Hannah ‘Kitten Lady’ Shaw is ‘Mama’ to Baby Critters

The kitten (and piglet, and duckling) rescuer on her life's mission to help the littlest ones

Photo by Lauren Perlstein

by julie gueraseva
Wednesday, March 3, 2021

When it comes to protecting the vulnerable, Hannah “Kitten Lady” Shaw is not kitten around. She’s so serious, in fact, that she has a state-of-the-art baby nursery in her home. But the babies that she cares for around the clock (up to a dozen at any given time) are of the four-legged variety. Shaw founded her nonprofit Orphan Kitten Club five years ago, which provides life-saving kitten care, a trap-neuter-return program, and grants through the Mightycat Grand Program — the first of its kind for feline neonates in the United States. She’s since become a leader in the cat rescue community thanks to her indispensable educational initiatives geared at individuals and animal shelters alike. Lately, the long-time vegan has been sharing a lot of non-kitten content—pigs, in particular—with her 1.2 million Instagram followers and on her YouTube channel, where her videos often go viral. It started with fostering an ailing 1-pound piglet named Joshua in the spring of 2019, and culminated this January with spearheading a massive rescue effort of pigs from a severe hoarding case in California. (She worked with fellow activist Jordan Russo, sanctuary partners like Caitlin Cimini of New Jersey’s Rancho Relaxo, and Ariana Grande’s nonprofit Orange Twins Rescue, to arrange care and placement for over 100 pigs). Shaw is also a New York Times bestselling author of Tiny but Mighty: Kitten Lady’s Guide to Saving the Most Vulnerable Felines and the children’s book, Kitten Lady’s Big Book of Little Kittens. She’s working on her third, due out sometime in 2023 (all she can reveal for now is that it’s fiction and “a more creative kind of book to do with animals.”) We spoke with Shaw as she was packing up to move to the expanded home base of her San Diego operation, which doubles as her actual home with her cat photographer fiance Andrew Marttila. Here, she shares passionate insights on giving animals a platform, her tireless rescue efforts and how she’s able to juggle a million things at once.  

LAIKA: Your Instagram feed has been quite populated with photos of adorable piglets over the last year and a half!
Hannah Shaw: I have become extremely passionate about pigs. They are certainly my favorite animal, hands down, no questions asked. I was saying to [my partner] Andrew this week, “I really feel like I could see myself becoming, like, a crazy pig lady.” And he’s like, “Becoming?” (laughs) Working with [baby animals] is a very specific skill set. You have to be willing to sacrifice any kind of normal schedule. Often, the babies that I take on are medically critical; they might have congenital abnormalities, [and require] a lot of medical advocacy. So, expanding that out to other species feels very similar. People are like, “Oh, your passion is cats” but I’m like, “no, my passion is babies.”

What was it like taking care of your first piglet rescue, Joshua?
Joshua was diagnosed with a liver shunt, [which means] difficulty processing animal proteins. Pigs don’t need to eat animal proteins as adults but as babies, like all mammals, they consume breast milk. Even formula is made with animal proteins. We had to quickly reverse engineer a vegan version of a piglet formula. We had my Vitamix on the counter every day to make him these very elaborate smoothies that involved peanut butter, and flax oil, and a calcium tablet, and different fruits, and avocado, and banana. I called [it] “Joshua’s Smoothie Stand.” And we found something that worked for him. He had been having seizures every time he ate anything with an animal protein in it. As soon as we got him on that smoothie, he stopped having seizures and started thriving, and became this incredible healthy pig who has had no problems ever since.
So that was Joshy Poshy. He was just an absolute riot and made me completely fall head over heels for him.

Shaw with her first piglet foster, Joshua, in 2019 (Photo via @kittenxlady)
Shaw in 2016 with one of her tiniest fosters, Tidbit (photo by Lauren Perlstein for LAIKA)

What has been the response on your social media to you advocating prominently for animals normally considered “farmed animals,” in addition to those regarded as pets?
A lot of people really had their eyes open, wanting to make a transition towards a vegan lifestyle because of Joshy. I think that pigs kind of speak for themselves. If you give them the opportunity to just be seen, they don’t need me to advocate for them. They advocate for themselves, you know? People say that animal advocates are ‘the voice of the voiceless.’ But [animals] are not voiceless.
Once you give them a platform, put a video of a pig on your page, or let somebody come meet the pig—that’s transformative. People are like, “I didn’t know that they had personalities!” I’m like, “Are you kidding?! Like, they have more personality than any person I know.” Pigs are more intelligent than any dog I know. They communicate in a way where you know what they’re saying to you.

