Hannah Shaw loves cats. Like, really loves cats. The 28 year-old started fostering orphaned kittens after university and has since devoted her life to neonatal kitten care, fostering extremely young abandoned cats that are usually killed at shelters immediately because the task of caring for them at this early life stage is too great.
While dealing with sick, scared, and fragile kitties can be demanding and stressful, Shaw's Instagram highlights the plus sides of working in kitten rescue, as she feeds, bathes, and drives with her miniature protegés. We talked to her about her hobby-turned-career, why she relates to grumpy cats, and what it's like to work in kitten rescue. (Also we raided her Instagram for some of her tiniest friends, and oh my god.)
BROADLY: When and how did you get into the animal protection biz?
Hannah Shaw: Animal protection is a lifelong passion that started when I was 12 years old and decided to stop eating animals. Since then, I've maintained pretty constant involvement in campaigns to protect animals of all species—from advocating for farm animals, to providing care to big cats in sanctuaries, to fundraising for the protection of wildlife. Rescuing kittens is something I started doing about eight years ago, and I've always managed to fit it into the work I'm doing. When I was in my early twenties and working in the public school system it was more of a challenge; I would literally sneak tiny kittens to work in my shirt, and feed them in the bathroom so no one would notice! Fortunately, now that I'm working exclusively in the animal nonprofit world, people are more accepting of office kittens.
How many kittens would you say you've saved so far?
It's hard to quantify, because my involvement with kittens is so vast. Sometimes I'm raising them start to finish, sometimes I'll find another foster and just provide mentorship, supplies and support. The last time I counted, I had raised a few hundred kittens, but that's over the course of eight years. It's hard to keep track!
The last time I counted, I had raised a few hundred kittens.
And how is what you do different from veterinary work?
I'm all about kitten advocacy, so I'm not interested in becoming a veterinarian myself—but I'm extremely interested in encouraging veterinarians to focus more on neonatal kittens. You'd be surprised how little experience most vets have with neonates, but it makes sense, because it isn't common for people to come to a clinic with a one week old kitten and no mom. Consequently, most of the time that I've brought a neonate to a new vet, I've been told "Wow, this is the smallest kitten I've ever seen!" That's frustrating, because I want so badly for kittens to have access to the critical care they need, but it just isn't a priority in private practice. I'd like to see more support for orphaned neonatal kittens in the veterinary field, and more research about lifesaving techniques so that those of us who care for orphans can have the highest likelihood of saving them.
Where do you find these kittens, and how do you get them new homes?
Almost all orphaned neonatal kittens are found outdoors, born from unsterilized, free-roaming cats. Most of the time when people find orphaned kittens outside, they bring them to the shelter, where they are immediately killed. This is because most shelters don't have the resources to care for them, so their condition is considered hopeless. That's where kitten rescuers come in! We provide shelters with an alternative to killing when we step in and offer to raise the kittens ourselves. It's pretty easy to find great homes for kittens, and I always start advertising them a few weeks before they are adoptable so that I can have an adopter lined up and ready to go once they hit 8 weeks of age.
I think that people just don't expect to see a one pound kitten sleeping in your scarf, so most often, they just don't notice.
Because the kittens are so young and helpless, you often end up wearing them in your clothes or carrying them with you in your car. What's the general reaction when you're in public with a tiny cat on your shoulder?
Half the time people don't even notice. I think that people just don't expect to see a one pound kitten sleeping in your scarf, so most often, they just don't notice. I also do a lot to try to camouflage the fact that I've almost always got a kitten in tow—using carriers designed to look more like a purse, etc—and that's for a few reasons. First, it's just not so great for tiny kittens to be exposed to strangers trying to touch them in the grocery store, but second, I'm a busy lady and sometimes I just want to shop for produce in peace, you know?
How many cats do you have in your home at any given time?
I have two cats of my own, Coco and Eloise, both of whom I've raised since they were orphaned babies. I keep a steady revolving door of foster kittens—one litter at a time—so I'll have anywhere from one to eight babies at a time. I'm all about quick turnover when it comes to kittens; I believe the most efficient way to save the maximum amount of lives is to foster kittens only until they are the adoptable age of eight weeks old—then it's time to get them adopted, take a little breather, and start again.
I have total empathy for any animal that has disdain for humans—in many ways I can relate.
How do you feel about "cat lady" as a stereotype?
I've got love for my cat ladies. But, I also think that the love of felines is just one of the many things our society unnecessarily associates with gender. I know several men who are out there saving cats and kittens, but why should that be so strange? When we feminize cat rescue, I think it ultimately hurts cats because it makes half of the population feel like they shouldn't participate. In a society that is already so threatened by immasculization, let's just take gender out of it and let anyone who wants to help cats do just that.
Any advice for would-be kitten rescuers?
Find the rescue path that is right for your life. It isn't a one size fits all thing, but everyone can contribute in some way. If your life isn't set up to allow you to foster kittens, try fostering senior cats. If your home situation doesn't allow you to foster, get involved in transporting cats, or trapping and neutering community cats. There's always a way to help! And, to the best of your ability, don't foster fail. Be willing to say goodbye, so that you can keep saving lives in the future.