When Hannah Shaw found her first orphaned kitten, she didn’t really consider herself a cat person. But as a vegan and lifelong animal lover, she didn’t feel right dumping the tiny animal at a shelter, either. So she took it home. “The first thing I ever fed this cat was a hot dog,” she says.
It was only five weeks old, too young to be away from its mother, and in need of much more specialized care than a typical house cat. When Shaw searched online for advice about raising an unweaned kitten, she was surprised to find almost none.
Spying a need—and with a background working with foster kids—Shaw felt her advocacy instincts kick in. Eight years later, using the social-media handle Kitten Lady, Shaw, 29, is a go-to source for the information that eluded her, sharing tips and videos about neonatal cats with more than 100,000 Instagram followers. She’s now surrounded by felines: At Kitten Lady headquarters, her house in Mount Rainier, she’s flanked by Coco—the former orphan that started it all—along with her one-eyed cat, Eloise, and three kittens she’s raising until they’re old enough to be adopted.
My darling forever cats, Eloise (left) and Coco (right!) Coco was the first orphan I ever found, and the reason I got involved in kitten rescue. Eloise was one of my orphans 4 years ago, and she found her family with me and Coco. These ladies are everything to me! Their hashtag is #cocoandeloise if you'd like to see more! ❤️ #fourears #threeeyes #twohearts #kittenlady
Shaw draws interest in her efforts mostly through her Instagram—a stream of the kind of cute photos the internet treats like catnip—but she wanted her online presence to be about more than ogling baby animals. Newborn kittens are often euthanized by shelters, in part because they’re so demanding of time and resources. “Our cultural definition of euthanasia is that it’s to end hopeless suffering,” says Shaw. “My response is that these kittens are not hopeless.”
To prove it, she has rescued upward of 300 of them, documenting for her web audience how she cares for them, then finds them permanent homes. Through mentorship with the NoVa Cat Clinic, traveling to shelters around the country to learn about their neonatal programs, and trial and error —Shaw is just as open with her followers when a kitten is too sick to save as when she’s successful—she has produced a trove of advice and instructional videos on keeping newborn kittens alive.
Shaw has nursed animals through ringworm, viruses, fleas, and bizarre defects such as the one afflicting Marlin, born without a functioning anus, whom she saw through four reconstructive surgeries. Though she’s some people’s idea of obsessive, she has her limits, accepting no more than two litters at a time so she can provide adequate attention.
Shaw says she doesn’t put the rest of her life on hold—she carries the kittens in puppy bags that look like purses, so no one’s the wiser that she’s toting them through the grocery store (or bank or bowling alley). As they get older, she leaves them for a few hours at a time, curled up in a playpen next to a stuffed cat with an electronic heartbeat.
When Shaw gets messages from her younger followers stating that they, too, want to rescue kittens for a living, she has to break the bad news: Its catchy handle aside, Kitten Lady is a nonprofit under Photographers for Animals—an organization that documents homeless pets—but it does not pay the bills. Shaw works as a consultant to advocacy groups on humane policies for feral cats. She’s also director of Rock to the Rescue, a 501(c)3 that supports grassroots initiatives in music education, health, and animal advocacy. It was cofounded by the band Styx, of which her father, Tommy Shaw, is a member.
100,000 followers — wow! Thank you so much for believing in my rescue and advocacy project and for following along with the tales and triumphs of the orphans I save. I'd love to hear from some of you about what you like about Kitten Lady, what impact it's had for you, or what you'd like to see more of. Please feel free to leave me some feedback in the comments. Thank you for helping me stick up for the little guys! #kittenlady
Mothering abandoned kittens on the side doesn’t leave a lot of time for sleep, especially when the animals are less than three weeks old and require bottle feedings every two to three hours. But as Shaw tells her followers to affirm that saving kittens is possible, even with a hectic schedule: “A few minutes every few hours can save a life.”
This article appears in our July 2016 issue of Washingtonian.