Rubbing shoulders with A-listers on movie sets as an animal safety expert, first for the nearly 150-year-old nonprofit American Humane and now for Netflix.
Starring in his own reality show in nearly 30 countries, “Dr. Kwane: The Street Vet,” which documents his work with animal companions of the homeless.
Serving as a veterinarian to the well-heeled in San Diego.
Professionally, it would seem Dr. Kwane Stewart had about all he could wish for.
But another goal brought the New Mexico native and veteran veterinarian — who once was the county vet for the Stanislaus Animal Services Agency — back to Modesto. He wanted a practice of his own, and so this week he will open the Modesto Family Pet veterinary office and hospital in the College Center business plaza at College and Bowen avenues.
Offering a tour of the facility as his staff worked toward opening, Stewart said that for years, he didn’t have an ambition to open his own practice, in part because he had so many other things going on that he enjoyed. Plus, he said, there are headaches that can come with running a business.
“Now here I am at 50 and suddenly I have a fever — I want my own place,” said the 6-foot-3, athletic (he attended the University of New Mexico on a track and field scholarship) Stewart, who easily could pass for a decade younger. “I could have tried to do it in San Diego, but it’s a very cluttered, competitive market. I know this area, I know there’s need and I feel like I already have some clients built in to get this thing going.”
Colleagues in the Modesto area let him know of the College Center space, which once was home to College Veterinary Hospital. It’s centrally located, he said, and is “almost turnkey” because it’s already housed the same type of business. While opening as sole doctor at Modesto Family Pet, Stewart envisions growing it into a three-vet operation.
Working as the county vet
Stewart initially came to Modesto because it was home to his then-wife, whom he met in San Diego.
The doctor was in the area for five years, from 2008 to 2013, and worked as the veterinarian for the Stanislaus Animal Services Agency. That was about all he could take of the job.
Though he’s been a veterinarian for 23 years, having graduated from the renowned Colorado State University veterinary program in 1997, he’d never done county work before. He found it emotionally exhausting.
In addition to the 40 to 50 animals he and his staff would have to euthanize every morning, there were “just horrific scenes you come across, as far as the way people are capable of treating animals,” Stewart said. He and his team were responsible for investigating reports of animal abuse and neglect, whether they be on farming/ranching operations or involving family pets.
A May 2009 article in The Bee said the county at that time had a staggering euthanasia average of more than 13,000 dogs and cats each year. That kill rate was among the worst in the United States, county Chief Executive Rick Robinson said in the story.
Stewart’s LinkedIn bio says he and his staff helped reverse the terrible rate. “Now I see why there’s usually a shorter shelf life for that kind of work,” he said. “I didn’t know that getting into it.”
Dr. Stewart goes to Hollywood
The doctor left Stanislaus County to take a position in Los Angeles with American Humane, not to be confused with the similarly focused Humane Society of the United States.
American Humane is best known for its No Animals Were Harmed program, which conducts oversight of animals used in film productions. It’s the program that determines whether a movie or TV show is awarded an end credit like “No animals were harmed during the making of this motion picture.”
Stewart was hired to lead the 80-plus-year-old program. “There probably couldn’t have been more of a 180 in my career, ever,” he said. “I’m going from euthanizing dogs and cats every morning, and just exhausted, to being on film sets with A-listers.”
It wasn’t all glamour — much of his work was done from behind a desk, dispatching members of his 50-person team to film sets around the world. They would watch the action with the director, the stunt coordinator and others to ensure that the animals were safe, that the stunts weren’t too over-the-top, Stewart said. “Those reports came in to me at my desk and I was the one who would say yea or nay to the stamp of approval that you’d see on the screen.”
But the doctor does have his fair share of stories from the sets, including standing for hours next to Brad Pitt as a scene was filmed for Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” In the scene, Pitt sics his dog on Charles Manson followers who break into his home. And while the movie shows the cultists getting pretty chewed up, it was Stewart’s job to make sure no harm came to the actor’s canine co-star, a 3-year-old American pit bull terrier named Sayuri.
When not on camera, Pitt would come over to stand by Stewart. The first couple of times, they gave each other the reverse-head-nod greeting that conveys, “Hey.” The men were quiet, because they were focused on their jobs, but the doctor remembers “sizing up” the actor and feeling he was being sized up in return.
“He’s a legit 6 feet,” Stewart said, and was in great shape for the role as a tough-as-nails stuntman. “I remember having two thoughts. The first was, ‘Yeah, I could take him if I had to,’” the doctor said, laughing. “… And then the other thought I remember thinking — and I don’t always admit this one — was, ‘You are a good-looking guy.’”
Time for another change
Six years or so into the American Humane job, enjoyable as it was, Stewart was missing traditional veterinary work. While with the nonprofit, he occasionally would “jump in and do a few emergency shifts just to keep my skills sharp, but I was starting to really miss the hands-on work with the animals.”
