Seven years ago, Hannah Shaw was walking along a street in Philadelphia when she looked up into a tree and saw what she describes as “a teeny tiny kitten looking down at me.” Realizing that no one was coming to the little scamp’s rescue, she climbed up the tree, nestled the kitty in her shirt, and took her home. “That cat ended up being Coco, who I still have now,” she says.
The rescue mission sparked something inside Hannah, who was already involved in animal rights and welfare issues but admits at that point she didn’t have much experience with cats. “After rescuing Coco, I started seeing more kittens outside,” she recalls. “I also started getting calls from people saying they’d found a kitten and were asking me for help. It became a very fast cumulative thing where I began learning more about kittens while also honing my kitten eyes, so like anytime I was outside and there was a kitten within a thousand feet of me, I’d hone in on her.”
These days, Hannah is based in Washington, D.C., and describes herself as a “neonatal kitten warrior.” Through her Instagram account, she documents her rescues while also bringing awareness to the plight that shelter kittens face. Here’s her story.
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Catster: How bad is the kitten problem in shelters? I always assumed because they were so cute they’d always be quickly adopted.
Hannah Shaw: It’s really interesting that a lot of people are surprised that kittens are such an at-risk population. Shelters don’t often have the resources to put towards kittens and especially neonatal kittens, because they require round-the-clock care. With orphaned neonatal kittens, most shelters around the United States look at them as an untreatable condition and they’re euthanized almost immediately.
One thing people can do is to develop relationships with shelters so that if they get neonatal kittens they can call you and you can come and get them.
What should someone do if they come across a kitten outside?
The first thing is to figure out if they’re really orphans or not. Sometimes people think they’re doing the right thing and that they’re helping out an orphaned kitten, but they’re actually taking a healthy kitten away from his mom.
If the kitten has a mom, it’s so important she stays with the mom as she’s the best caregiver she can have. You can watch them for a little bit and see if mom comes back. If the kitten is clean and quiet, there’s probably a mom; if the kitten is soiled and they’re not looking well or in immediate danger, then you might want to take them in. But it’s always a case of assessing the situation first.
How time-intensive is taking care of a kitten?
It depends on their age, but it’s around the clock. When I’m considering if I can take in a kitten, the first thing I do is take a look at my calendar for the next couple of weeks and make sure I’m really going to be available. It’s some of the most intensive fostering you’ll ever do — it’s basically like having a newborn. I’ll set my alarm every two to three hours through the night, and you have to be willing to get up!
Is it heartbreaking to give up a kitten when it’s time for them to go to a forever home?
Oh, no, not for me! A lot of people ask that question, and I say that goodbye is the fun part because the whole reason why I do this is because I want these kittens to have a shot at life. When they come into a shelter or when they’re orphaned on the street, they have no chance at all to be a healthy adult cat in a loving home. There’s nothing like saying, “Goodbye, good luck, you did great, now get out of my house!”
What’s also nice about the social media aspect of this is that I find most of my homes for kittens through Instagram. It also means that I get to watch the kittens become cats and live their lives in their new homes.
Recently I adopted out a kitten named Gadzooks, and everyone loved him on Instagram so I told everyone they could keep watching him grow up in his new home through his owner’s account.
How do you go about naming so many kittens?
When I think of a funny name, I’ll put it on a list of names I have for kittens. I like to get to know them for a couple of days first, but sometimes I’ll also keep their shelter name. Yesterday I got a kitten named Turkey and they were like, “You’re obviously going to change that, right?” I was like, “Maybe not, let’s give her a chance and see if she’s a Turkey!” I’ve only had her less than 24 hours, but I might change her name to Tofurky.
I also like to name litters, so like a litter that’s all named after beans or noodles. I also had a Golden Girls litter when I first started.
Can you predict much about a cat’s adult personality from the way they act as a kitten?
That’s interesting. I always tell people that if they know the type of personality they want in a cat — like they want a really relaxed cat or a really active cat — then they should get an adult cat as for the most part they’ve settled into how they’re going to be. Kittens, for the most part, are going to be rambunctious no matter what; the first year of life, they’re going go be very active. But you can see personality in kittens; every kitten I have has a different personality. Gadzooks was hilarious, he was like the most laid back kitten I’ve ever seen.
Beyond the kittens, do you have any permanent cats in your house?
Yes, there’s Coco, the kitten I found in a tree years ago. She was the cat who made me into the kitten lady. I’m not a big fan of foster failures — just because that means they’re less likely to foster in the future — but my other cat is technically a foster failure because she was a kitten that I adopted out and had returned to me.
She was blind and had a very serious eye infection when I got her. After she was adopted, that person said they were concerned about her health, which they should have thought about when adopting her, and also said she was too hyper. So once Eloise came back to me I realized no one was going to take as good care of her as I could, and plus she and Coco got along great. So those are my two cats!
Need more kitten cuteness in your life? Follow Hannah via her Instagram account.
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About Phillip Mlynar: The self-appointed world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats. When not penning posts on rap music, he can be found building DIY cat towers for his adopted domestic shorthair, Mimosa, and collecting Le Creuset cookware (in red). He has also invented cat sushi, but it’s not quite what you think it is.