TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Hannah Shaw, aka Kitten Lady. In the world of cat lovers, she's famous for rescuing kittens born on the street, including newborns if the mother is gone. She's saved hundreds of kittens, some so young, she's had to clean off the afterbirth. She has a kitten nursery set up in her home. Shaw is also known for her YouTube videos that are very popular because the kittens are so adorable and vulnerable, and it's fascinating and educational to watch how she cares for them. You may be surprised at how time-consuming and complicated it is to care for a neonatal kitten. Shaw also travels around the country working as an animal advocate consulting with shelters and cities and designing educational materials for people who are fostering or adopting kittens.
She also advocates for trap-neuter-return programs to prevent the homeless cat population from growing and to decrease the number of homeless cats that are euthanized. In her new book, "Tiny But Mighty," she writes, it's life-changing to watch as some of the tiniest and most hopeless kittens grow into robust, mighty cats. Hannah Shaw, welcome to FRESH AIR, and thank you for the work that you do. Most people assume that kittens are in demand, it's adult cats that are hard to find homes for, but kittens are easy. Explain the problem.
HANNAH SHAW: A lot of people, when they picture a kitten, they picture an adoptable kitten who's kind of bounding around the house and climbing in your lap and purring. And those eight-week and up kittens surely are very adoptable. They are easy to find homes for in shelters. But a very unseen population is neonatal kittens, so the kittens who come into the shelter who are maybe unweaned, maybe they don't have their mom. A lot of them come into the shelter orphaned.
And so these young kittens who are, you know, 0 to 8 weeks old, they're actually extremely at risk in animal shelters because most programs don't have the ability to take care of kittens who are so young and so vulnerable, they fit in the palm of your hand. Their eyes are closed. They need, you know, around-the-clock feeding and care.
And so the population that I work with, when I talk about kittens, I'm talking about this very vulnerable population of young kittens who enter shelters and, you know, they need more help than can be provided within the four walls of that structure.
GROSS: One of the things you caution people about, and that you're careful about, is if the kitten really has a mother, let the mother be the mother for a while before rescuing the kitten. Why is that so important, and how do you know if the mother's around, since adult cats often hide when they see people coming?
SHAW: Sure. So if you find a kitten outside, you can assume if they look like they're clean, and they look like they're fed, and they're not covered in filth and they're not crying out, these kittens, you know, somebody's been feeding them, and it's not the local raccoon. (Laughter) It's their mom. So a lot of the time, these kittens do have a mom. And you're right that most of the time, if we're standing over the kittens looking at them thinking they don't have a mom, mom might be across the street going, when is that lady going to leave so I can get back to my babies?
So we want to always assume that the kittens have a mom, unless they're in a situation where, you know, they're very dirty, they're obviously in distress. In those situations, yeah, we can scoop them up. And we want to be able to provide care to those kittens, too. But I encourage people to take a more holistic approach to rescue because we cannot foster our way out of this issue. We take on orphaned kittens, but we don't just, you know, stop there.
We want to go back to the places that these kittens came from and address the root of the issue, which really is these community cat colonies. We want to make sure everybody is spayed and neutered, and if we can reunite the kittens with the mom, we want to do that. Now, you know, I'm known as Kitten Lady. I am, you know, dedicating my life to taking care of kittens. But I'll never be as good as a mom cat is, you know, at taking care of these babies.
GROSS: Tell us a story of one of the kittens who had health problems or was so young and so unable to function yet that it really needed to be rescued immediately.
SHAW: Well, I can tell you...
GROSS: I know this happens to you all the time, but - (laughter). Yeah.
SHAW: Yeah. Well, I mean, I have so many. I have my book in front of me, and I'm looking at my cover kitten, which is Hank. And, you know, she's a perfect example of what I mean when I say tiny but mighty because this kitten, when I got her, she was extremely small and so, so vulnerable. I mean, she was found outside by a good Samaritan who, you know, picked her up, didn't know what to do. They put her in a tissue box. And they didn't know where to take her. So they brought her to the local pet supply store. But, of course, the local pet supply store, like, they're not equipped to be doing this work.