In one of your YouTube videos, you go over the various sounds that pigs make that correlate with their needs. Was that a revelation for you that started with ‘Joshy’?
Oh yeah. Cats meow and they purr and maybe they chirp sometimes, but pigs have probably hundreds of different vocalizations. You can tell when they’re happy, and when they’re scared, and when they want something. People are abusive towards these animals oftentimes [without] realizing it, because they’re just buying a product on a shelf that they don’t even associate with the killing of pigs. As horrifying as that is, I think that most people just don’t know—they’ve never met a pig.
Earlier this year I fostered Emmett [pig], who brought a different kind of angle because he became best friends with one of my kittens, Jez. And I think people were like, “Oh, a kitten and a pig can be friends, wait a minute. I love kittens and I eat pigs but [Emmett and Jez] are friends.” I think that was surprising, and gave people something to think about.

Jez (left) and Emmett, two of Shaw's fosters from 2020 who became best friends (photo via @kittenxlady)
One of Shaw's recent foster piglets, Hugo, (left) meets his new friend Josh, another former Shaw foster, at Farm Animal Refuge sanctuary last year (photo via @kittenxlady)

Do you see yourself adjusting your long-term mission and vision, because you’ve been known as “kitten lady,” and now you’re also “piggy lady” and “duckling lady”?
I’m a “baby lady.” I’m like the mother of any animal who needs me, and that will continue. And the truth is, it’s usually kittens because if you’re going to find a baby animal outside in the United States, eight times out of ten it’s a kitten or wildlife. And, so, kittens are definitely always going to be my number one because that’s who needs me the most. But I’ll do that for anyone.
In terms of vegan advocacy, the number one issue I feel most passionately about is dairy. I work with orphans, and dairy is an industry that intentionally orphans calves. It is disturbing on a really visceral level to me because I know what [it’s like for] a baby who’s been separated from their mom. I know what they lose. They lose the passive immunity from mom’s breast milk. They lose the comfort of mom licking them. They [lose] maternal nurturing. And I can try to provide that for them, but I’ll never be a mom cat. I’ll never be a mom pig.
So the fact that humans have deliberately created an industry based on impregnating and forcing birth on an entire species, and then taking their babies from them so that we can have the by-product of that pregnancy—that’s like something out of a horror film. I hope someday to be able to rescue a cow or calves, so that I can help people understand.

“Dairy is disturbing on a visceral level to me because I know what [it’s like for] a baby who’s been separated from their mom. I know what they lose.”

You’re juggling so many things. Do you have a particular approach to getting stuff done?
One [effective] thing is finding your people and prioritizing what you’re good at, and then delegating. Two years ago, we hired Sonja [Lueschen] as program director for my non-profit work in Kitten Club. She runs our TNR program, doing a lot of the day-to-day. We also have a lot of volunteers. We hired a new program assistant this summer part-time. I wouldn’t be able to expand our rescue without our team. So delegating where you can [helps]. I would never advise someone to be as busy as I am though. Honestly, I wouldn’t say that I’m a particularly balanced person. I’m the hardest boss I’ve ever had—I live and breathe advocacy. When I’m in the bathtub at night “relaxing,” I’m usually writing a to-do list in my head.



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A post shared by Hannah Shaw (@kittenxlady)

So delegating is important, and not attempting to do every little thing yourself.
Yeah and prioritizing. I have certain things that I’d love to do, but that might be a five-year goal instead of a one-year goal. You just have to be realistic about what you can and can’t do.
We [originally] wanted to hit the ground running with our TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) Program. But there’s a lot involved, not just in terms of supplies and logistics, but training people; doing community-based programs. It’s a very beautiful and nuanced thing. So we had to do a lot of groundwork to pilot that program, and then slowly build it out. Now we have this huge crew of people who trap all over San Diego to ensure that community cats aren’t just giving birth over and over again.
Same with our Mightycat Grant Program [which we] piloted in early 2019, then slowly expanded. And now we have given away more than $450,000 in grants just in our first two years. We have an advisory board, great donors who trust us. And that means so much to me, as a person who also donates to other organizations. I want to be a good steward of every dollar that comes in.
When the pandemic hit, we were able to do an emergency grant cycle and help organizations in Oklahoma and New Jersey and Texas. The Mightycat Program is what I hope outlives me. That’s something that I hope we built in such a way that it can continue to be a resource pool of infinite good for shelters and rescues in helping the little ones.