The man standing outside the tent on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles clearly doesn’t live in the neighborhood. Tall and fit, he’s dressed in jeans and a doctor’s blue scrub shirt and carries a medical bag. The tent, one of many rough structures on the stained sidewalk, sits amid heaped wooden pallets, old furniture and trash. But the man’s eyes are fixed on the dog lounging nearby.
“Hi, how are you?” he says when the tent flap opens. “I’m a veterinarian, Dr. Kwane Stewart, and I offer free pet care to people experiencing homelessness.” He gestures at the dog. “Can I examine your pet?”
First comes confused silence—you’re who?—then suspicion: Is this animal control, here to take my dog? Finally, a slow nod. Stewart, who calls himself the Street Vet, kneels, pulls out his stethoscope and goes to work.
These Skid Row streets hold the nation’s largest concentration of homeless people who are not staying in a shelter, and at first glance it’s an unrelieved landscape of despair: mental illness, poverty, addiction. But love exists, too, including the love of pets. Across the nation, 10 to 25 percent of the people who are homeless keep pets, and there’s no reason to think the number is lower in sunny Los Angeles. Cats sit on sleeping bags, pit bulls, scruffy terriers and mutts trot alongside filled shopping carts, and chihuahuas ride in bicycle baskets and the laps of people who themselves are in wheelchairs. Various local groups and volunteers help the owners of these animals care for them, with weekly and monthly clinics, mobile spay and neuter vans, handouts of flea meds and food.
Stewart, 50, has usually worked solo, walking the streets and looking for animals and people in need. “Maybe it’s because when I began this work, it wasn’t uncommon to find a pet that had never received care,” he says. “Everyone I met looked at me as if I’d just dropped out of the sky.”
Stewart grew up with dogs, loved them and science, and by the time he was 10 knew he would become a veterinarian. It was an unusual ambition for a Black track star in Albuquerque. Once, a coach asked about his future plans and laughed with disbelief when Kwane told him. “I’ve never met a Black vet,” the coach said. Stewart goes on, “At the time I didn’t think much about it. But here’s the thing: He was Black himself.” Decades later the number of African American veterinarians is still so small the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that it might as well be zero.
Stewart graduated from the University of New Mexico, got his DVM degree from Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and headed to San Diego. He spent a decade there treating a suburban clientele with “bottomless bank accounts.” Then, in 2008, he relocated to Modesto, in California’s Central Valley, for a job as the veterinarian for Stanislaus County. And everything changed.
The Great Recession flattened Modesto, a city of around 200,000, with plummeting home prices and 17 percent unemployment. And when humans go broke, animals often pay the price. Pet surrenders surged until the area’s aging shelter, built for 200 animals, held twice as many, and its euthanasia rate became one of the nation’s highest.
“I was destroying 30 to 50 animals every morning,” Stewart says softly. “Healthy dogs and cats. It was killing my soul. I felt like God was keeping score and I was losing. I didn’t go to school all those years to destroy animals. I wanted to help and save them.”
At first that meant he helped a homeless man he encountered almost daily by treating the man’s dog, which suffered from a bad flea bite allergy. Then he held a free clinic at a local soup kitchen. And then, on his own time, he began to walk around Modesto and some Bay Area sites looking for pets to help. He moved to Los Angeles to serve as chief veterinary officer for the American Humane Association, which makes sure animals are treated well on film sets, and his ramblings shifted to San Diego and Los Angeles. He wore scrubs to identify himself, carried a bag filled with meds, vaccines and syringes, nail trimmers, and he did what he could, free of charge.
He was stunned by what he found. Like many people, he questioned why homeless people had animals to begin with—if humans couldn’t take care of themselves, how could they be responsible for pets? And yet they were. In fact, numerous academic studies over the years have revealed the vital role pets play in the lives of unhoused men and women—providing structure, purpose, meaning and love. “Researchers have consistently found very high levels of attachments to pets among the homeless,” Leslie Irvine, a sociologist, writes in her 2012 book about the phenomenon, My Dog Always Eats First.
Stewart agrees. “Pets were a lifeline to the people I met,” he says. “Most of them were great pet owners. They did remarkably well with the resources they had, and made sacrifices for them well beyond what you or I would. The bond between them was on a completely different level. They needed each other.”
For five years, his efforts were a kind of secret hobby that he says even his family—he has three children—didn’t know about. Then, in 2017, he and his brother, Ian, produced “The Street Vet” as a reality TV series—it has aired on broadcast TV in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and in the States on a Utah cable channel—and Stewart acknowledges he’s now a “media personality.” These days he’s founding a new veterinary practice in San Diego and writing a book about his experiences on the street.
Last September he started a nonprofit, Project StreetVet, raising money on GoFundMe to cover the cost of treating pet medical problems beyond the scope of a sidewalk exam. He has occasionally volunteered with larger organizations assisting people who are homeless. Though he says “there are probably more efficient ways I could spend my time,” he likes doing it his way.