And so they, fortunately, knew somebody who had my number. They called me. I pulled up, and there's this little kitten. I named her Hanky 'cause she was in a tissue box (laughter). And so Hanky (ph), or Hank, you know, she, the minute I got her, she was absolutely covered in fleas. Her eyes were not yet open yet, but they were already infected from being just outside in filth. And her umbilical cord was still attached. She had these huge vocals. She was screaming out. You know, these kittens, they can't keep themselves warm. She was cold. She was, you know, being eaten alive by these little tiny fleas.
And I got her home, I washed her. Because a big part of this is, just, we want to get those fleas off the kittens. I washed her. I had to, in her case, unfortunately, manually open her eyes so I could clean the infection out of them. So her poor little eyes had to open to the world, you know, several days before they really should have. This little kitten, Hank, went through a number of health issues. She ended up with one of the most fatal viruses you can get as a kitten, which is panleukopenia. That virus kills 90% of cats who are diagnosed with it without treatment. And so she was my, you know, my project for an entire week, where she was symptomatic and really could have very easily just declined and passed.
But I've been through this so much with kittens, and the cool thing is, knowledge is something that you gain over time. And for every kitten that I've lost in the past who had panleuk (ph), they've taught me something that helped me to save Hank. And so I was able to get Hank through that period with a lot of hands-on care - you know, fluids, tube feeding, you know, just monitoring her and being by her side as she got through that. And when she came out on the other side of panleukopenia, her eyes were bright. She was like a new cat who was finally learning what it is just to, you know, just to enjoy being alive.
GROSS: So once you enabled Hank to survive and thrive and be very adorable, judging from the cover photo...
GROSS: ...Then what happened? Did you keep Hank, or did you put him up for adoption? Her.
SHAW: So I...
GROSS: (Laughter). Yeah.
SHAW: (Laughter). Yeah. So I always say that goodbye is the goal of fostering. It's kind of a little saying that I've come up with that I think resonates with a lot of foster parents. Goodbye is the goal. My goal always is to get these kittens from being so frail and so fragile and so vulnerable to a place where they're so strong that they don't need me anymore, and they can move on to their adoptive home. So Hank, she actually made friends with another kitten in my care, named Kodiak. And Hank and Kody (ph) were able to find a home together with a wonderful adopter who actually, you know, she became so invested in their story and so enamored with the world of rescue that now she's a foster parent, and she does T-N-R and she's involved in this world, too.
GROSS: You have a kitten nursery in your home. Describe what your nursery looks like and what is in it that makes it a nursery. Like, what do you need? What are the supplies you need in a kitten nursery?
SHAW: Well, my dream has been to have this nursery in my home. We have a couple different rooms for kittens of different ages and different needs. So our neonate room is really for those newborn kittens when they first come in. You know, people say my house is like kitten Disneyland, but it's also kind of like a kitten hospital. We have a very sterile environment for them, so kind of everything is stainless steel, can be sanitized.
We have incubators for those babies zero to three weeks who come in, and they don't have mom, and they need, you know, that constant radiant heat to keep them warm and healthy. I have a refrigerator where all of their formula and medication is kept. We have lots of baby supplies, you know, everything from soft blankets to, you know, surrogate mamas that have a little heartbeat inside of them these babies can cuddle up to. Really everything that we need for the tiniest neonates is in that room.
And then we have a room called the socialization room. And the socialization room is for those kittens who are, you know, learning how to eat independently. They're learning all of the skills of becoming a tiny cat. So we have enrichment in there, that they can learn how to climb and pounce and play and, you know, burrow and do all of the things that a cat can do, so something for all of them. And when I get the kittens in, they typically start out in an incubator. And then we just get to see them through from zero to eight weeks all the way to adoption. And we have, you know, something for all of them there.
GROSS: What's a kitten incubator like?
SHAW: An incubator is an isolation unit that has controls on it where you can control the temperature, so you can, you know, set your temperature, kind of like an Easy-Bake Oven for baby kittens (laughter). And you set the temperature for the age that they are. You know, as they get a little older, they get a little bit better at regulating their temperature. So you can also set humidity so you can, you know, keep those kittens nice and humidified and warm. There's also ports on it if you need to use a nebulizer or oxygen. It's just a really nice unit to keep them also contained and quarantined.
