When Dr. Kwane Stewart, a veterinarian, spots a homeless person with a dog while he’s driving to work, he doesn’t look away uncomfortably and step on the gas.
Instead, he pulls over, grabs his bag stocked with medical supplies, and asks the person: “Is there anything your pet can use? Can I help you?”
For nearly a decade, Stewart, 49, has volunteered on his own dime to help pets of the homeless in California. In his spare time, he heads to impoverished areas and wanders the streets — usually in his hometown of San Diego and Los Angeles, as well as Sacramento and San Francisco — hoping to offer free vaccinations and veterinary care to pets.
“I love the work,” he told TODAY. “I do it because it’s hugely rewarding to me, spiritually. I’m just very fortunate to be living out my dream to be a vet in the first place.”
Stewart never expected this to become his life’s calling. It goes back to the Great Recession, which began in December 2007, when he was working as a veterinarian at an “economically challenged” animal shelter in Modesto, California, and was overwhelmed by the sheer number of stray animals who needed help.
He wanted to show his young son the importance of giving back, so one day, he went to a soup kitchen with his son and girlfriend and started asking people with pets if he could examine their animals.
“I knew then and there I was going to keep doing it,” he said. “There’s so much need out there.”
Sometimes when he offers to help a pet, he’s turned down by homeless people suspicious of his motives. The wariness is warranted; Stewart has seen people spit at the homeless and throw food out the car window at them while yelling.
But when they do accept his help, everything changes.
“As I examine their animal and really give focus to their animal — not them — they just begin to open up,” he said. “Some of the things these people have gone through that they’ve shared with me, it’s remarkable.”
Stewart became choked up while recalling an experience with a 50-something man named Mike with a colostomy bag and a beloved dachshund who was going blind. Mike had colon cancer but said to Stewart, “I would much sooner have you restore her vision if you could — because she means that much to me — than be cured of my cancer.”
“And he meant it,” he said. “He was sincere. He loved that dog. He said that dog has saved his life, mainly his sanity, and gives him hope every morning.”
“I’ve seen homeless people feed their pet before they feed themselves. I’ve seen them give their last dollar to care for their pet."
The dog turned out to have irreversible glaucoma in both eyes, but Stewart was able to alleviate the painful condition with drops and treatments, for which the man was extremely grateful.
About 98% of the pets Stewart encounters on the streets are dogs — though there are a surprising number of cats and the occasional bird or reptile. While he’s heard comments that homeless people shouldn’t have pets, Stewart doesn’t share that opinion because he’s seen the benefits both to people and the animals themselves.
“To a pet, their owner is their universe,” he said. “But we go to work and leave our pet alone sometimes eight, 10, 12 hours a day and they just sit and pine for us. Homeless people are with their animal every minute of every day.”
And pets can provide homeless women with a sense of protection and security, and offer hope to their companions — a reason not to give in to despair or fall deeper into drug or alcohol addiction, he said. One man told him, “My dog is more beneficial to me than any pill or therapy session.”
“I’ve seen homeless people feed their pet before they feed themselves. I’ve seen them give their last dollar to care for their pet,” he said. “They sustain each other and that is the power of pet companionship.”
Stewart hopes to challenge preconceived notions of what homeless people are like through a TV show, in which he stars, called "The Street Vet." He describes it as a "passion project" that he created with his brother. So far, it’s shown in smaller markets in Eastern Europe, Canada and China. While people sometimes assume Stewart is rich because he’s in a show and has had high-profile jobs, such as chief veterinary officer of the nonprofit American Humane, he’s still paying off his student loans from veterinary school.
Out on the streets, the most common afflictions Stewart sees are flea infestations, ear infections and mild arthritis, but sometimes a pet needs surgery to remove a tumor or rotting teeth. In the past, he would pay for it out of his own pocket; he is grateful to have found reduced-price care at Beverly Oaks Animal Hospital in Los Angeles. Dr. Laurie Leach, a veterinarian at the practice, has even performed some surgeries pro bono.
Still, costs add up and Stewart doesn’t want to have to turn anyone away, so he started crowdfunding last fall. Inspired by his efforts, the fundraising site GoFundMe named him the February GoFundMe Hero.
Stewart has no intention of slowing down.
“One of the great things about being a vet is it’s a job I can do as long as I have physical capabilities until I’m old,” he said. “I don’t plan on stopping anytime as long as I have the strength to do it.”