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 huge animal lover and for a while she had a ranch, so we always had animals around the house and they were a part of my life,” Stewart said. “At a young age, I developed this connection with animals. There is nothing more organic than that bond with another living creature.”
Stewart recalled deciding to become a veterinarian when he 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 left, I looked at her and told her that when she grew up she wanted to be an animal doctor.”
After graduating from Colorado State University’s renowned College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Stewart moved to San Diego, where he began his career as a veterinarian. After a decade, he moved to Modesto and worked at the municipal animal shelter in Stanislaus County, which was an eye opener for him.
“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 shelters before and it was a wake up call.”
Pets were regularly turned over to the shelter, and Stewart grew exhausted in her role, hating the fact that she had to euthanize up to 60 healthy animals a day. But during his time at the shelter, Stewart also brought about many positive changes, including the construction of a 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, a park or a place where you can go and find your next family member,” Stewart said. “I started working with members of the city council and the community. I educated on the importance of spaying and neutering and drastically 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 appeared to have a serious skin condition, so he introduced himself and offered to help. That ended up being a life-changing moment for Stewart, the dog, and his owner.
“He seemed so shocked 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 condition, but when a dog has it for a long time, it completely tears their skin. I promised him I’d come back the next day with my kit. The next day I went back and treated the dog in a few minutes, then went to work. I saw them a week and a half later and the dog was completely transformed with healthy skin and wagging his tail. The owner was crying and thanked me for helping. But I was also saved at the time because he inspired me to go back to saving animals and do it on my own terms. From that day on, I walked the streets to find others like him to help.”
After five years at the shelter, Stewart moved to Los Angeles in 2012 when he became the director of veterinary medicine for American Humane and the national director of the No Animals Harmed program, which oversees the treatment of animals on movie sets.
“They were looking for a veterinarian for the first time in 75 years to run the show after there were some highly publicized incidents and deaths that happened on film sets,” Stewart said.
“They conducted a nationwide search and I beat out 150 qualified vets across the country. There couldn’t be a more dramatic contrast between what he was doing one day and the next. I went from spaying, neutering and slaughtering 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 nights, 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 eye 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 downtime on sets, so I was chatting with a producer and sharing stories of the people I’ve met on Skid Row. He found it fascinating, and the next thing I knew, I had the green light for my own reality show.”
The first episode of “The Street Vet” premiered in July 2019 and aired in 28 countries around the world. The series followed Stewart as he helped the homeless and his pets, highlighting some of the heartwarming stories and making his private mission public.
“I’m happy that my work is inspiring to a lot of people,” Stewart said. “People from all over the world have contacted 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 would like to find more people like me who can start doing this work in different places.”
Stewart admitted that his work as a street vet has also changed his view of the homeless.
“Sadly, I used to judge them, but after meeting a lot of them on a personal level and learning their stories, I’ve completely regressed,” Stewart said.
“Many of them are disabled, mentally ill or unable to get back on track due to substance abuse or financial problems. Many of these people were normal like you and me. They lost their job, their home, then slept in their car thinking their situation was temporary. Then they lost their car, they’re on the corner and it’s been over a year. For many of these people, their dog is their reason and purpose. These dogs provide protection, companionship and keep them grounded.”
According to Stewart, about 20% of the homeless population (1 in 5 homeless people) have a pet. The 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority states that Skid Row’s homeless population is estimated at nearly 5,000 people within 0.4 square miles (50 square blocks) from DTLA.
“I’ve met hundreds of animals on Skid Row,” Stewart said.
“A lot of homeless people are hassled, so naturally when a stranger approaches them, they’re wary, but as soon as I announce who I am and my intentions, they light up. I kneel down and give immediate attention to the animal. In a matter of minutes, the comfort of the person grows, this door opens and we begin to connect. They see that I am there for a good reason and I am helping what is most important to them in their world. They will begin to share personal stories with me, and I give them the same respect I would a paying client at a clinic. When I walk away, 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 she has treated include rats and Pythons. The most common medical problems she sees and treats among homeless pets are skin and ear conditions. In her medicine cabinet she carries an arsenal of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and vaccines. When Stewart comes across a more serious problem that he’s not prepared to handle on the street, he’ll refer the person to a nearby veterinary hospital so he can get his pet the treatment he needs.
“Some of these dogs may need surgery for something like tumor removal,” Stewart said. “I’ll call a colleague and ask if he can do it pro bono or reduce the cost. Many vets are really good about it. For the better part of eight years, I did this out of pocket until I started a GoFundMe two years ago.”
Stewart has cared for more than 1,000 pets through volunteer work before 2020, when she founded her nonprofit organization, Project Street Vet. Now a San Diego resident, Stewart still drives regularly to continue his work on Skid Row. He 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 in a pet carrier through its system to experience what the pets had to endure, Stewart also consults for Netflix, where he reads scripts and creates risk assessments alongside the necessary precautions for each project to ensure the safety and comfort of the animals. Some of the films Stewart has consulted include “The Power of the Dog” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Stewart’s latest venture is as Chief Veterinary and Medical Director of Papaya Pet Care, a series of full-service veterinary clinics for cats and dogs that provide a fearless experience for pets along with general wellness care, specialty 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 technology-enabled, including telehealth visits.
“We make the office visit experience for the pet and pet owner as comfortable and stress-free as possible,” said Stewart. “All clinics are beautifully designed with state-of-the-art equipment. We’re also adding ways to help people experiencing financial hardship to make sure their pets can get the care they need. We are also looking for more 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, he continues to provide her with a sense of accomplishment and purpose, and he hopes others will do the same in his own way.
“I feel like we’re at a time in society where there’s a shortage of tolerance and kindness,” Stewart said. “Little things that used to be built into our society, like holding the door for someone, seem to be coming out, and it’s sad. I believe that bigotry stops people from making kind gestures, and I hope to show through the work I do that we need to start caring for each other again. We’re all human beings. I am a veterinarian, and although much of my attention is directed towards 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 new skateboard for him. It’s amazing what those little gestures can do for someone.”
Veterinary Street Project