So he left American Humane, returned to veterinary practice and, through connections he made in the entertainment industry, took a consulting job with Netflix.
The COVID-19 outbreak put the brakes on a lot of Netflix productions, he said, but they’re now ramping up again. “They send me a script under lock and key — I have a few in my computer right now — and I’ll read the script, I’ll break out the animal action, I’ll write a report advising, or assessing. It’ll go to the producer, the director, usually I’ll have a call,” Stewart said. “This is all pre-production, before the filming starts. And then sometimes they’ll say, ‘We would like you on set.’ So, you know, I’ll fly to set. Pre-COVID, I was in New Zealand for a few weeks on a film, jumped over to Mexico for a week. So that’s how it works.”
The Netflix consulting work has given the doctor “a bridge” to opening his Modesto hospital and to doing the work for which he is most widely recognized, as “The Street Vet.”
The start of The Street Vet
The Street Vet work was born in Modesto, where his job at the county shelter opened Stewart’s eyes to a different type of care than he’d been providing in Southern California. There, he’d been “doing that sort of dream medicine, where people could afford everything.”
Coming to the Central Valley, and in a time of recession, gave him a “dose of reality” that far more pet owners didn’t have “bottomless bank accounts” than did. Going back and forth to work, he’d see homeless or near-homeless people and their animal companions that needed veterinary care but had no access to it.
The specific case that got him started was seeing a man every day outside a convenience store when Stewart would stop for coffee. Even from a distance, the doctor could see the man’s dog was losing fur and had a bad rash.
One morning, Stewart just approached the man and offered his services. The dog looked to be suffering an allergic reaction to flea bites. From how chewed up the animal was, it could have been a problem that went back a year or two.
“It was so easy to fix. I came back and gave him some flea medication,” the doctor recalled. “A few minutes of my time, a couple of dollars out of my pocket.
“I remember going back came back like a week and a half later, and the hair was coming back, the rash was gone. He said his dog was sleeping at night, finally, because (previously) it was just scratching and chewing. It was just miserable. ‘And you know,’ he said, ‘I’m sleeping at night.’ He started to cry, and that got me choked up, too.”
After helping a homeless person another time or two, “it just was on my radar at that point,” Stewart said.
He set up a makeshift clinic at a Stockton soup kitchen one day, and aspired to occasionally do more of them. But among the people who lined up for care, he said he’d frequently hear things like, “I have a friend who has a dog who lives under this bridge, or is over there, and they couldn’t make it. Is there any way you could go to them?”
So Stewart figured he’d start taking walks to see if he could find people whose pets needed care. “And that was the beginning of The Street Vet.”
In the years since, the doctor has carried in his car a bag that treats about 80 percent of the cases he encounters. It holds vaccines, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, flea medications and more. “If I see someone and I have the time, I just pull over.”
But in some instances, the animals he examines need care at a veterinary hospital. He set up a gofundme account to help with the costs of providing treatment because, as the write-up there says, “Paying for vaccines and other medication out of pocket was feasible, but some surgeries and invasive procedures cost upwards of $10,000.”
Lights, cameras, Kwane
Once he was in L.A., it probably was just a matter of when, not if, someone would urge the doctor to get in front of a camera doing his Street Vet work. It was on the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” set that it happened, Stewart recalled.
So over the course of six or seven months in 2017, 12 episodes of “Dr. Kwane: The Street Vet” were produced and have found distribution in 26 countries, though unfortunately not yet in the U.S. (Netflix seems a natural home. Stewart said he’s not run it by any of the brass there, but may.)
Because he’s licensed only in California, the shows were shot in urban areas like Sacramento, the Bay Area, San Diego and L.A.’s Skid Row. In them, Stewart and assistant Genesis Rendon administer basic care, sometimes lifesaving aid, and share stories of struggle and hope.
Stewart and his brother, Ian, are among the executive producers, and Ian is the director. The show has been well-received, Stewart said, and there’s talk of producing a second season once he gets Modesto Family Pet off the ground.
He’s been a guest on shows including “Dr. Oz,” and the hemp-extract brand Charlotte’s Web chose him as spokesman for its line of hemp-derived CBD pet products.
Now, Stewart said he’s looking forward to offering Modesto-area residents affordable care and hitting the local streets again to help the impoverished and homeless and their companions.
He knows people have preconceptions and make judgments about the homeless. Should they have pets? Do they deserve to own them? Wouldn’t the pets be better off with “real” homes?
To that, he answered, “I think that more than anybody, they need a pet, they deserve a pet, but they’re just challenged to get medical care. And more times than not, these people will take excellent care of their pet, to the extent they can. And they love their pet, probably more than by far the average person. Because, you know, the owner is the pet’s home. That’s the way I see it now.”
Starting Monday, Jan. 18, Modesto Family Pet can be reached at 209-275-1213. Kwane Stewart is on Instagram @drkwane and @thestreetvet.