and neighbors and friends of friends. At the time in Philadelphia there was a very high volume of community cats and not a lot of resources for spaying and neutering those cats, so babies were being born all the time. Thinking back, it’s so silly how much I didn’t know about how that works. I would rescue the kittens but never did anything about the colonies because I just didn’t know why there were so many kittens outside. That was 12 years ago, and I know so much more both about kitten care and kitten prevention.
Since your humble beginnings climbing trees, you’ve become a nationwide voice for kitten rescue. Why is education such an important part of the work you do?
When I first got involved, I had a hard time finding resources to teach me how to do what needed to be done. Even now, I’m learning with every experience. Not a month goes by where I don’t encounter a situation or illness that I haven’t seen before, and I need to learn! I think information, especially lifesaving information, has to be shared! There are only so many animals that I physically care for here in my home with the limited time I have. If I can teach one hundred, one thousand or even one million people, then they can also rescue and then I’ve made a much bigger impact! I try to focus on creating educational resources that can do the maximum amount of good. I know that teaching a webinar, writing a book, creating a YouTube video or creating a printable PDF goes a lot farther. At the beginning of my Kitten Lady project, I focused on basic tutorials like bottle feeding and how to stimulate a kitten. Now, I make really specific content. Like what kind of surgery to get if you have a kitten with a flat chest. But, out of those experiences, I can tell you with confidence, there are many animals that now exist because people get kittens and know what symptoms to look for and what type of doctor and procedure they’ll need. I’ve also shared how to wrap the legs of a kitten with twisted limbs. These are resources I would have loved to have in the beginning.
If you’re new to rescue and don’t have a friend to guide you, I want to be that friend. I want to be that friendly, familiar face that can say it’s okay if you don’t know everything yet. I don’t consider myself an expert on all things, but I do have a lot of experience and I do like sharing what I know.
I wrote two books that have come out so far. Tiny but Mighty is my favorite thing that I have ever done and will ever do. It’s a 300+ page resource on kitten care. I also have a children’s book called Kitten Lady’s Big Book of Little Kittens. Those two books were the first books I ever wrote and I discovered that I love writing and I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to do more writing!
But it’s not just kittens for you now, is it? You’ve started rescuing babies of different species, too!
Now, I’m doing a lot of piglet rescue and it’s because I did one. Then I got a call about another one, and now I’m the “Piglet Person.” And I wonder how I became the piglet person, but it’s because someone has to be the kitten lady and someone has to be the piglet lady! We have a mama pig that we’re fostering now with her 11 little babies and I love it. Caring for big farm animals is very difficult and labor intensive. It’s new for me, but we have so much fun. Fortunately there are a lot more kitten rescue people now than there were 12 years ago. But, I’m not sure if there’s anyone doing just the piglet work, so my time is getting pulled in lots of different directions by different types of babies. But I love it!
The other day, on a Facebook group for farm rescue, someone needed to learn how to tube feed a piglet in Iowa and no one in their community was able to teach them. It was midnight and I was on FaceTime with a stranger teaching her how to tube feed over FaceTime. It was terrifying, and I would never do a FaceTime call unless it was a life-or-death situation. Thankfully, she was able to feed the piglet and he’s thriving because of that opportunity. I just wondered when I had become the person who teaches other people about piglets. It’s so cool, and that’s the magic of rescue. You do something and you learn from it, and you take that with you to the next experience. I can remember each moment that I’ve learned things, and it comes from being brave enough to throw yourself into new situations. I love working with babies — that’s my jam!
Where is the future of your rescue work going, both as the Kitten Lady and with your nonprofit, Orphan Kitten Club?
When I started my nonprofit, Orphan Kitten Club, my goal was just to be able to fundraise enough to afford a high level of medical care for very vulnerable populations of neonatal, special needs and orphaned kittens so I could give them an opportunity that they might not have at an animal shelter. Not to any fault of the shelters, but these are very high-need animals. That was my initial goal in 2016. Because of the amazing support of the community, that has grown into a lot of different programs.
We have our nursery program where we take care of high-needs kittens. Even now, we have kittens whose eyes were basically falling out of their heads when they arrived and they’re doing great now! We take in the kittens who are very difficult to care for in a shelter setting, turn them around and get them looking sparkly and beautiful for adoption. Then we expanded to our Full Circle Program, which is the program where we go into the community where our kittens are from to trap, spay/neuter and vaccinate the families of our kittens. It’s our promise to our kittens that they are going to be the last ones born in the colony that they’re from.
In the beginning of 2019, we launched a grant program called the Mighty Cat Program to give other organizations the opportunity to care for vulnerable kitten populations with the same high level of care we are able to provide. We piloted it with 10 organizations and now we have 45 partners throughout the country and growing. That has become my big passion! There’s only so much time and space that I have to be able to personally help all of the little kittens. When I’m 100 years old and looking back at my life, I hope that our Might Cat Grant Program is still just growing and that we can fund every kitten program in the country!
My goal is to continue to provide a high level of care to the most needy kitten populations and have the impact throughout the community that we are, but also to be able to be a resource for other species of orphaned neonates because that is of interest to me. I want to be a safe place where orphaned babies can go. I also want to grow our volunteer team with the right people who have the compassion for the animals and understand working with babies. It’s a really specific skill set and it’s not for everybody. We’ve got a great team and it’s a growing team of people who I think we’ll be able to do a lot with. My goal is to be a happy, healthy robust organization of baby care for kittens and other animals.
You devote almost every hour of your days to rescuing the most vulnerable babies. What have they brought back to your life?
I find it incredibly empowering to see that the way you choose to spend your time is truly making a difference in the world. I used to be an animal lover in my heart, but I wasn’t actually doing anything about it. Being an animal rescuer is like taking the love of animals out of your heart, putting it into your hands and doing something about it. I love that I could help Ruth, a little kitten from San Diego Humane Society, who was on death’s door when she came into the shelter. I like little messed up babies. When I heard about her I said, “Yes, bring her to me!” In 12 hours, I got that kitten from looking so bad to the most beautiful little angel. I know that 10 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that.
For me, it’s so rewarding to see that the way I’ve chosen to spend my time and the things I’ve chosen to learn can make an instant impact in the life of an animal. You get to physically watch it happen! I have some kittens right now that I thought would be fully blind. I thought they would need total enucleation of both eyes and now they’re running around playing because they can see. They healed because of the high level of medication they were given and because they were given the opportunity to be in space where they’re with someone who knows how to care for them. That’s what gets me up in the morning and gets me up in the middle of the night! It’s worth it! The beautiful thing about rescue is that you fall in love with the cycle of it. I love getting kittens in, getting them out — I just love watching the whole process and knowing that when I make the decision to wake up early to put serum drops in a kitten’s eyes, I’ll be able to pat myself on the back two weeks from that moment because I did something really cool! Ultimately, it’s all for the animals! I don’t even know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t helping animals. What else is there?
The animals definitely give me purpose and they help make me feel empowered to keep learning, keep growing and keep giving back. And, they’re really cute. A lot of people are scared to work with the little kittens, and I was too when I started. Now, I really only work with the teeny, teeny tinies because a lot of people don’t want to and that’s what I’ve chosen to spend my time on. I see an 8-week-old kitten now and think they’re huge!
Published: March 8, 2021