That does not mean that you have to have an incubator to be able to foster. You can foster even using, you know, a cardboard box with a heat pad on the bottom of it covered up with a soft baby blanket. You know, you can use those little aquariums that people put, you know, like, a turtle in. That's a great thing for a little baby kitten because they don't really wander around or jump out of it. They just need a place to literally just incubate and sleep. And they're just like a little wiggle worm for the first weeks of life, and you wake them up every couple hours and give them a bottle and help them go potty. And that saves their life.
GROSS: What does help them go potty mean? How do you do that?
SHAW: (Laughter) So little baby kittens, when they have their mom, mom will stimulate them to go to the bathroom by licking their butt and their genitals. And she stimulates them so it lets their body know, oh, it's time to go potty. And she also actually consumes their waste, which is pretty amazing. Mom cats are really, really crazy awesome moms.
GROSS: OK. You're not going to do that for them (laughter).
SHAW: Oh, no, no. That is not part of it when you're a foster mom. When you're a surrogate mom, you just have to kind of simulate the feeling that they are being stimulated. So I use either a warm, wet baby wipe or a soft tissue. And you're really just rubbing that area for a - you know, a number of seconds so that they go to the bathroom in the cloth, and then you just toss that out and wipe them up with a baby wipe. And that's only for the first couple weeks.
These little guys, they - you know, like I said, they are very vulnerable when they're born. So they - if you don't know how to do those skills, and you are, you know, a shelter or you're an individual who's tasked with taking on these kittens, and you don't know what to do, that can be so intimidating, which is why I do make all of these instructional videos and educational content and now the book so that people can see very easily how to do this stuff.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hannah Shaw, aka Kitten Lady. And she has a new book called "Tiny But Mighty: Kitten Lady's Guide To Saving The Most Vulnerable Felines." We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Hannah Shaw. She's known as Kitten Lady, and her mission is rescuing kittens, newborns, typically born on the street. And she also is an animal advocate. She advocates for trapping, neutering and returning cats so that the homeless cat population doesn't grow. She has a new book called "Tiny But Mighty: Kitten Lady's Guide To Saving The Most Vulnerable Felines."
So many of the kittens that you bring to your nursery are flea-infested. How do you prevent your home from having a flea infestation problem? And how do you prevent the other kittens you're rescuing from catching fleas from the new kittens?
SHAW: You know, you might be surprised. I've actually never had a flea problem in my home ever because I'm so hardcore about making sure that these kittens, when they come in, that's one of the first things I do with them. A lot of people don't realize that fleas, you know, they're a big deal on adult cats too. But on a kitten, fleas are actually - you know, they're - they are sucking blood out of a kitten. And they don't have a lot of blood to spare, so they can very easily succumb to anemia.
And that means that when I get a kitten in, the - one of the very first things I'm doing is checking them for fleas and immediately giving them a bath with warm water and, you know, baby shampoo so that I can get those fleas off of them. So if a kitten has fleas, and they're in my care, they don't have fleas for long. They - I get rid of them right away. And any fleas that are left behind are - they're dead. And then you can comb the fleas out of the kitten.
GROSS: And I've seen you comb fleas out of a kitten with a toothbrush.
SHAW: (Laughter) Well, yeah. You can use a flea comb. But I also - I use a toothbrush a lot in my nursery for many different reasons, you know, one, for grooming, but also for comfort. You know, I'm talking a lot about simulating maternal behaviors for these kittens. And mom cats, you know, they keep their kittens meticulously clean, and they also comfort them through licking. And so they have those, you know, barbed tongues. And a toothbrush is just about the right texture and size to help these kittens feel like they do have a mom who's licking them and comforting them and keeping them clean and being able to simulate those behaviors for the kittens helps them become, you know, better at grooming themselves and helps them feel, you know, well-adjusted and cared for.
GROSS: As the surrogate mother for the neonatal kittens that you adopt, you have to feed them. The really young ones, you have to feed them, like, every two hours. So you have to set, like, your alarm in the middle of the night every two hours to get up and feed the really super young ones.
