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The Complicated Story of the Cat Man of Xujiahui

Michael Shirazi feeds a lot of cats. At least that much is true.
Last updated: 2020-02-24
Photos: Brandon McGhee
"Offbeat" is a column about stuff to look at or do in Shanghai that's interesting or weird (relatively, of course), that doesn't fit anywhere else.
Updated! Drama. I didn’t expect this. When I set off to interview an American guy in Xujiahui that I’d heard was feeding hundreds of stray cats a night, I expected someone generous. What I found during an hour with Michael Shirazi, 62, was an intensely spiritual man, who freely quoted Greek philosophers, Carl Jung and the Bhagavad Gita to explain why feeding the city’s stray cats has become his life's mission.

He claimed to be spending 15,000rmb a month on cat food and eating only one meal himself, while he struggled to pay for rent. “The only thing that will stop me,” he told me, “is death.”

We published the article. And then it blew up. The animal welfare community jumped on it, relating stories of Shirazi being kicked out of their groups, refusing to provide receipts for his purchases or allowing people to follow his feedings to verify where the money was going. The accusation was that he was keeping at least a portion of the money for himself.

So I went back to Shirazi and asked for proof. The story changed. No, he was not spending 15,000rmb a month. It was 6,000. No, 9,000. No, 7,000. The suppliers were in Xinjiang or on Taobao or friends helped him purchase it, or it came from a pet food fund he had not told us about before, but, no, he could not show a month's records. I should have checked this earlier but, really, who wants to suspect a grandfatherly figure of mixing animal welfare and personal money?

Still, Shirazi clearly has a heart for cats and whether he is feeding 50 or 200, he is out there doing some good for stray cats. (Other rescuers criticize his opposition to Trap-Neuter-Release principles.) So his story stays but any request for donations has been removed from this article, and replaced with a link to Second Chance Animal Aid.

Below, the man in his own words.

On Coming to China

I have an uncle who met Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai in the 60s and Mao Zedong gave him a book of stamps of all the Chinese stamps. When he returned he gave it to me because I collect stamps and since that day I’ve loved China and loved Mao.

I came here in 1997, doing business. I did really well in that period. In two years, I made enough money to open a factory in Brazil, manufacturing shoes and handbags for the Italian market. But that went down when the dollar collapsed and shoe prices doubled. A lot of my buyers moved to China, so I moved back in 2011. I thought, let me try again to make my fortune. But it’s very difficult. When I came in 1997 there was no competition. When I returned, things were very different. I was still doing business, trading, but it really declined tremendously, and I was doing a lot of business with Iran, and with the sanctions and stuff, that hit me tremendously, so I’m fairly back to square zero, actually.

It’s just a bad situation, very very bad situation, I’m really struggling to survive. But I’ve got this thing about feeding cats. I was feeding them in Brazil and I’ve been feeding them here for the last eight years. I haven’t missed a night, I haven’t missed a day. It’s very difficult for me to extract myself from this serious responsibility I’ve taken upon myself.

On Family and Love

They’ve become my family. I don’t only give them food, I also give them love and I teach them love. And part of them turn around, really somewhere very mean, you know, some really mean ones, they start reciprocating, I guess they’ve given up on love because their lives are so miserable and so terrible. I mean I can literally feel their pain. Because I’m really into spirituality and yoga and meditation. I still feel like life is really beautiful if you can only allocate time towards understanding it. It is. Incredible. If it wasn’t for my spiritual strength, I probably would have buckled over, many times over.

The reason for my gravitating towards the cats is, I developed myself spiritually for many, many years since I was young, I have a lot of empathy in me. When you become more spiritual you tend to become more compassionate, and kinder and more loving, so, it’s because of empathy. I can literally feel the pain of the these cats, I mean literally feel it, it hurts my heart. So if you see them, they get their one meal and the way they eat their meal it’s like, how can anyone deprive anyone of a meal? And then there are people who poison them all the time, and that is a very emotional experience for me, because I can’t see suffering.

On The Divine Presence, and Cat Food

I had an incredible experience in 1988 when I was meditating and that changed my life actually. That was a complete life changer for me because I was meditating for like an hour and 45 minutes and I suddenly started feeling very light and I was feeling very nervous because it’s the first time I had experience something like this. And then suddenly I was immersed in love. This light, this bright light made of love, my hair was all standing up, it was like saluting to the divine presence, everything was like wow, every cell in my body was awakened by this experience and then I realized God is Love, a very very powerful force that lies very very silently within you and to reach it you have to go within, and the closer you go towards it, the more kinder, the more compassionate, the more empathetic, your humanity starts blossoming more. Our happiness is our birthright.

So because of my closeness to the divine presence I started sharing all its attributes really and that’s how this all came about. I was feeding cats in my compound, first I started off with that. And my wife was cool with it. Then I saw cats from the neighborhood coming in to eat their food. And I said, instead of them coming in, let me go out to them, so these guys have their food and they don’t have fights, so I started going out in the neighborhood, further and further, so I do like a 3-mile radius. It’s 20 kilo of dry food and canned food. I always keep one can with me, I have one in my jacket, in case I see a cat, I always have one with me. It always happens that I see a desperate cat crying, so I always take some with me.

