It isn’t often that a column is waiting for you in your own backyard or around the corner in your neighborhood. But one arrived for me recently with the death of Dr. Julie Butler, a veterinarian whose office was one block away on 145th Street in Harlem. Although I have a cat, there was never any reason for me to seek her services, but on several occasions I saw her entering or leaving her animal hospital, or witnessed others taking their pets for her examinations.
Not until Dr. Butler opened her animal hospital in April 1989 was there a vet within walking distance in our neighborhood, and with the arrival of many new neighbors, all with their pets, her love and care were a vital necessity. And very soon her vet clinic, one of the few full service animal hospitals in Harlem, was a popular spot and a welcomed addition to our community where her motto was “Professional care with a personal touch.”
At the time she stepped in and launched the hospital the neighborhood was enduring the ravages of a crack epidemic, and some expressed concern about the location and whether such a clinic could actually survive. But it did, particularly when her office was frequented by a number of dog owners with the sick or injured pit bulls. Whether pit bull, Great Dane or poodle, Dr. Butler was ready with the right tender love and care, making sure the animals received the best medical advice and treatment.
Born Julie Renee Butler on June 11, 1957 in Washington, D.C., she was the eldest of five children of Leroy Butler, an electronics technician, and Naomi (Bryant) Butler, a teacher at New Rochelle High School. The family began residing in the community when Julie was four. Even then, she knew she wanted to be a veterinarian and a dream she fulfilled after earning a doctorate from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, where she was the only African American graduate in her class.
For several years Julie practiced at the ASPCA clinic in Brooklyn, before she and her husband, Claude Howard, moved to Harlem. They settled into a one-room apartment in a brownstone above the animal hospital, and subsequently began restoring a townhouse five blocks away. Their home, according to her daughter, Zora Howard, was a place of festive moments, overflowing with guests and conviviality.
“I rarely saw my mother turn anyone away,” her 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.” None of these moments of gaiety or celebration interfered with her medical practice, her passion for the care of animals.
There were also moments set aside to attend to emails and requests on her website as well as an occasional entry on her blog, one of which included this notice she wrote in 2014 about her arrival in Harlem: “It was 25 years today that I arrived at the 145th Street Animal Hospital. I was 4 1/2 months pregnant and suffering from morning sickness. I was very excited. I was living my dream of owning my own business in Harlem! Initially I was commuting from Brooklyn, but in June my husband and I moved on top of the animal hospital. We were living in one-room, which is now my office. I am blessed. This community has been very supportive. We have raised our children here. We have found our church here. Harlem has been good to us. This is my first attempt at blogging. Be patient. There is more to come.”
And more did come, especially in the increase of her clientele, continuing as the only doctor in her hospital. According to her husband, her practice and the care of the animals were her central focus. “She was never really focused on the business side. She was interested in the animals. There were people that swore by her because she saved their animals’ lives,” he said.
Dr. Butler died on April 4 at her home in Harlem. She was 62. Her daughter said the cause of death was complications of the novel coronavirus. “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,’” her daughter said. “How she reverberated beyond these five blocks, beyond this family, has become ever more apparent.”
Along with the daughter and husband, Dr. Butler is survived by her son, Alex Howard, and four siblings, two of whom became doctors.