SHAW: Yeah. You know, when I have a kitten who is 0 to 1 week old, those kittens really do need to be fed every two hours because their little bodies process everything so quickly, and they need to grow at such an exponential rate that they need to - you know, they do need to have small amounts of food every couple hours. Now, they grow so quickly. People always say, kids, they grow up so fast. And I'm like, no, they don't. They take 18 years to grow up.
SHAW: A kitten takes eight weeks. So it does happen very quickly, and two hours is only for the first week of life. Then it goes up from there to, you know, every three hours, every four hours, every five hours. And so the gift that you get of, you know, taking care of these kittens is, you get a little more rest and a little more of a break each time. But I have to say it's not that bad. When you have a little life depending on you, you're happy to wake up and give them the care they need. And it only takes a few minutes every few hours.
GROSS: Assuming you're home to do it.
SHAW: Well, you know, I have - a lot of people think you have to, you know, be working from home to be able to do neonatal kittens. And it's important for me to say, like, I have always had, you know, a full-time job, even when I got started. I actually lived in Philadelphia, and my first kittens that I had, I was working in the Philadelphia school district. I was working in the school system there. And in the beginning, I actually used to - and, you know, don't tell my old boss - I used to sneak my kittens in, (laughter), because they are so non-intrusive. And you might not think that, but, you know, they sleep in a little, you know, they sleep in a bag. For the first couple weeks of life, you can have them in a little kitten carrier under your desk. You feed 'em every couple hours.
And so I did that. Eventually, I, you know, spoke with my employers and got permission to take them with me and was able to show people, you know, hey, some people take a coffee break. I take a kitten break. And it doesn't have to be this, you know, intrusive, distracting thing at work. So that is one thing. But the other important thing for people to know is, if you're interested in saving kittens and you can't take them with you to work, you can still take care of kittens. You can take care of weaned kittens, 5 weeks-plus. Those kittens can feed themselves. You just, you know, open a can of food for them and you go about your day. You go to work. You, you know, go to sleep at night.
Those kittens can feed themselves. And you're just sort of monitoring and, you know, helping them socialize when you are home. Or you can do fostering with moms and their babies. So there's a lot of mother cats who have their baby kittens, and when they enter shelters, they're also at risk. 'Cause really, these little babies, they don't belong in animal shelters. They belong in foster homes. And so you can open your home to a mom cat and her babies. And what happens is you take care of mom. Mom takes care of babies.
You get all of the fun of caring for neonatal kittens without having to, you know, wake up and, you know, bring them to work with you and such. And it's really amazing to work with these mom cats because they teach you so much, too. Some of my best mentors have been mom cats taking care of their babies, who I can just learn from through observation.
GROSS: How many adult cats do you have, and how many kittens are you typically fostering at any one time?
SHAW: So my partner, Andrew, and I, we have three cats of our own. He brought one to our relationship, and I brought my two girls, Eloise and Coco. And so those are our permanent residents. We have three cats that permanently live with us who are our best friends and our family. And then we have, you know, a revolving door of kittens. And I, you know, I always pride myself on, like, flipping kittens like a used car salesman (laughter). Like, I get them out as soon as they're 8 weeks. They have an adopter set up, and they get out there so that I can get more in. So I have anywhere from, you know, five to 12 kittens at a time.
Sometimes I think people expect, you're Kitten Lady, you should have a hundred kittens in your house. But the reality is, a big part of doing this work well is knowing your boundaries and knowing what you can do well. So I am taking on kittens who are extremely vulnerable. Sometimes they have a, you know, a life-threatening illness, or they are in really critical condition. And I want to be able to give them the attention that they deserve so that they have the best chance to survive. So five to 12 is my comfortable zone. But everybody who fosters has to figure out what that is for them. And even if you're somebody who, you know, you, maybe you just foster one litter of kittens every year with your family - you say, in the summer, we foster one litter of kittens, and that's what we do.
Like, that's enough. Whatever people can contribute is perfect. For me, you know, I do a lot because this is my whole world. So five to 12 is my comfortable zone. But we have new kittens coming in all the time. And we do, you know, raise 'em quick, get 'em homes quickly, so that we can quickly go back out and save more. Because there are always more waiting to be saved.
