Dr. Kwane Stewart has loved animals since he was a child. In Albuquerque, he grew up surrounded by dogs, cats, chickens, cattle and horses.
“My mom was a big animal lover and for a while she had a ranch, so we always had animals in the house and they were a part of my life,” Stewart said. “At a very young age, I developed this bond with animals. There is nothing more organic than this bond with another living creature.
Stewart remembers deciding to become a veterinarian when she was 7 years old.
“My mom took me to see ‘The Black Stallion’ and I was glued to the screen the whole time,” Stewart said. “When we walked out, I looked at her and said when I grow up I want to be an animal doctor.”
After graduating from the renowned College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University, Stewart moved to San Diego, where he began his career as a veterinarian. After a decade, he moved to Modesto and worked at the Stanislaus County Municipal Animal Shelter, which opened his eyes.
“It was during the recession and I was working in a very depressed part of California,” Stewart said. “Modesto was ground zero for homelessness. I took the job because I wanted the challenge and they needed a vet. I had never worked in a shelter before, and that was a red flag.
Pets were regularly turned over to the shelter and Stewart burned out in his role, hating the fact that he had to euthanize up to 60 healthy animals a day. But during her time at the shelter, Stewart also made a lot of positive changes, including building a brand new state-of-the-art shelter.
“My vision was that a shelter shouldn’t be a pound. I see it as part of the community like a library, or a park, or a place where you can pick up your next family member,” Stewart said. “I started working with members of the municipal council and the community. I raised awareness of the importance of neutering and neutering and dramatically improved our adoption rate. I took our euthanasia rate from one of the worst in the country to one of the best.
In 2011, he saw a homeless man with his dog outside a 7-Eleven. The dog seemed to have a bad skin condition, so he showed up and offered to help. It ended up being a life-changing moment for Stewart, the dog, and his owner.
“He looked so surprised and said he didn’t know what to do, his dog was in pain and it was the most important thing in his life,” Stewart said.
“It was a simple flea disease, but when a dog has this for a long time, it completely tears the skin. I promised him that I would be back the next day with my medical kit. The next day I came back and treated the dog in minutes and then went to work, saw them again a week and a half later and the dog was completely transformed with healthy skin and tail wagging, the owner was crying and thanked me for helping. But I was also saved at that time because it inspired me to start saving animals again and to do it on my terms. From that day on, I walked the streets to find other people like him to help me.
After five years at the shelter, in 2012 Stewart moved to Los Angeles when he became chief veterinarian for American Humane and national director of the No Animals Harmed program, which oversees the treatment of animals on film sets.
“They were looking for a veterinarian for the first time in 75 years to run the program after some high profile incidents and deaths on film sets,” Stewart said.
“They organized a nationwide search and I beat 150 qualified vets across the country. There couldn’t have been a more dramatic contrast between what I was doing one day and the next. I went from neutering and euthanizing animals to being on set with Tommy Lee Jones and seeing how movies are made.
For the next seven years, Stewart continued his work as a street vet on weekends and evenings, providing free medical care to homeless people and their pets on Skid Row. But one day, while talking about his secret mission on set, Stewart caught the attention of a producer.
“People always asked me why I didn’t share what I was doing with anyone, but I wasn’t looking for attention,” Stewart said. “I just wanted to do it to help others. There’s a lot of dead time on set, so I was chatting with a producer and sharing stories from people I’d met on Skid Row. He found it fascinating, and the next thing I knew I got the green light for my own reality TV show.
The first episode of “The Street Vet” debuted in July 2019 and aired in 28 countries around the world. The series followed Stewart as he helped the homeless and their pets, bringing some of the heartwarming stories to light and turning his private mission into a public mission.
“I’m glad my work inspires a lot of people,” Stewart said. “I’ve had people from all over the world contact me asking how they can help me and replicate what I’m doing. For the first time recently, two vets followed me while I was working. In an ideal world, I’d like to find more people like me who can start doing this job in different places.
Stewart admitted that her work as a street vet has also changed her view of homelessness.
