The internet is obsessed with cats.
Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily obsessed with fostering them.
That’s where Hannah Shaw comes in.
“I always say that, well, come for the cute photos and then stay for the education,” says Shaw, better known by the straightforward moniker Kitten Lady. “It doesn’t take much to get someone to double click on a cute kitten photo, so I try to use those photos and videos as a magnet for people who might be interested in learning more about those kittens’ welfare.”
Shaw’s entire online presence, including an Instagram with nearly a million followers, essentially amounts to one big Trojan kitty, discretely stuffed with resources for saving motherless babies. Scroll through her YouTube channel and, on the surface, you’ll find a gallery of fuzzy-faced cutie pies enjoying chin scratches and wearing tiny party hats. You know, the kind of heart-liquefying imagery that reduces grown adults to babyspeak. Closer inspection, though, reveals a massive library of lesson plans on every facet of fostering and caring for neonatal kittens, from bottle-feeding newborns to trimming claws.
Now the master of this frisky domain has gathered all that knowledge into her most comprehensive resource yet: Tiny but Mighty: The Kitten Lady’s Guide to Saving the Most Vulnerable Felines.
The new author already had a long track record in animal advocacy before she took her first steps toward becoming Kitten Lady. About 10 years ago, Shaw found a small kitten alone in the wild and quickly realized she was too young to bring to an animal shelter, many of which aren’t equipped with space or resources to dedicate to neonatals. The only thing she could think to do was take her home, which is where that cat, Coco, remains to this day. (“She’s like my best friend on the planet,” Shaw gushes.)
Saving the life of a newborn kitten proved addictive, and Shaw soon started finding cats everywhere. People would also bring her kittens they couldn’t care for, and so Hannah became known as the neighborhood kitten lady, always eager to foster baby cats until they were ready for adoption. (Generally at 8- to 12-weeks old.) The more Shaw looked into it, the more she realized that the animal-advocacy world was missing a champion for newborn kittens, so she stepped into the role, working nationally with various animal shelters to help them save as many babies as possible.
Around that time, she also discovered just how much baby cats are beloved by the internet.
“It started with just doing videos for my friends so that, when they’d find a kitten, I could just send them a video instead of having to repeat myself over and over again,” Shaw says. It became pretty clear after awhile, though, that accessible resources around fostering baby kittens didn’t really exist, at least not in any obvious spot. She made videos documenting life with her fosters and what she was doing to help them toward the age of adoption. These videos were warmly received by friends and strangers alike. Just to amplify the message as much as possible, she created an Instagram profile and YouTube page for potential adopters.
The Kitten Lady project had officially begun.
She had no idea it would grow the way it has. Shaw’s videos quickly amassed hundreds and thousands of views, some of them eventually hitting the millions, and she was flooded with emails about how to start fostering. Demand for workshops rose steadily as well. In 2016, she left her job at an animal advocacy organization and dove full-time into being Kitten Lady. With an elaborate home nursery; her own nonprofit rescue service, Orphan Kitten Club; and a full slate of speaking gigs through 2020, she has never looked back.
It takes creativity, though, to get a message to resound this much, even if some of the adorable photos (taken by her cat photographer fiancé, Andrew Marttila) do some of the heavy lifting for her. Here are some of the ways Shaw has managed to spur her fans to foster kitties—lessons that could certainly translate to other projects.
“I think if I was just out here with statistics and numbers and facts about the suffering of cats in the United States, nobody would follow that,” Shaw says.
She’s probably right. Sarah McLachlan’s well-intentioned but rather bleak animal cruelty video from the mid-aughts may have inspired more derision than action. It’s not just a matter of catching more flies with honey than vinegar, though. It’s about storytelling.
“When you zoom out with statistics, it’s harder to get people to care,” Shaw says. “When you realize these big statistics are made up of individuals, you can zoom in on the individual kitties, who are the most deserving, magnificent little creatures that you will just fall in love with. People can then see for themselves that each of them is worthy of our care and our love. Every single kitten I meet is, like, my favorite kitten I’ve ever met, and telling each individual story is an important creative aspect of doing this. There are a lot of different ways you can share who a kitten is, but I try to capture people’s imaginations about these babies, so they think about what it would actually be like if they were in their own home.”
Mix it up
Kitten Lady keeps fans on their toes by constantly surprising them. The bulk of her videos are educational resources, but she also occasionally throws in something fun and even goofy, like an “unboxing video” parody or her series of raps.
“One of the first things I did when I started diving into Kitten Lady more seriously, we filmed a video of me and Andrew walking a baby stroller down the boardwalk in Miami, and it looks like we have our baby in it, but then I open the stroller and you see that it’s actually three little kittens,” Shaw says. “So it’s just a very sunny little PSA about saving motherless kittens, and then it shows the solution, which is fostering, of course. That was the first really playful video we did, and I still show that video sometimes during talks. But I’m always trying to find other things like that to do.”
One reason Shaw never gets stuck on which topics to address is because she creates opportunities for people to tell her what topics she should address.
“I use social media as a place to find out what else is needed, because if I’m finding that a lot of people are asking the same questions, like I don’t understand how XYZ thing works, then I know I need to make a video about that, or do a talk about it,” she says. “If nothing else, I’ll at least do a post about that. Social media makes it so that with the click of a button you can basically do a PSA. If there’s something urgent where there’s a lot of confusion around a topic, I can spend five minutes to put together a post and send that out into the world. There’s no end to the resources I hope to create. All that’s holding me back is that there’s only 24 hours in a day.”
The look and feel of Kitten Lady developed not from consulting with any designers or other experts, but from Shaw following her own aesthetic muse and making decisions as they arose.
“The name just came because people were like, ‘This is my friend, she’s a cat lady, and then I’d be like, ‘No, I’m not, I’m a kitten lady,” Shaw says. “As far as branding goes, I had no idea what I was doing. I still have no idea what I’m doing. I firmly believe everyone is faking it and some people fake it better than others. I wanted the feel of Kitten Lady materials to be like you’re inside a baby room, because these are little babies, so that’s why in the book everything is pastel colors and very inviting and baby-ish. I have no clue how to do branding; I just do it. I go and I figure it out. I think coming from a very DIY background is helpful. I’m someone who grew up in the punk community where if you want to be in a band, you just record your own demos. If there’s something I want to do, I just try to figure out how to do it.”
The kids are alright
In 2020, Shaw will be publishing Kitten Lady’s Big Book of Little Kittens, a picture-filled tome aimed at children. “I’m in my thirties and I love it, though, so I think any age will love this book,” she says.
This next book is the result of recognizing a specific segment of her audience that needed servicing—and which could potentially became active advocates in the fight to save more kittens. “A huge part of my audience is children. I know they’re not supposed to be on YouTube, but they are, and these kids are always asking what they can do, how can they learn more,” Shaw says. “So I really think a kids’ book is an important thing for this upcoming generation of youth who are interested in animal welfare. When I was a kid, I loved cats, but the only cat books for kids were about, like, different breeds or just being cute—cats as a spectacle, rather than vulnerable beings in need of our help. The book is fun and playful, but it’s also meant to be a starting point for kids. I have a section called ‘5 Ways Kids Can Help Cats,’ some tangible takeaways for if they read the book and go: ‘Now what?’ Children should be involved in this movement. We need everybody we can get.”