Felicia Reil rarely lets Johnny Cash’s feet touch the ground.
“Everything’s so dirty,” explains Reil, who transports her one-and-a-half-year-old Maltese Chihuahua around downtown San Diego in a purple, three-wheeled baby buggy.
A toy vanity license plate hangs by a string on the front of Johnny Cash’s transport. It reads: “MOMMA’S BOY.”
On an unusually chilly, March 31 morning, Reil wraps her arms around Johnny Cash while sitting on a concrete bench outside Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa. This two-month-old, 407-unit high rise is the largest housing project ever built by homelessness service provider Father Joe’s Villages.
Reil is deep in conversation with Dr. Kwane Stewart (pictured, above). Tall, muscular and bald-pated, Stewart looks like a big-screen action hero. He’s been a practicing veterinarian for 25 years and actually does have a connection to the movie business. Stewart is the lead animal consultant for Netflix. He’s spent time on sets with mega-stars Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt.
Stewart also filmed a reality TV series shot in California that originally aired in 2019 in Canada. In The Street Vet, Stewart literally takes his act on the road to administer and care for the pets of people experiencing homelessness.
His unannounced visit to San Diego’s East Village at the front entrance to St. Teresa’s creates a Pied Piper effect. Stewart first approaches Georgia Riley. He quietly announces he’ a veterinarian. Would it be okay, he asks, to check out Salty Dog, Riley’s five-year-old Terrier-Labrador mix?
Riley unhesitatingly consents.
That’s when Reil spots Stewart and introduced him to Johnny Cash. Within minutes, Terry Gauci has raced inside St. Teresa’s and brought out Harley, her three-month-old Malti-poo.
Jermaine Vaugh waits quietly to the side for a consultation turn. Loyal, his five-month-old German shorthaired pointer shows far less patience.
Warren Marshall introduces Stewart to Satin, a four-year-old white Chihuahua. Marshall rescued Satin off the streets after she’d been hit by a car.
“I found her in the gutter and brought her back to my tent,” says Marshall, who claims he was diagnosed with AIDS and has lived with the disease since 1998. “I bought a bucket to clean her in. And I gave her some of my pain meds.”
Within an hour, Stewart has examined half a dozen four-legged patients.
It doesn’t matter if you’re Brad Pitt or Warren Marshall, Stewart says. People have a love for pets that is unconditional and transcendent.
Stewart was on set in an official animal oversight capacity for director Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In the movie, Pitt plays a stuntman whose four-legged buddy is an American pit bull terrier.
“I don’t know Brad Pitt and he doesn’t know my name but in between takes for this one scene in the movie we stood next to each other for a couple hours,” Stewart says.
Off-camera, Pitt was gushing with someone else about a dog. Stewart doesn’t recall if the star was talking about the movie dog or some other pooch. It was apparent to Stewart, however, that Pitt had a major fondness for the dog.
After Stewart’s services were no longer needed on the set, he rushed off to his second gig of the day.
“I packed my car and drove to Skid Row,” he says.
It was an unofficial foray to do street vet outreach at one of the worst homeless encampments in the country.
“I’m out there on a street corner of Los Angeles talking with a random guy who’s gushing on his dog,” Stewart says. “If I had closed my eyes, it would have sounded just like Brad Pitt, one of the most famous guys in the world. The way they each were talking about dogs, they both sounded like the exact same person.”
A native of Albuquerque, Stewart got his undergrad degree at the University of New Mexico, then went up the road to veterinary school at Colorado State University.
After graduation, with the dream of working near the beach, he loaded up his old Mustang and relocated to San Diego.
He moved around for a while. Hillcrest. Riverside. The Bay Area. Stewart was buried in student loans and trying to find his way.
Eventually he wound up working in an animal shelter in Modesto. The Great Recession hit the Central Valley especially hard.
“People were losing their homes and getting wiped out,” Stewart recalls. “And when people suffer, pets suffer. Pets were getting dumped with us, and as a municipal shelter we can’t turn anyone away.”
His primary responsibility became putting animals down.
Veterinarians are by nature, Stewart believes, emotional. Connected to animals. They enter the profession to be around puppies and fun. Not to destroy pets.
“Some mornings we were euthanizing 40 or 50 animals by 10 a.m. in the morning,” he says. “It was starting to destroy me, and destroy my soul.”