“The wound is healing well,” he reassures a man named Ben, whose pet rat had been attacked by a cat. (“I’ve seen birds and snakes, but this was my first rat.”)
“The puppies look great,” he tells Julian, a tattooed man who has lived on the same stretch of pavement for two years and whose dog recently gave birth. (He also vaccinates the pups.)
Stewart marvels at the generosity of a young man named Reggie, who lives in a school bus and uses his own cash to make lemonade that he gives away to his neighbors. Stewart vaccinates the man’s dog, Daisy. “You’re doing a good job,” Stewart says.
“Oh, this is such a blessing,” the young man replies.
My chow-shepherd Casey and I have walked the same streets for almost 15 years. Every morning, every night, seven days a week, rain or shine. Like most city dogs, Casey enforces this clause of the human-canine contract with meaningful looks, insistent pawing and (when all else fails) a snout-thrust to the laptop that allows no dissent.
I’d like to describe our hundreds of hours spent wandering the neighborhood as meditative, but they have often driven me nuts. Casey chooses the same route, greets whatever dogs are out, sniffs the same bushes from five angles before deigning to pee.
Still, the ritual has shifted some. Many familiar canine faces have vanished, and Casey’s painful shuffle tells me that our time together is short.
And lately, I’ve also come to realize what our walks have given me.
When I tell people about the pocket Westside neighborhood where I live, I always say I’ve never known or felt so deeply connected to a place. I realize now that’s not because my neighborhood is special. It’s because of Casey.
He is why I know every house around me — which lawns are always overgrown and which manicured, which yards have peach trees, and which cacti: walking at a dog’s pace forced me to see them. Casey is why I know every nearby family that ever had a dog, because he pulled me into the canine social orbit — of Blue and Sarah, on the next block; of big Valentine and golden Ollie and a dozen others.
The dogs in turn brought me into the lives of dozens of human neighbors. There was Frank, whose parents’ lives were ruined by the Cultural Revolution; Dan, the dogless dog-lover who drinks beer with friends outside his apartment, a giant jar of treats at his side. Some have become real friends, like Michelle, who came via Ava, a Great Dane mix and his sweet giant pack-mate Baxter. These people watch for me, ask after me, worry if I don’t show.
Fifteen years beside Casey have given me my own slice of Los Angeles. Work and politics and my daughter’s endless soccer games introduced me to a hundred neighborhoods sprawled across the basin. But I know them only from a distance, a camera’s panorama shot of mountains, the sweep of landscape framed by a car window. Walks with Casey are close-ups. I notice the increasingly neglected look of a home newly split by divorce and waiting for sale, the car whose weekly fender-bender damage suggests its driver’s dementia is worsening. In close up, the passage of time becomes concrete — the front lawn swing gives way to a soccer net; the porch steps are replaced by a wheelchair ramp.
The close-ups hold the quiet history of the streets themselves – the scrawled initials “CS 1973” in a driveway, the tiny plaque set in the sidewalk: “WPA 1940.” In our atomized, scattered world, there may be nothing else that roots one in a way so intensely, intimately local as walking the same streets, day after day, at a dog’s pace.
In L.A., 15 years is a long time. My tech-adjacent neighborhood is shifting, its 1940s bungalows giving way to large, white “modernist” boxes, its Subarus being replaced by Teslas. I feel the new world most acutely in the passing of the generation of dogs that first anchored me here. Val, Sarah and Blue are all gone. When Ollie died, his owner walked through the neighborhood crying, hiding Ollie’s rubber balls in bushes for other dogs to find. The day Ava died of cancer, I joined his owner to grieve beside his still body.
And yet, some things hold. Casey and I greet the few remaining old-timers including Albee, a white jindo, now deaf and stiff-legged with arthritis, who has always been Casey’s fiercest enemy. When we ran into him a few weeks ago, the two dogs paused to glare, their hackles raised, then both moved on. They’d still like to kill each other, but it just would be too much work.
As the new houses are finished, we meet the dogs and people who move in. There’s a young woman with a small, sweet-faced pit, a man whose bouncy long-legged mutt has the majestic name of Titan. We navigate the familiar streets, the phone pings relentlessly and headlines pull me toward the human world and its horrors, but Casey will not be rushed. Pee on this tree? No, maybe that one.
Meanwhile, I notice the cloud of purple bougainvillea that looks especially striking against a new home’s gray wall, and the spectacularly gnarled trunk of a 79-year-old pepper tree. Time must be taken, attention must be paid. It’s the gift dogs give us, and what they leave with us when they go.
On April 2, Doobi, a homeless man’s little brown dog, took off from the tent they shared in a West Hollywood alley. As soon as her owner realized that she was gone, he grabbed his phone to post a blizzard of “Lost Dog” notices online.
