When Dr. Kwane Stewart first began treating pets of people experiencing homelessness in California about 12 years ago, he didn’t tell a soul. He said that he had a steep learning curve as he stopped to talk with people on the streets he might have previously ignored.
“I had a lot of judgments,” he said during a recent interview with Veterinary33 at the VMX convention in Orlando, Florida.
“I say that word regrettably but transparently because it was my chance to grow as well,” Stewart added. Today, he runs a nonprofit with his brother, Ian, and has Street Vet teams in Orlando, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. An additional team will soon launch in San Francisco, and Stewart is based in San Diego. Stewart, our first featured veterinarian, was recently interviewed by NPR, CNN and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.
Stewart and his team regularly post videos on YouTube, where you’ll also find a docu-series on his work. He received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Colorado State University. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Q: It’s a challenging time for people who are homeless in major cities. How has your mindset shifted since you started this work?
Stewart: I would see an able-bodied man panhandling, 30 years old, and I would think: ‘you could get a job. Why are you doing this?’ But what I’ve learned, and the journey continues, is that I’m still learning.
It’s not my place to write their story for them. I’ve sat and talked with a lot of these folks I’ve met for two and a half hours on a street corner after examining their dog. I get to know them on a human level. They may have a past, or they’ve had issues to overcome. In a lot of cases, what’s happened is out of their control. People say: ‘you can always work or get off drugs,’ but when you’ve had an abusive childhood, or you haven’t had an equal fighting chance like I had, it’s easy for me to judge you.
What I’ve found especially in the last 10 or 12 years I’ve been doing this, the judgement has gone away, and I just see a human being. I see a person. Early on, I would say a lot of what I heard anecdotally seemed to be related to substance abuse or mental health issues. But these days, it seems economic. The problem is growing and growing. When you talk about now, the hatred toward some of these people, it’s because we’re unable to stop the growth.
If you lived in a city where maybe you came across a homeless individual once a month or every few months and that was your experience, your heart would go out to them. You’d want to help them. But when you feel like they’re invading your neighborhood or they’re on the street corner of your favorite coffee shop, it floods into a different mindset. People are just angry at the homeless almost for no reason. It’s unfortunate.
Q: You started the Street Vet after your day job got to be too much, too stressful. What was happening at that time in your life?
Stewart: Working at the county animal shelter opened my eyes to a lot of things. It caused some unfortunate side effects. I started becoming despondent and depressed, looking back. At the time, I didn’t recognize it, but I was slipping. I found myself wanting to quit not just the shelter but being a veterinarian all together. This was only 13 years into my career, a career I thought I would have for a lifetime. I sacrificed everything for my career and studied hard, had student loans up the wazoo. But I thought at that time: I can’t do this anymore. It was the euthanasia; it was a lot of things.
But on this one day, I ran into a homeless individual who owned a pet. This was the same guy I ignored previously, I had seen him maybe a dozen times and didn’t even make eye contact. He was outside of the same 7-11 I would go to for gas and coffee before going to work.
And, on this day, I felt like I couldn’t go into work. I decided to talk to him. I saw his dog, from six feet away, had a bad skin condition. When I got closer I could tell it was fleas. What a lot of people don’t know is that when you have a chronic flea condition, it destroys the skin. This dog looked like a burn victim. The dog’s hind end had no hair, it was red and bumpy, infected, and bleeding. I announced who I was, ‘my name is Kwane Stewart, I’m a veterinarian. If you’re here tomorrow, I’ll bring something that I think will help.’
I returned the next day with some basic flea treatment. It cost me $3 out of my pocket. It transformed that dog’s life. I saw the same dog 10 days later and she was wagging her tail. I think back to that moment, and I still get emotional because he was sitting in the same spot, and he looked up at me. This dog now had a smile on her face. He said: ‘Thank you for not ignoring me. Thank you.’
That was the moment for me. That was the kickoff. I said to myself: ‘I’m going to go out and save animals in the way I want to save them.’
That was day one of the Street Vet, that was 12 years ago, and I haven’t stopped. It’s the reason I still have the same fire that I had going into vet school.
Q: When you’re not the Street Vet, you also work on movie sets to protect animals. What is that job like for you?
Stewart: I went straight from shelter work to protecting animals on film sets, to doing movie work, which is a complete transition. It’s fun and it feels rewarding because people are always thanking you. They say: ‘You’re the veterinarian. Oh, cool. I love what you do.’
I needed that because I was suffering inside. But the beauty of our profession is there’s so many different things you can do within the industry. It might be academia or pharmaceuticals, shelter work or animal welfare animal work on set like I did, which includes shaking hands and meeting A-listers. But I would suggest that you stay in the career you’re made for, but you find another way to serve animals.
Q: You’ve expanded your reach and have formed new partnerships with companies including Fetch by the Dodo pet insurance. What does this additional support mean?
Stewart: About a year ago, Fetch approached me and said: ‘We love what you do, we’d love to be a part of this, and help you grow it.’ So, I went from doing this work quietly in southern California to now, having teams, Street Vet disciples as they call themselves.
So now, I can dream. This project is expanding. If I could share my ultimate dream, which I wouldn’t have even dared to do two years ago, I would make medical care accessible to pets of homeless individuals in all the major urban areas of our country. That would be my dream.
Fetch came up with a cool, catchy campaign, 101 donations, and it ran for the last two months of the year. They matched dollar for dollar any donation that came in and we exceeded the 101.
In the last two months of 2022, we raised close to $250,000. For context, we officially launched the charity in 2020. In 2021, we raised $180,000. Last year in 2022, it was $600,000.
It’s growing at a wide clip. All the people that do the work, from veterinarians to technicians to assistants, they all volunteer their time. So, everything goes to medical expenses. There’s some overhead with running the charity but we can make a dollar work for us. I pride myself on that. I’ve never taken a dollar for myself. We put every dollar towards the pet.
Q: Why does your work resonate with people?
Stewart: I believe a big part of it is the world seems to be experiencing a shortage of kindness. We’re quick to judge. The temperature in society is up for political reasons, for religious reasons. Racially, this is more of a hotbed than it’s ever been since I was a child. People just have their blinders on.
It’s hard for a Democrat to see a Republican as a human being. That’s how bad things have gotten. It holds you back from doing something kind. I believe kindness is the fuel for the world. It’s what keeps us on the right tilt of axis, moving forward and progressing. When a society lacks empathy and kindness, you start to tumble into this dark corner. I remind people that an act of kindness, just one simple act of kindness can change someone’s day. But a gesture of kindness can change someone’s life. If you just find it in yourself, whether it’s holding the door for somebody or going much grander, those little things add up and they do make a difference.
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