GROSS: My guest is Hannah Shaw, aka Kitten Lady. Her new book about rescuing kittens is called "Tiny But Mighty." We'll talk more after a break. We'll also hear an excerpt of my 1988 interview with saxophonist and clarinetist Bob Wilber, who died last week. And TV critic David Bianculli will review the new anthology mystery series "Why Women Kill." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Hannah Shaw, aka Kitten Lady. She's become well-known in the world of cat lovers for rescuing kittens born on the street, including newborns if the mother has gone. She's saved hundreds of kittens.
Shaw is also known for her YouTube videos that show how she cares for neonatal kittens. She also travels around the country working as an animal advocate, consulting with shelters in cities and designing educational materials for people who are fostering or adopting kittens. Her new book about rescuing newborn kittens is called "Tiny But Mighty."
So there's a story I'd love for you to tell. You had gone with your partner on a hiking trip in the mountains of Peru. And then on the way back heading toward the airport, you found a little newborn kitten that was getting handled by a lot of kids, and it was kind of terrifying the kitten. So you and your partner Andrew, who is a cat photographer, wanted to adopt the kitten, but you were in Peru. I mean, you're a gazillion miles away from home. You're in a different country.
So why did you want to adopt this kitten, knowing the effort it would take to get on the plane that was leaving - what? - the next day?
SHAW: We were in Peru. And we had just finished this long hiking trip. And there was this little kitten, and she was absolutely covered in fleas. She was dreadlocked with filth. And she was very, very hungry. And so I held her in my hands, and her little body was so frail. And I looked at her, and I looked over at Andrew, and - you know, this is a moment where you really have to put your compassion to the test.
So, you know, we scooped her up. We were literally on our way to a train. I put her in my hoodie and snuck her onto the train. And here I am, like, you know, going through the mountains on a train in a country I don't live in with this kitten tucked into my shirt. And you do what you have to do, honestly.
I always say, do the right thing first and figure out the details later. We did all the research. How do we get a kitten back to the United States? What paperwork do we need? Bright and early the next morning, we were first in line at a veterinarian to get her her paperwork. And miraculously, we did get her back to the United States.
And I think her story is important because it genuinely illustrates that rescue is not just about having the knowledge of what to do and having the skillset. It's really about having the right mindset. And the mindset that you need to have to save lives is, I am willing to do the right thing first and figure out the details later. And I think you can really shock yourself with what you can achieve when you have that attitude.
That kitten, Munay, actually lives in Philadelphia now. She's 2 years old now, doing great - and what an awesome adventure for her to go on. She has more stamps in her passport than a lot of people do.
GROSS: Your partner - he's your fiance.
GROSS: His name is Andrew Marttila, and he's a cat photographer. So he does - he takes a lot of the pictures that are in your book. So how did you meet?
SHAW: Well, Andrew and I have maybe the cutest origin story ever because he was already a professional cat photographer, which I didn't know was a job, but I guess he didn't know professional kitten rescuer was a job. People kept telling us, oh, you have to meet each other. And I liked his work a lot.
At the time, I was fostering two neonatal kittens, who were both singletons. So one had come from a hoarding situation; the other had unfortunately been found outdoors with his siblings who had all passed. And so I took these two kittens in separately and was raising them separately for disease quarantine reasons. And I thought, wouldn't it be cute to do a photo shoot of these two baby kittens meeting another kitten for the first time - because they'd never met a cat or a kitten.
So I scheduled a photo shoot for Andrew to come, and we did this cute set of two orphaned kittens meeting together for the first time. And he got there, and I pretty immediately was like, whoa, who is this guy? It turned out we had so much more in common than just a love of feline advocacy, and we couldn't stop talking the whole day. And ultimately, those two kittens, Bruno and Boop, were able to get adopted together. They became best friends, and it turned out that Andrew and I were also inseparable.
So from that point on - I think our second date was at a cat cafe. And our third date, I taught him how to trap cats because he had never done TNR before. So we ended up being this, like, powerhouse of feline advocacy, and he was much more from the social media world than I was. I didn't know anything about the cat fandom element to all of this. I was just in the rescue world.
And so our relationship - I mean, it's obviously meaningful to me for many reasons which don't have anything to do with cats. But in terms of my career and my advocacy work, like, our relationship has really empowered both of us to create this really beautiful intersection between cat fanfare of the Internet and all of the love of cats that people have in the world and then intersect that with advocacy and teaching and showing people that you don't just have to wear the shirt if you like cats. You can also do something on their behalf.