Someone found the dog nearby, and up went a photo on the local Nextdoor. A neighbor responded with the information that a homeless man was looking for the animal, and that the finder should take it to the local shelter. That’s long been basic protocol for anyone who finds a stray, and the Los Angeles Municipal Code requires that anyone who picks up a stray notify the Department of Animal Services.
But then another Nextdoor poster chimed in. A homeless man? She’d take the dog herself. Within a day, it was put on a transport bound for a rescue in New York and theoretically “a better life.” Furious local activists tracked the animal to the East Coast and raised a stink, and a week of drama followed — emotional cross-country texts and Facebook rants; the dog’s owner filed a stolen-property police report.
Another over-the-top pet world story? Yes and no. Those in the rescue movement will tell you they regularly get calls from people looking to give them found animals rather than taking them to a shelter. It’s a growing trend — and a really bad idea.
Why decide to “rescue” a dog or cat that’s not yours? Sometimes because we’re too ready to see animals as the victims of bad humans. That skinny, dirty dog roaming the street surely was “dumped” there; its fear suggests that “it was abused.” No collar, tags or microchip? Living in a tent? Not even sterilized? Obviously, it had a terrible owner! Why help send it back?
There’s also an assumption that any shelter admission equals sure death. When someone on my own Nextdoor site recently posted that she’d found a dog without identifying tags, a neighbor immediately replied, “Please, don’t take this or any dog to a shelter … it will absolutely be put down.”
But even the dogs of “good” owners — who can include the homeless — sometimes get spooked and run or escape through doors mistakenly left open. The website Petfinder, one of the nation’s major adoption clearinghouses, says that 1 in 3 pets gets lost at some point in its life. Collars come off. The majority of all pet owners (sadly) don’t implant and register microchips. And after a few days on the street, even the most well-loved pet will act skittish and look like hell.
In California, the shelter doesn’t mean instant death and hasn’t for a long time. The Hayden Act, passed in 1999 requires public shelters to hold stray animals for at least four business days. In Los Angeles, which has committed to achieving “no kill” status, animals are often kept far longer than the required number of days. Some dogs have lived at the Chesterfield Square shelter in South L.A., one of the city’s busiest, for nearly a year (which is another issue and story). And leaving a found animal at the shelter doesn’t have to mean walking away from it. Any finder can put a “first right to adopt” hold on a stray animal; if an owner doesn’t materialize, the finder can claim it. Any finder can reach out to a rescue organization and make their case for taking the dog from the shelter.
In fact, many reputable rescue groups don’t take animals that aren’t in the shelter system. “Even if there isn’t a microchip, it’s possible someone’s looking for it,” the head of one rescue, with decades in the business, told me. “You have to give owners a chance.” There may be a lot of 21st century ways to hunt online, but when a pet goes missing, the first place most owners look is the local shelter.
Doobi’s saga had a happy ending. The New York rescue group, whose president said she hadn’t known the full story, shipped her home. But the episode was costly in cash, time and grief (especially for the dog, which traveled 6,000 miles). Contrast her story with that of Nala, a 20-pound, honey-colored pooch, who went missing in West L.A. last September.
Nala’s owner, Maggie Davis, told me that she personally posted 800 “lost dog” signs, put notices on every website she could find, and for months responded to every reported sighting and lead. None went anywhere. Then in February, someone from Los Angeles Animal Services called to say that her contact information had turned up on a stray dog’s microchip. Nala was in the Valley, 25 miles away. Davis never learned how the dog got so far, but it was clear how and why she made it home: Someone found her and turned her in to the shelter.
THERAPY: Seeking Cures, but Finding Anguish
By Carol Mithers
Last week, Connell Watkins, an unlicensed Evergreen, Colo., “therapist,” and her assistant Julie Ponder were convicted of reckless child abuse in the death of 10-year-old Candace Newmaker, who died of asphyxiation during a “rebirthing” session. Now that the two women face up to 48 years in prison, now that the nation has expressed its outrage at the radical therapy that led to the tragedy and Colorado Gov. Bill Owens has signed “Candace’s Law” banning rebirthing in his state, the temptation is to sit back, breathing a sigh of relief that justice has been done and a horror like this won’t happen again.
But it will.
As an example of therapy run amok, this incident involving a little girl wrapped tightly in a blanket, choking on her own vomit and vainly pleading for her life, was particularly grotesque, the stuff of nightmares. But it was far from unique.
For at least 30 years, stories of patients pursuing experimental treatments with similarly tragic outcomes to that of Candace and her mother, Jeane Newmaker, have surfaced at regular intervals. They all have at their center deeply troubled souls hungry not for help but cures, and programs that promised to provide them. In the 1970s, it was Synanon and the Center for Feeling Therapy, a Los Angeles program run by mostly unlicensed therapists who beat, abused, controlled and financially exploited 350 long-term patients, leaving their lives a shambles. A similar group, the Sullivanians, flourished in New York City.
