Paw it forward 

portrait of Colleen Dougherty animal welfare guest columnist

Colleen Dougherty

One day in March, I serendipitously flipped on KUNM radio just in time to hear an interview with Kwane Stewart, CNN’s 2023 Hero of the Year.  

A native of Albuquerque, Kwane (pronounced “kwan”) graduated from UNM, studied veterinary medicine at Colorado State University, then drove to California to live out his dream of being a veterinarian and living on a beach.  

In a short time, however, his dream began to fade. Working as a shelter vet in central California during the recession of 2007-12, Stewart said he saw pets being relinquished “in droves.” Instead of feeling like he was helping, the shelter was euthanizing “50 to 60 animals before 10 a.m.”   

Disheartened, Stewart thought about quitting not only his job, but the profession. One day, sitting in his car at a 7-11 reviewing his resignation letter, he noticed a homeless man sitting with his dog. The dog’s skin was ravaged from fleas. Instinctively Stewart walked over, introduced himself, and asked if he could help. 

“If you’re here tomorrow,” he said, “I’ll bring you some medicine that will help your dog.”  

He was, and a week later the dog was transformed. The man, weeping with gratitude, thanked Stewart “for not ignoring me.”  

That act also transformed Stewart, who not only kept his job but continued his outreach after work and on the weekends for six years, never telling a soul.   

“I didn’t want the negativity,” he said.   

Statistics show that up to 25 percent of homeless individuals have pets. Judged, misjudged, and condemned for their situations, many believe that homeless people shouldn’t have or don’t deserve to have pets.   

But Stewart was learning otherwise. He found their deep love for and loyalty to their animals absolutely unmistakable, a bond, he says, that’s “on another level.” Almost none ever turned down his help.  

When he told people their pets would live longer and healthier and were less likely to run away and get hit by cars if they were spayed and neutered, they were more agreeable to it than his non-homeless clients. Stewart also noticed people with severe mental illnesses weren’t typically the ones who had animals.  

“They just can’t pull it off,” he said. “Having a pet requires you to keep it together, and the ones who have pets go to great lengths to do that.”   

There are as many reasons for ending up homeless as there are for the people themselves, and, as he astutely pointed out, “if anyone needs the companionship of a pet, it’s these folks.” They literally become a lifeline for them.  

After cowboying his outreach for six years, Stewart finally told his brother — a filmmaker — what he’d been up to, and in 2010, Project Street Vet was born.  

Now in its 13th year, the organization has teams in at least five major American cities and counting.   

Hearing Stewart’s story, noticing myself the countenance of loyalty from the dogs I see I can’t quite find words for, and wondering who was responsible for the snazzy, warm doggie coats I saw on all the street dogs in Albuquerque this past winter, I wondered who was helping this population here in New Mexico.  Happily, I discovered two amazing organizations.   

Karen Cain moved to Santa Fe in 1998, noticed the many homeless people with pets, and started a personal outreach campaign out of the trunk of her car, delivering food, supplies, arranging vet care, and whatever else was needed.  

Her solo outreach continued as she pursued her counseling degree and worked in a homeless shelter. In 2009, her grassroots efforts officially became New Mexico Street Homeless Animal Project (NMSHAP) a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that partners with local pet stores, food banks, shelters and veterinarian clinics to serve northern New Mexico’s homeless pets and their parents.  

In 2008, similarly moved and inspired by the dedication of homeless pet parents she saw in NYC, Genevieve Frederick started Feeding Pets of the Homeless, a nationwide organization helping people like Scott who, in a video on their website, calls his dog Shiloh “my son.” Pets of the Homeless partners with vet clinics, pet food stores, homeless shelters and food pantries in Albuquerque to provide food, supplies, vaccine and wellness clinics, medications and spay/neuter vouchers.  

The websites for these organizations are all moving, informative and inspiring, sharing many similar stories and experiences. Check them out, you won’t be sorry.   

Homelessness is “something Americans don’t want to hear about,” Stewart says, “but they want it solved.” Until that time for people and pets experiencing homelessness, organizations like these will continue “not to judge, but to help.” 

(Colleen Dougherty’s history in animal welfare includes work in a veterinary clinic, shelters in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and currently as a volunteer for the Valencia County Animal Shelter. She has been a speaker at the N.M. State Humane Conference on three occasions, presenting talks on caring for small mammals in the shelter setting, and compassion fatigue in animal welfare. She holds degrees in art and counseling therapy, and certificates in eco-psychology and feline massage therapy.) 

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portrait of Colleen Dougherty animal welfare guest columnist
Colleen Dougherty, guest columnist