NEW YORK — Not too long after she earned a doctorate from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, where she was the only African-American graduate in her class, Dr. Julie R. Butler took over the 145th Street Animal Hospital, for many years the only full-service vet clinic in Harlem. Her first day was April 1, 1989.
It was tough going in the neighborhood in those years. Next door to the hospital was a crack house. Butler’s receptionist sat behind protective glass, and her first patients were pit bulls and Rottweilers — big dogs owned as protection from criminals or by the criminals themselves.
But Butler was deeply committed to caring for animals — she knew she wanted to be a vet as a little girl growing up in New Rochelle, New York. She loved doing surgeries, loved the complex science of it. And she wanted to serve her African-American community. She hired and mentored aspiring veterinarians and technicians and co-founded a nonprofit, NY Save Animals in Veterinary Emergency, to provide funds to the owners of pets in need of emergency care.
“I rarely saw my mother turn anyone away,” Zora Howard, Butler’s daughter, said. “She had something built into the fabric of who she was that she passed down to my brother and I: If you have the means to give, you give. If you have the roof to shelter, you shelter.”
Butler died Saturday, April 4, 2020, at her home in Harlem. She was 62. The cause was complications of the coronavirus, Howard said.
Even after 30 years, her practice was a high-wire act. As a sole practitioner, Butler worked long hours, often getting home well past midnight. Overhead, equipment and staffing were all increasingly costly. She had clients who owed her money, and she was never going to see it.
“She was never really focused on the business side,” Butler’s husband, Claude Howard, said. “She was interested in the animals. There were people that swore by her because she saved their animals’ lives.”
Julie Renee Butler was born June 11, 1957, in Washington, D.C., the oldest of five children. Her father, Leroy Butler, was an electronics technician; her mother, Naomi (Bryant) Butler, was a teacher at New Rochelle High School. The family moved to the town when Julie was 4.
In addition to her husband and daughter, Butler is survived by her son, Alex Howard, and four siblings, two of whom became physicians.
After practicing for a few years at the ASPCA clinic in Brooklyn, Butler and her husband settled in Harlem, where at first they lived in a one-room apartment above the animal hospital. Later, they bought and restored a historic beaux-arts limestone town house five blocks away.
The house was always filled with people — extended family, someone Butler knew through church who needed a place to stay, her children’s friends who appreciated her larger-than-life personality, her artistic side (she sang in a choir and made clothes) and her home-cooked meals.
“In the wake of my mother passing, we’ve had people from the depths of time reaching out, saying, ‘I don’t know where I’d be if not for your mother,’” Zora Howard said. “How she reverberated beyond these five blocks, beyond this family, has become ever more apparent.”