Dr. Kwane Stewart has seen this before—a crisis of huge proportion, affecting millions of people financially, resulting in pets being abandoned as people struggle to survive. Today it’s COVID-19, but in 2008 it was the Great Recession, and the fallout was the same: People losing their jobs, struggling to pay the rent or mortgage, and dropping their pets at shelters out of desperation.
If you live or work in Los Angeles, you may have seen Dr. Kwane walking the neighborhoods. They call him The Street Vet. He arrives in scrubs, medical bag in hand, stopping to chat with the people perched here and there, holding tight to their dog, cat or bird. Over the last eight years, he’s covered miles of territory, looking for the pets and people that other pedestrians seem to try not to see. He offers a smile, conversation, and then, if the owner accepts, a professional veterinary exam. Right there, on the spot, for pets who live on the streets of Los Angeles with their owners.
He’s The Street Vet—veterinarian, animal advocate, public speaker—and now, media personality. Because if you haven’t actually seen him on the street, you can catch him on his docuseries of the same name: The Street Vet airing internationally.
Keeping animals safe has been his overarching purpose throughout his life. Growing up in New Mexico, he was always bringing home stray animals, hoping to save them all. He worked as a veterinarian in traditional brick-and-mortar practices, ultimately landing in California, serving mostly people who could pretty easily afford veterinary care for their pets. Then the financial crisis known as the Great Recession struck in 2008. He saw firsthand how people, barely making ends meet and in panic mode, abandoned their pets at local shelters, believing they could no longer care for them.
Dr. Kwane went on to become the County Veterinarian for the Stanislaus Animal Services Agency in Modesto, then Chief Veterinary Officer at American Humane, which included serving as National Director of the legacy No Animals Were Harmed® program. Today, he continues to look out for animals, working for Netflix as the movie set animal expert for both movies and commercials. That is, when he’s not practicing veterinary medicine, fundraising for his clients, or speaking on behalf of animal causes.
“The best part of my interactions is simply taking the time to listen, especially because they light up when they talk about their companion.”
He spent Mother’s Day this year at the San Diego Convention Center, a temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness in the area that became a pop-up veterinary clinic for the day. He and his colleagues gave pets basic checkups, vaccinations, and dental exams, while determining who needed follow-up care and making arrangements for that care.
Pet Companion Magazine spoke to Dr. Kwane about his work and the people and pets he serves.
Is it true that it all started with a table at a soup kitchen in Modesto? Tell me what happened when you set up that table and why it had such an impact on you.
Yes, I decided one day to set up a makeshift clinic near a soup kitchen. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that day I saw about 15 pets. It was an amazing feeling to help pets that I knew might never receive treatment otherwise. What I thought was going to be a one-off turned into eight years of helping the underserved.
How did your series, The Street Vet, come to be? What message do you hope people will take away when they watch it?
I crossed paths with a producer in Hollywood, and we started talking about my work. He said, “I think that’s a docuseries!” And that’s where it began. What I’d like people to see when they watch is simply that people experiencing homelessness are people. They’ve fallen on hard times, but they just want a better life, like we all do. And sometimes what they need is help, not judgment.
Along with medical care, you’ve also been known to arrange for training sessions where they’re needed and offer some of your own training advice.
As a vet, you find that not all care is strictly medical in nature. Sometimes keeping a pet healthy and safe requires training or advice. I try to provide whatever I can that will give that pet a better life and a better relationship with their owner.
Does providing vet care on the streets change the nature of your vet-client relationship?
Not really. When I’m providing them service, no matter where we are—even, say, next to a traffic light—then that becomes my clinic, and they are my client. I give them the same time and respect that I would give any paying customer.
What you provide seems like much more than veterinary care.
I’ve found that just listening and showing interest and compassion—for them and their pet—is a huge boost to their hope and dignity. Since they are so often mistreated and judged, it seems to restore a little bit of their faith that there are people who want to help without asking for anything in return.
You’ve seen how much these pets mean to your clients. Can you tell us about their special relationships?
The bond that these people share is of a magnitude much higher than that of the average pet owner. Keep in mind, they are with their pet every minute of every day. That’s not the case with most of us. The bond and the relationship they share is unlike any I’ve observed in my regular practice.
“The bond and the relationship they share is unlike any I’ve observed in my regular practice.”
What do you like most about your work on the streets?
It’s gratifying that I’m able to step in and make an immediate impact on an animal’s suffering or discomfort. In some moments, it feels indescribably rewarding … like a superpower! (Growing up I wanted to be a vet or Batman—I joke that I get to be both on the streets.)
What are the challenges?
There aren’t many challenges. I’ve never felt threatened or scared. People are pleasant and grateful. I suppose that, for a while, the money was the biggest hurdle. Since I self-financed this project for so long, at times I would struggle to pay for or find a vet that would cover heavy expenses, such as a surgery.
What would you like us to know about your clients and their pets?
That homeless people are people, just like us. They are no different, and we are not better. They’ve fallen on hard times and need help and compassion. And their pets are a lifeline to their sanity and hope.
What can we do to help?
You can donate to one of the many causes that support those in need, including my project, Project Street Vet (gofundme.com/f/thestreetvet), as well as The Street Dog Coalition (thestreetdogcoalition.org) and Feeding Pets of the Homeless (petsofthehomeless.org). Also, if you come across a pet in need, ask your vet if they might consider sponsoring the care of the pet. And if they can’t, consider donating money to that vet to the help cover the costs.
Throughout his 20-year career, Dr. Kwane has found various avenues to fulfill what he knows is his calling—to better the lives of animals through education and awareness. His call comes from deep in his heart, which softens every time he sees an animal in need. But ask him, and he’ll tell you that he gets every bit as much out of being The Street Vet as he gives to it.
“The best part of my interactions is simply taking the time to listen,” he explains, “especially because they light up when they talk about their companion.” He says no matter who we are—rich or poor, famous or not—when he hears his clients gush about their pets, “We all sound the same. And I love that!”
You can watch Dr. Kwane on his YouTube Channel, The Street Vet.
Want to help?
Visit Dr. Kwane The Street Vet on Go Fund Me to donate.