Then once you start feeding them, they expect you, so you go every day, and then my wife started giving me problems and then finally we split up — the cats were one of the main reasons. So I lost my son, he was two years old at that time, that was six years ago. But now he calls me ten times a day, they live very close by, very convenient.

On Struggles

I still love life, even though, really, I’ve never been through such a difficult period. I’m struggling for rent, I’m struggling for food, it’s very difficult, I can’t get a job, I’m 62 years old, so I’m in a quandary. I can’t go back to Pakistan, where I was born. My 8-year-old son is very attached to me.

On Giving Up The Cats and Nightly Feedings

I can’t give up the cats. Only death can pull me apart from them. I mean seriously. I cant, I cant, I cant. I can feel them waiting for me, they’re hungry, I can feel it. You know, if suddenly my business is going well or I hit a jackpot, I’ll hire someone, someone honest, to make sure they get their one meal. Otherwise I’ll have to do it myself.

Other people don’t have that drive, that passion, that love, that it takes to feed them. It takes a lot of love to feed them every night, sometimes until six in the morning. I start at normally 11, and I finish at 4.30am, 5am. But sometimes I have some problems, a cat in distress, cat in a tree, I have to help, or a poisoned cat, or I have to feed kittens…

On Sick People and Death

There was a woman once staring at me. So I walked up to her and I said, oh you like cats? And she said, I Hate cats. I said, you hate cats? I said no no no no, you don’t hate cats. You actually hate yourself. How can you hate something – you don’t hate cats, I can help you, you need to bring some love into your life… she just walked off. But a few days later, my favorite cat, a mother cat, I was feeding her for seven years, bright as hell, she got poisoned. By that woman. I know who is doing it. Because I am in that area. Very sick person.

The problem… I think the cats should all die. Really. Their lives are daily nightmares, it’s a daily nightmare for them. And the thing is, when they get the rat poison, because that’s what they do, it’s cheap, the cheapest form of poison, what happens is they suffer for two days before they die. This organ is failing, that organ is failing, and they’re in pain. I usually find them on the last day, and I don’t take them to hospital because they are going to die anyway and I don’t have the money, so I just comfort them. They prefer to be with me. We cry together.

On Incarnation

I have five cats at home but I’ve had over 100 in the last eight years. I mean, it’s inconvenient for me, they’re messy, I have to clean up all the time, but, you know, life is a sacrifice. I feel good that I can at least try to make this incarnation of their lives easier.

I very truly believe, I can feel it, that their souls were in human form before and they did some nasty things, some of them are really nasty. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. Why would somebody go through so much suffering, and someone else has a good life. For me, this makes more sense, that they’ve done something in a previous life, and now they are expatiating for their sins. This makes more logic.

They were human before. I think most people don’t become cats. But some terrible souls that have done some terrible things, put many people through pain and suffering… they become cats.

On The Effect of Coronavirus

You know, since the outbreak, more cats suddenly emerge because a lot of people are not feeding them. Maybe they are afraid of them, thinking they will get some virus. But if you don’t feed them, their immune system is going to get very weak and then they ARE susceptible to getting all kinds of diseases.

Coronavirus has nothing to do with cats, you know? But I’ve seen some cats recently, I think they were thrown out. Dogs too, I see them, it breaks my heart. Compassion is not restricted to species, everyone should be a recipient of kindness and love and all of that.

When I was growing up in Bangladesh, we had deer, rabbits, two monkeys, I had a baby mongoose – in fact, I feed mongoose here in Shanghai. They eat the cat food. Shanghai is full of them.

On His Calling and a Call For Help

It’s a higher calling for me. Feeding the cats. It’s spiritual calling. It’s the right thing to do, to help those that are dealt very bad cards. The Buddha said life is suffering. And our role in life is to lessen that suffering. Not just in our life but to reach out as many as you can.

I am now at 200, 220, 250 cats. It costs me 15,000rmb a month. And people are helping me, but not that much. People send me money on WeChat or send me cat food. But I really need the help. I’m dying, I’m crying, I just… cannot stop feeding the cats. This idea, it really upsets me. I’m spending 15k and I’m still running short.

I love for people to exercise their kindness and compassion and love and join me and my rescue, or join me in any possible way, helping me feed these cats. Hear this plea very seriously. When you give, you receive also. I really need the help, I just cannot extricate myself from this enormous responsibility I’ve taken on myself. It’s impossible. I’d rather be dead. I’d rather be dead. I’m serious.

People think I am crazy. My friends say, man you are crazy. Who is more important, the cats or you? they ask. I say, yes, the cats are more important.

What am I? I’m one life. They are hundreds of lives. Obviously they are. I really need the help.

How did we find this guy and is he for real? SmartShanghai found and approached Shirazi, not the other way around, through our trademark secret channels (a Rubik's cube and tea leaves). He did not come to us seeking money or exposure. We didn't ask for receipts to prove how much he spends on cat food but during our time with him, on two separate occasions, we found no reason to doubt him.

It turns out we should have.

After publishing the original article, a number of members of the animal welfare community contacted us to suggest he may not be completely transparent about his finances, a fact we confirmed in subsequent exchanges with him.


If you'd like to donate to a transparent organization, Second Chance Animal Aid comes strongly recommended.