Dr. Kwane Stewart was already an experienced veterinarian when he decided to help the less fortunate in his community. After spending an afternoon offering medical care to the pets of people experiencing homelessness, he learned an important lesson: These animals provided more than companionship to their owners — they also offered love, hope, and security. What Dr. Kwane initially thought would be a one-off experience has since turned into a nine-year mission to help four-legged pets across Southern California and beyond.
Modesto, California was a tough place to call home during the Great Recession — even for pets. Dr. Kwane was working as a county veterinarian at the time and recalls the influx of surrendered animals that arrived at his shelter. Many people were forced to relinquish their pets because they couldn’t afford their medical care, which sparked an idea for Dr. Kwane.
“About 25% of our homeless population own a pet, and I knew that if I set up a table at a soup kitchen I could help a small group of animals,” he says. “So that’s what I did. I called over anyone who was holding their pet and told them I’d take a look and vaccinate or treat their pet if I could.”
After examining and treating about 15 animals on that first day, Dr. Kwane realized there was a true need for this type of medical care in his community. What started as a few hours of volunteer work slowly became part of his regular routine. Carrying a bag stocked with both medical supplies and treats, Dr. Kwane spent his free time walking through underpasses and alleyways looking for pets and people in need.
“That first experience was one of the most rewarding moments for me,” says Dr. Kwane. “When you give back, there is something you get in return that feels much larger. I knew I wanted to keep doing it.”
Traveling up and down the California coast, he began treating everything from ear infections and overgrown toenails to flea infestations and eye conditions. Many times, a simple vaccine was all that was needed.
In other instances, the animals he examined needed special care at a veterinary hospital. Paying for vaccines and other medication out of pocket was feasible, but some surgeries and invasive procedures cost upwards of $10,000.
Dr. Kwane decided to start a GoFundMe so he could continue providing help to the animals that truly needed it.
“I don’t ever want to have to turn anybody away,” he says. “The look on people’s faces when they get their pets back, especially after a surgery or a life-saving procedure — those are moments I’ll remember forever.”
Between his street work and partnerships with other organizations, Dr. Kwane has helped roughly 400 animals since 2011, including a fair share of cats — and once, even a Burmese python.
While some of the individuals he approaches can be a little hesitant to accept help at first, Dr. Kwane says they are usually relieved and thankful by the end of their pet’s examination. Many even shed tears of joy. With each new animal he helps, Dr. Kwane says he gains a deeper understanding of the unique bond that exists between those experiencing homelessness and their pets.
“Their relationship is on a totally different level,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times people told me their animals are their reason for getting up in the morning.”
Spending time with people who call the street their home has also taught Dr. Kwane a lot about homelessness and has challenged some of his fundamental beliefs about the issue.
“I was guilty of some of the judgments about homeless people before doing this work,” he says. “But I realized that something as simple as losing your job can lead to bad credit — and then it can be difficult to get an apartment,” he says. “You would be amazed at how these negative moments can snowball. I’ve looked at these people and thought, ‘I could be you. I could end up where you are.’”
Dr. Kwane hopes he can continue spreading empathy and awareness around this issue through his work on the street and with the Los Angeles-based animal hospital he has partnered with. He also hopes his mission will encourage other veterinarians to volunteer some of their time and expertise to help those in need. If you’re not a veterinarian? No problem, says Dr. Kwane.
“Anyone has the power to help. You can volunteer at a rescue shelter. You can donate money or time. As that generosity spreads, it helps fuel the positive energy in the world.”
Listen to Dr. Kwane’s full interview on True Stories of Good People.