“Unfortunately, I used to judge them, but after getting to know a lot of them on a personal level and learning their stories, I completely backed off,” Stewart said.
“Many of them are disabled, mentally ill or cannot get back on track due to drug addiction or economic problems. Many of these people were normal, just like you and me. They lost their jobs, their homes, and then slept in their cars thinking their situation was temporary. Then they lost their car, are around the corner and it’s been over a year. For many of these people, their dog is their reason for being and their purpose. These dogs offer them protection, companionship and keep them grounded.
According to Stewart, about 20% of the homeless population (1 in 5 homeless people) own a pet. The 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count by the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority indicates that Skid Row’s homeless population is estimated at nearly 5,000 within a 0.4 square mile (50 block) radius. houses) of DTLA.
“I’ve encountered hundreds of animals on Skid Row,” Stewart said.
“A lot of homeless people are harassed, so naturally when a stranger approaches them they are cautious, but as soon as I announce who I am and my intentions, they light up. I kneel down and pay immediate attention to the animal. Within minutes, the person’s comfort grows, that door opens, and we begin to connect. They see that I’m here for a reason and helping what’s most important to them in their world. They’ll start sharing personal stories with me, and I give them the same respect I would a paying client at a clinic. When I leave, there is often an exchange of hugs and tears, and I have made a new friend.
While Stewart primarily treats dogs and cats, some of the other unusual pets he has treated include rats and a python. The most common medical issues he sees and treats in homeless pets are skin and ear problems. In his medical kit, he carries an arsenal of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and vaccines. When Stewart encounters a more serious problem that he isn’t equipped to handle on the streets, he refers the person to a nearby animal hospital so they can get the treatment their pet needs.
“Some of these dogs may need surgery for something like tumor removal,” Stewart said. “I’m going to call a colleague and ask if he can do it pro bono or cut costs. A lot of vets are really good at this. For most of eight years I did this out of pocket until I started a GoFundMe two years ago.
Stewart cared for more than 1,000 pets through volunteer work before 2020, when he founded his nonprofit, Project Street Vet. Now a resident of San Diego, Stewart drives regularly to continue his work on Skid Row. It also provides medical care to homeless pets in San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, Santa Monica and Venice Beach.
In addition to developing United Airlines’ Pet Safe program after traveling a pet crate through its system to find out what pets have had to endure, Stewart is also a consultant for Netflix, where he reads scripts and creates risk assessments and necessary precautions for each project to ensure animal safety and comfort. Some of the movies Stewart has consulted on include “The Power of the Dog” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Stewart’s latest venture is as Chief Medical Officer and Chief Veterinarian for Papaya Pet Care, a series of full-service veterinary clinics for cats and dogs that provide a fearless experience for pets, as well as expert care. general well-being, specialized dental care and vaccinations.
They recently opened their first clinic in Carmel Valley, San Diego, and plan to roll out more than 50 locations throughout California. They offer transparent pricing, a membership model for all budgets, and are packed with technology, including telehealth visits.
“We make the office visit experience for pet and parent as comfortable and stress-free as possible,” Stewart said. “All clinics are beautifully designed with state-of-the-art equipment. We also incorporate ways to help people in financial difficulty ensure that their pet can get the care they need. We are also looking for other good vets to join us who want to make a difference and help save animals.
Looking back on his 25 years as a veterinarian, Stewart has made a difference in the lives of many people and animals. While it hasn’t always been easy, it continues to give him a sense of fulfillment and purpose, and he hopes others will do the same in their own way.
“I feel like we’re in a time in society where there’s a lack of tolerance and kindness,” Stewart said. “Little things that were built into our society, like holding the door for someone, seem to be on the way out, and that’s sad. I think intolerance keeps people from doing kind gestures, and I hope to demonstrate through the work I do that we need to start caring for each other again. We are all human beings. I’m a veterinarian, and although much of my attention goes to animals, I try to help people whenever I can. A guy down the street was missing a skateboard wheel, so I showed up the next day with a brand new skateboard for him. It’s amazing what these little gestures will do for someone.
Street vet project