GROSS: Was it because of Andrew that you started having a YouTube channel and thinking that that would be useful to your work and also fun for people to watch?
SHAW: No. I did have that already, but he was the one who really helped me even discover that there are cat conventions and things like that. I never was part of that world. I remember in the beginning, he would say, oh, you don't follow this cat on Instagram? You don't follow that cat on Instagram? And I was like, I didn't even know that, like, there were celebrity cats. I didn't know. I'm just doing - I'm just over here wiping butts. And then here he was, he had never bottle-fed a kitten. So I taught him about rescue, and he taught me about cat culture.
Now I'm immersed in that, you know. I spend so much of my time traveling and teaching at different conventions, and I'm friends with a lot of those celebrity cats now that people love. And it's been really cool to be part of that world because now I have that as a platform to recruit people. So I go to these conventions, and maybe people are there just to shop and find cute things that have cats on them. And I'm there with the message of, you know, a friendly face saying, hey, maybe we can do more.
GROSS: So your father, Tommy Shaw, was the guitarist and frontman for the band Styx.
SHAW: Yes, he is.
GROSS: When you were growing up, did you have, like, a rock childhood, whatever that is? Were you on the road a lot with your father? Did you meet all the band members all the time?
SHAW: Yeah, somewhat. I think that a lot of people maybe have a misconception about what that life looks like. My dad is a really hard worker, and I'm so proud of the work he does. But growing up with parents who are in the entertainment world, you don't necessarily have the traditional upbringing that a lot of people do. So I would say my childhood was, in some ways, novel and then, in some ways, characterized by a kind of instability 'cause I didn't have that consistent parental presence in my life as a kid. So I don't know the proper way to characterize it. I did definitely get to go to a lot of interesting shows as a kid. But my dad is a really hard worker, and work is his love.
GROSS: For a while, you were working with your father. And you ran the, like, nonprofit, charitable arm of Styx working with local organizations in places where Styx was touring. So what was that work like for you?
SHAW: Yeah. So they founded a nonprofit called Rock to the Rescue, which is a nonprofit that works with lots of different types of organizations. And it was really cool to have an opportunity to work with my dad just because, like I said, you know, we haven't gotten to spend that quality time together that a lot of people do get with their family.
GROSS: So for a while, your father was in a band with Ted Nugent...
GROSS: ...A band called Damn Yankees.
GROSS: And Ted Nugent, as most people know, is a gun rights activist. He hunts a lot. He's a supporter of President Trump. And it seems like cat rescue, kitten rescue, and hunting probably are not that compatible for you. I'm just speculating here.
GROSS: So is politics an issue you have to avoid if you see him?
SHAW: (Laughter) That is such a funny question. First of all, I'll start by saying I did grow up with Ted in my life. And all I can say about that is everybody has, you know, a crazy uncle, and mine was Uncle Ted. And he is definitely passionate in his beliefs. I did go on tour with him a couple years ago while we were doing fundraising. And when I was a little kid, I went to his house, and I was eating dinner. And he said, do you like that food that you're eating? And I said, yeah, it's good. And he said, it's Bambi. And...
SHAW: (Laughter) And it was so horrifying to me and probably partly why I decided, when I was 12, to become vegetarian and, when I was 15, to become vegan. And here I am. I've now been vegan more than half my life. And he and I don't agree on a lot. But the thing that's funny is I always say TNR is kind of like hunting but nice (laughter) because you are doing something very sneaky in trying to, like, capture these cats, except that the end result is that they get to live and that more lives are saved instead of killed. So maybe it would be fun to take him trapping some time and show him what it looks like to save a life.
GROSS: Yeah. Let me know if it happens (laughter).
GROSS: Hannah Shaw, thank you so much for talking with us.
SHAW: Thank you so much for having me on your program, Terry. It's been an honor.
GROSS: Hannah Shaw is the author of the new book "Tiny But Mighty: Kitten Lady's Guide To Saving The Most Vulnerable Felines." After a break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the new anthology mystery series "Why Women Kill." This is FRESH AIR.
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