North County Street Vet Helps Homeless Pets, Launches Clinic With Fearless Care

About once a week, North County veterinarian Kwane Stewart visits San Diego’s East Village to do his rounds, serving the community of dogs, cats, rats and birds that are the precious pets of the downtown homeless community.

Some of these unhoused pets suffer from flea-related skin allergies and ear infections. Some need vaccines. Some are losing their teeth to gum disease and some have overgrown nails that urgently need trimming. For 10 years, the Carmel Mountain Ranch resident has provided free veterinary care to homeless people from San Diego to San Francisco.

It’s a hobby he started in 2012 while working as a veterinarian at an animal shelter in central California, and has remained his part-time hobby through jobs in Hollywood and now in San Diego, where he launched his latest veterinary business, Papaya Pet Care, last month. in the Carmel Valley.

Stewart’s efforts to help homeless pets have garnered international attention and praise over the years. In 2017, a Netflix producer signed “Street Vet,” an internationally distributed documentary series that followed Stewart as he cared for pets on the streets of Skid Row in Los Angeles and -of the. In 2020, he was featured on NBC’s “Today” show. In 2021, local crowdfunding website GoFundMe named Stewart one of its GoFundMe Heroes. And in January, it was featured in Smithsonian Magazine.

Veterinarian Kwane Stewart uses a stethoscope to listen to Harley’s heartbeat while owner Terry Gauci sits nearby on March 31. Gauci lives at Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa, a residence for formerly homeless people in the East Village.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Stewart, 51, said he was forced to keep returning to the streets because he believed there was a growing worldwide shortage of tolerance and kindness towards others, especially the homeless .

“The strongest message I send is the absence of judgement,” he said. “When I’m on the street, it’s not up to me to judge them or write their story for them. I’m here to help and I’m trying to spread this message because we’ve stopped caring about each other.

Stewart grew up in Albuquerque, where her parents — her father was an NFL player-turned-teacher and her mother a banker-turned-teacher — were big animal lovers. At the age of 6, he knew he wanted to be a veterinarian and he dreamed of working in a posh spa clinic in San Diego. After graduating from veterinary school in Colorado 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 customers who had bottomless bank accounts and could afford to do anything”. I suggested and recommended.

But his life and values ​​changed dramatically in 2008 when he accepted a position as chief veterinarian at an animal shelter run by Stanislaus County, an area devastated during the Great Recession. The work was exhausting and demoralizing. Some mornings he would arrive at work and there were four to six boxes of homeless kittens that had been dropped off at the door overnight. And other mornings, he had to make the stark decision about which animals in the shelter — up to 60 a day — would be euthanized because there was no place for them and no one to adopt them.

Four years into his shelter work, Stewart said he was worn down by the fatigue of guilt and compassion and was ready to leave 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 if serious that he looked like a burn victim. Stewart is still choking on how he gave the dog a $3 bottle of flea medicine and within a week his hair grew back and he was wagging his tail. The owner was more than grateful.

“He said thank you for not ignoring me and for taking care of my dog. This was my time. I got back to saving animals and doing it on my own terms,” said Stewart.

Carrying his medical kit, local vet Kwane Stewart walks the streets of the East Village on March 31.

Carrying his medical bag, local veterinarian Kwane Stewart walks the streets of the East Village on March 31, providing free medical care to pets of San Diego’s homeless population.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A few weeks later, he set up a pop-up veterinary clinic in a soup kitchen, and when clients suggested he entrust his services to one of their friends living under a bridge, his new vocation as a traveling “street vet” has begun. He brought his mission to Los Angeles in 2013 when he was hired as chief veterinarian for American Humane, the nonprofit that works with film and television studios to ensure no animal is not injured on the tray. Stewart recalls a day when he drove straight from Quentin Tarantino’s star-studded set “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” to Skid Row to serve the homeless community.

“I enjoyed my interactions on the street as much as being on set with these big names,” he said. “My interactions on the street are more intimate, personal and friendly and I feel rewarded that they feel I helped restore their hope in humanity. There is a huge exchange of emotions and I get a lot out of it.

Over the past decade, Stewart said he estimates he’s treated about 1,000 homeless animals. Getting to know the owners of these pets has opened his eyes to the myths and realities of the state’s homeless population, which he said he’s seen grow sharply since the pandemic began.

“People think everyone on the streets is on drugs or has a mental illness. But more and more of the people I meet, from afar, are people who were suffering economically and ended up on the streets where, therefore, they turned to alcohol or drugs to cope or they developed depression,” he said. “These are normal people who have lost their apartment, their house or their job, they spent some time with friends, then they sleep in their car, then they lose the car and they end up in a tarp on a street corner. ”

Local vet Kwane Stewart prepares to examine Jermain Vaughn's pup, Loyal.

Local vet Kwane Stewart prepares to examine Jermain Vaughn’s pup, Loyal. Stewart provides free veterinary care to San Diego’s homeless community.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For several years, Stewart commuted to his job in Los Angeles from San Diego, where he moved in 2015 and now lives with his children, ages 2 and 6, and his one-year-old German Shepherd mix. demi, 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 few years ago to focus on two things he hopes will be his lasting legacy. The first is Papaya Pet Care, a veterinary tech startup he joined last year as chief medical officer. It aims to appeal to millennials who do all their research, shopping and planning via mobile phone, and who treat their pets like family.

Stewart runs Papaya’s first clinic at the 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. Papaya for Stewart’s two main draws are its “fearless” animal experience and its humanitarian mission.

Developed by veterinarian Marty Becker, Fearless Care aims to reduce the trauma pets experience when going to the vet. Stewart says this includes spraying calming animal pheromones in exam rooms, playing soothing classical music, using gentle control methods to restrain animals, offering pharmaceuticals before the visit to relax the animal and animal reward with many treats. Stewart’s favorite treats are hot dogs, sprayable cheese spread, and a peanut butter “lick board.”

There is also a donation element for Papaya staff and customers. Employees can volunteer their time and customers can donate to Project Street Vet, a nonprofit that Stewart and his brother, Ian, co-founded in 2020 to carry out his mission of compassion for animals without shelter around the world.

“I’m proud of it,” he said. “I can kinda dream that people all over the world will want to emulate what I do. It’s bigger than me to care for a pet on the street. There is the kindness aspect. These are ideals that we want in society.

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