The 1980s brought therapies for now widely discredited diagnoses of “recovered memory” and “multiple personality” disorders, which some therapists proclaimed the true cause of problems that ranged from depression to sexual dysfunction to obesity. In one typical case, a Des Moines woman who sought help for depression had her life ruined by a Chicago psychiatrist who encouraged her to believe she had 300 personalities, had participated in a satanic cult that plotted to kill her children, and that her father had ground human remains into hamburger for meatloaf. (Several hospitalizations and two suicide attempts later, she accepted a $10.6-million malpractice settlement.)
The ’90s brought treatment for “reactive attachment disorder,” a syndrome in which a deprived or abused child–like Candace–has difficulty forming intimate bonds. (The disorder remains controversial, because there’s no consensus on the uncertainty of the diagnosis.) The kind of rebirthing process Candace went through was just one of the experimental therapies devised to cure it; another was “rage reduction therapy,” a rough restraint of children intended to help them understand their emotional estrangement. It, too, led to excesses: A Utah 3-year-old died after her father attempted to apply the techniques, and a Tarrant County, Texas, practitioner was ordered to pay $8.4 million to a 15-year-old girl his treatment left covered with bruises. As early as 1998, Colorado medical examiners had accused psychiatrist Foster Cline, who pioneered the therapy, of grossly negligent practices.
Why do otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people embrace treatments that, in retrospect, seem so clearly mad? Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, points to desperation, tremendous guilt on the part of parents “when there’s something wrong with their child that they can’t fix.” But there’s another factor at work, too: widespread, unreasonable assumptions about what therapy should be and can do.
Nearly 50 years ago, humanist psychologists like Erik Erikson, Rollo May, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers challenged traditional Freudian claims that to be human was to be filled with inner conflict. Nor did they accept that the best analysis could do was help a patient understand and cope. Instead, they said, the natural state of humans is one of wholeness and joy, and treatment should aim to help everyone realize his or her full “potential.”
By the 1960s, when economic prosperity made room for more self- indulgent pursuits like examining one’s inner self, therapy, once drawn-out, exclusive and expensive, reached the masses in the form of encounter groups. The groups were frequently harsh and combative, and pushed the idea that change came fast.
By 1970, Arthur Janov, founder of “primal therapy” (made wildly popular by Beatle John Lennon), went one step further, flatly declaring that all neurosis came from infant trauma and that his therapy, which specialized in overnight transformation, could cure it.
Most ’60s and ’70s therapy programs didn’t last. But they left deep and permanent changes in the way we view our lives (we are entitled to be fulfilled and happy), our problems (they have specific, simple, diagnosable roots) and, above all, the practice and role of therapy. We now turn to therapists, whether as self- help authors, commentators or actual practitioners, for advice that in earlier times would have come from clergy, parents and community. We expect therapy to be dramatically transformative, with frequent, climactic “breakthroughs” (an expectation encouraged by the culture of advertising, which tells us that anything from makeup to a new car can turn us into a new person). We accept that it may be harsh– an acceptance, notes Caplan, that taps into fundamentalist American beliefs that suffering is redemptive. Above all, we expect it to provide a “cure.”
Although ethical, well-trained therapists refuse to go along with these beliefs, those who are less moral or more driven by their own convictions are happy to indulge. And the media, particularly talk shows, with their insatiable appetite for guests to fill airtime, help by parading every new guru who comes along, often without bothering to check out his or her credentials or the theory’s validity.
But while the pain that drives people to seek treatment is often deep and legitimate, the sad reality of life is that many problems have a complicated stew of causes and no definitive cures. A marriage can go pale and sour because of the family histories of each spouse, their gender beliefs, their feelings about themselves, their pleasure or disappointment in their individual lives. An intensive therapeutic weekend aimed at “teaching intimacy” can’t necessarily bring it back to life. Making peace with one’s inner child won’t guarantee weight loss in a sedentary, fast-food society. The despair of a man or woman stuck with a low-wage job and bad child-care options can’t be counseled away. And poor Candace, whose childhood was marked by poverty, constant moves and multigenerational family dysfunction, whose birth mother twice lost custody to social workers and who Candace said once dropped her out a second-story window, may not ever have become the well-adjusted, affectionate girl that Jeane Newmaker so craved.
Sometimes, good therapy can help us understand, face and tame our demons. Sometimes, it can greatly improve our lives. But neither it nor anything else can prevent life from being hard and unfair. It can’t guarantee happiness. It can’t guarantee cure. These are the hard lessons of adulthood, and there’s no sign that we as a culture have learned them. The next therapeutic tragedy is out there, waiting.