One morning during his commute to the shelter, Stewart was contemplating quitting. He stopped at a 7-Eleven and noticed a man who appeared to be unsheltered. His dog had a bad skin condition.
Stewart could tell from across the street it was a flea issue. An advanced case. The dog, a mixed-breed mutt, looked like a burn victim. The hair on her hind legs was wiped out. The skin was red, bumpy, inflamed and infected. Even the hair on this dog’s tail was gone.
Stewart engaged the owner. Gave him a $3 tablet that took five minute to administer. Good deed done.
Two weeks later, Stewart returned to the spot to find a transformed dog. Her hair had returned. She was happily wagging her tail. The owner was even happier. He cried tears of joy and thanked the doctor.
“That moment restored my faith,” Stewart says. “It had taken so little of my time, but it changed the man. It changed the dog. And as much as I saved the dog, the moment also saved me.”
He reaffirmed his commitment to serving the animal community. On his own terms.
Just a few weeks after the 7-Eleven incident, Stewart opened his own pop-up clinic. Instantaneously, he was getting long lines of owners and pets who were living on the streets.
He’s been doing clinics—along with walking off the beaten paths to find pets whose owners don’t have the capacity to find him—for more than a decade.
During that time, he saw a posting for a big job under the banner of the American Humane, a national nonprofit with the mission of promoting the welfare and safety of animals.
There’d been a spate of bad press around animals being mistreated on movie sets.
Convinced he was a long-shot, Stewart nonetheless applied and got the job as national director of the No Animals Were Harmed program.
“For the first time in years, they were looking for a veterinarian, instead of an administrative executive, to lead the program,” Stewart says. “I didn’t know much about movies. But in 2012, I went from euthanizing animals in a Modesto shelter to being a gatekeeper for animal safety in Los Angeles.”
His job was to interface with executives from Warner Brothers, Disney and the Big Six Hollywood studios and explain why animal care on movie sets is necessary and important.
Stewart was with American Humane for seven years before Netflix made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, hiring him to work for the streaming service in a similar capacity.
Still consulting for Netflix, Stewart now has a veterinary clinic in North San Diego County. His Papaya Pet Care practice in Carmel Valley just opened in March 2022.
Concurrently, he runs Project Street Vet, a nonprofit that allows him to continue his work walking the streets and offering pro bono help to pets and people experiencing homelessness.
Project Street Vet operates under the philosophy of “no judgement, just help.”
Stweart admits he’s undergone an attitude adjustment since that day he helped the man outside the 7-Eleven who’s dog had a severe case of fleas.
“Society has some built-in judgement about the homeless,” he says. “That they’re mentally unstable, lazy, made bad choices and put themselves in this position.”
Stewart has walked that mindset back and done a reversal.
“I’ve had extensive conversations with these people,” he says. “I found out you can’t know what landed them where they are. The judgements society places on them are unfair. Some were abused as kids. Others never had support systems. Many didn’t have the opportunities in life that I was given.”
Stewart takes the attitude that people he meets on the street are individuals who have a pet that needs help.
“In most cases, that pet is the thing they love the most in the world,” he adds.
Surprisingly, Stewart says most of the unsheltered pets he treats are some of the most well-behaved animals he encounters anywhere.
“When people say the homeless shouldn’t have pets, I tell them they’re wrong,” he says. “They’re with their pet every minute of the day, for the most part. The bonds I see are on a totally different level. It’s hard to articulate...but they know each other’s every movement. Not to mention, these dogs are so socialized. They’re outside, seeing people every day. Some of these dogs are the most well-trained I meet.”
As dog owners go, there are the ones who stuff their dog in a backyard, go to work for 12 hours, come home, throw some food in a bowl and then are off, again.
Contrast that ownership dynamic with the bond between Felicia Reil and Johnny Cash.
When Reil isn’t pushing her Maltese Chihuahua around in that baby buggy, she’s holding him tightly. Like a baby.
“He’s spoiled,” Reil tells Stewart.
The doctor and dog mom consult a little longer outside St. Teresa of Calcutta Villa. She says he’s a picky eater. Stewart advises her to cut back on melted cheese in his diet.
At one point, Reil is asked why she named her dog after Johnny Cash. The bad-boy country music legend. The Man in Black.
“Because he fights for the underdog,” she quickly replies.
Next to them on the concrete bench, Stewart has finally persuaded Johnny Cash to take a pill—even though it’s not slathered in cheese. SDSun