SAN DIEGO -- About once a week, North County veterinarian Kwane Stewart heads down to San Diego's East Village to make his rounds, serving the community of dogs, cats, rats and birds who are the treasured pets of downtown's homeless community.
Some of these unhoused pets have flea-related skin allergies and ear infections. Some need vaccines. Some are losing their teeth to gum disease and some have overgrown toenails in dire need of a trim. For 10 years, the Carmel Mountain Ranch resident has been offering free veterinary care to homeless individuals from San Diego to San Francisco.
It's a hobby he started in 2012 while working as an animal shelter veterinarian in Central California, and it has remained his part-time pastime through jobs in Hollywood and now San Diego, where he launched his latest veterinary enterprise, Papaya Pet Care, last month in Carmel Valley.
Stewart's efforts to aid homeless pets have drawn international attention and praise over the years. In 2017, a Netflix producer underwrote "Street Vet," an internationally distributed docu-series that followed Stewart as he ministered to pets on the streets of L.A.'s Skid Row and beyond. In 2020, he was profiled on NBC's "Today" show. In 2021, the locally based crowdfunding website GoFundMe named Stewart one of its GoFundMe Heroes. And in January, he was profiled in Smithsonian Magazine.
Stewart, 51, said he's compelled to keep returning to the streets because he believes there's a growing shortage in the world of tolerance and kindness for others, particularly the homeless.
"The strongest message I send is no judgment," he said. "When I'm out in the street, it's not my place to judge them or write their story for them. I'm there to help, and I'm trying to spread that message because we have gotten away from looking out for each other."
Stewart grew up in Albuquerque, where his parents — his father was an NFL player-turned-teacher and his mom a banker-turned-teacher — were huge animal lovers. By age 6, he knew he wanted to be a veterinarian and he dreamed of working in a posh seaside clinic in San Diego. After graduating from a Colorado veterinary science program in 1997, he loaded up his old Mustang and drove to Southern California, where he said he spent the next decade as "a spoiled young vet working with clients that had bottomless bank accounts who could afford to do anything I suggested and recommended."
But his life and values changed dramatically in 2008 when he took a job as head veterinarian at a county-run animal shelter in Stanislaus County, an area that was devastated during the Great Recession. The work was exhausting and demoralizing. Some mornings he'd arrive at work and there would be four to six boxes of homeless kittens that had been dropped off at the door overnight. And other mornings he'd have to make the brutal decision about which animals at the shelter — up to 60 a day — would be euthanized because there was no room for them and no one to adopt them.
Four years into the shelter job, Stewart said he was burned out by guilt and compassion fatigue and ready to quit the industry. Then one morning on his way to work, he made his usual stop at a 7-Eleven for coffee and saw a homeless man in the parking lot with a dog that had a flea-related skin allergy so severe it looked like a burn victim. Stewart still gets choked up talking about how he gave the dog a $3 vial of flea medicine and within a week, its hair was growing back and it was wagging its tail. The owner was beyond grateful.
"He said to me, thanks for not ignoring me and for healing my dog. That was the moment for me. I got back to saving animals and doing it on my own terms," Stewart said.
A few weeks later he set up a pop-up veterinary clinic at a soup kitchen, and when clients there suggested he take his services to one of their friends living under a bridge, his new vocation as the roving "Street Vet" began. He brought his mission to L.A. in 2013 when he was hired as chief veterinary officer for American Humane, the nonprofit that works with movie and television studios to ensure that no animals are harmed on set. Stewart remembers one day where he drove directly from the set of Quentin Tarantino's starry "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" to Skid Row to serve the homeless community.
"I enjoyed my interactions on the streets every bit as much as being on the set with those big names," he said. "My interactions on the streets are more intimate, personal and friendly and I feel rewarded that they feel like I've helped restore their hope in humanity. There's a huge exchange of emotions and I get a lot out of it."
Over the past decade, Stewart said he estimates he has treated about 1,000 homeless animals. Getting to know these pets' owners has opened his eyes about the myths and realities of the state's homeless population, which he said he has seen grow sharply since the pandemic began.
"People think everyone on the streets is on drugs or mentally ill. But more and more of the people I'm meeting, by far, are people who were suffering economically and ended up on the streets where, as a result, they turned to alcohol or drugs to cope or they developed depression," he said. "These are normal people who lost their apartment, their home or their job, they spent some time living with friends, then they're sleeping in their car, then they lose the car and they end up in a tarp on a street corner."
For several years, Stewart commuted to his job in L.A. from San Diego, where he moved in 2015 and now lives with his children, ages 2 and 6, and his 1-1/2-year-old German shepherd mix, Kora, who he adopted from his former shelter in Stanislaus County while visiting former colleagues last year.
But Stewart said he closed the "Hollywood chapter" of his life a couple years ago to focus on two things that he hopes will be his lasting legacy. The first is Papaya Pet Care, a tech-enabled veterinary startup that he joined last year as chief medical officer. It's aimed at attracting millennials who do all of their research, shopping and scheduling by mobile phone, and who treat their pets like family members.
Stewart runs Papaya's first clinic at Village at Pacific Highlands Ranch and he's helping plan a nationwide rollout that will include five more clinic openings in Southern California this year and a total of 50 in five years. The two chief appeals of Papaya for Stewart are its "fear-free" pet experience and its humanitarian mission.
Developed by veterinarian Marty Becker, fear-free care aims to reduce the trauma animals experience going to the vet. Stewart says this includes spraying calming animal pheromones in the exam rooms, playing soothing classical music, using gentle control methods to restrain animals, offering pre-visit pharmaceuticals to relax the animal and rewarding the pets with lots of treats. Stewart's favorite treats are hot dogs, sprayable cheese spread and a peanut butter "lick board."
There's also a giving back component for Papaya staff and clients. Employees can volunteer their time and customers can donate to Project Street Vet, a nonprofit Stewart and his brother, Ian, cofounded in 2020 with the aim of taking his mission of compassion toward homeless animals worldwide.
"I'm proud of it," he said. "I can dream a little bit that people from all over the world will want to emulate what I do. It's bigger than me just treating a pet on the street. There's the kindness aspect. These are ideals we want in society."
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This story was originally published April 14, 2022 1:00 AM.