Book review: 2 tales of unhoused people and their pets

Dr. Kwane Stewart with a small dog on his shoulder
Two memoirs by a veterinarian and an activist explore the deep bonds between people experiencing homelessness and their pets who love them.
By Sally Rosenthal

What It Takes to Save a Life: A Veterinarian’s Quest for Healing and Hope by Dr. Kwane Stewart. HarperOne, 2023. Hardcover, 224 pages, $28.99. 
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When he was just a boy, Kwane Stewart knew he wanted to become a veterinarian. Determination and hard work got him a place in veterinary school. But, as he was to learn, the most difficult tests for young clinicians come after graduation. In his honest and affirming memoir What It Takes to Save a Life, Dr. Kwane invites readers into a life story filled with personal struggles and professional triumphs.

As a new graduate, the author found himself — as did many of his colleagues — saddled with tremendous student loan debt and having to grapple with unexpected emotional turmoil brought on by steep on-the-job learning curves. Trying to save as many animals as possible as a shelter vet, he came face to face with the harsh reality of overcrowding in shelters, human neglect of animals, and compassion fatigue. While his professional capability grew, the author struggled with mental health issues and marital infidelity.

Dr. Kwane could have chosen not to confide his personal concerns to his readers, but the fact that he did makes him more than a one-dimensional character. His honesty and self-examination also set him on the road for what would become a truly compassionate mission.

[5 random acts of kindness for pets]

One morning when stopping for coffee at a convenience store, Dr. Kwane noticed a man and his ill dog who were homeless. The next day, Dr. Kwane, in what he thought of as one small act of kindness, brought medicine and caring to the man and his dog.

That encounter, however, was the beginning of a street veterinary service to people experiencing homelessness and their much-loved dogs, cats, birds, and other small animals. Suddenly, the author became aware of the vast number of people who are homeless and the bond of unconditional love they share with their companion animals. From a small beginning of offering vet services from his own wallet and clinic, Dr. Kwane gained the trust of his clientele and the help from an ever-growing group of volunteers.

There is much to admire in Dr. Kwane’s memoir. But what stands out is how much impact small acts of generosity make — and how important it is that when faced with an opportunity to be kind we make that choice. In a world in which too much of the news is bad and apathy is often the default setting, we need to be reminded that, as Dr. Kwane shows us, goodness is an option and is there for the taking.

Please Don’t Leave Me by Michelle Clark. Mobius, 2023. Softcover, 304 pages, $17.99. 
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When I reviewed Poppy the Street Dog a couple years ago, I hoped London-based activist Michelle Clark would follow her debut memoir with more tales of her work with people experiencing homelessness and their dogs. Now, with the publication of Please Don’t Leave Me, Michelle continues the story of the work her organization, Dogs on the Streets, does each day to make life a bit better for people and dogs in need.

This time around, Michelle has chosen to focus on one man and his dog. Arthur and his canine companion, Kaiser, find their already difficult existence taking a turn for the worse when Arthur is diagnosed with terminal cancer. How Dogs on the Streets supports the pair during Arthur’s hospitalization and final days is tremendously moving. And how Michelle and her group ease his mind about his beloved Kaiser is an important focus of the book.

Caring for Kaiser and rehoming him is an example of the care ordinary people can offer in extraordinary circumstances. In her second outing, Michelle has written another book that reminds readers that kindness can make a world of difference — and it makes our world a better place.

Smiling brindle pit bull type dog with a person squatting behind him
Photo by Lori Fusaro

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