A large awning with twinkling lights greeted visitors to the 145th Street Animal Hospital in Harlem, New York. Original works of art, photos and thank you cards lined the walls of the waiting room. At the front desk were stacks of local business cards and homemade goods from grateful customers – kale chips or self-spun angora wool. “It was a common room where everyone was welcome,” says Anne Williams-Isom, a long-time customer, “and you knew you would get top-notch care.”
This care came from Dr. Julie R. Butler, DVM ’83, the owner of the practice who devoted her time and talent to her neighborhood. Butler, trained in arts and science, was a musician, cook, dancer, singer, founder and director of local nonprofits, a mother and mentor who guided young people to their best selves, just as she guided their clients to be the best caregivers for their pets.
From left: Claude Howard, husband of Dr. Julie Butler; Dr. Julie Butler; Zachary Butler-Jones; and Kylie Lang.
“She made sure that customers were trained at every step of the process to help them become better pet owners,” says former veterinary assistant Kylie Lang. “She took time with the patients, made sure to get a detailed version of their medical history, inevitably won the animal’s trust, and often began to become friends with the client. Many can say that she was more than just a vet and treated employees and customers like family and friends. “
Butler died of COVID-19 on April 4, 2020.
The loss was felt in a number of ways – including the opportunities she presented to young blacks, especially black girls. “It showed that you don’t need society’s support to go where you want to go; You just have to be deaf to all the people who say you can’t. And believe me, she has received many of these messages in her career, ”says her sister Dr. Sheila Butler. “She was fearless. It was, ‘I’ll do it, I can do it.’ “
In memory of Butler, the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) established the Julie R. Butler, DVM ’83, Memorial Scholarship. The idea came from Dr. Caroline Yancey, director of international programs at CVM, and was welcomed by Butler’s classmate Dr. Jay Baldwin, DVM ’83, championed. The scholarship will benefit a veterinary student in need, giving preference to black and underrepresented students, as well as those planning to work in or previous experience in underserved communities.
“Julie’s circle is coming full circle,” says Sheila Butler. “We grew up with an attitude that when I get an opportunity, it’s my duty to help someone else. It’s like Julie is coming down here from heaven. “
When Julie Butler arrived in Cornell, she was the only black student in her class. It was difficult for her to build peer support. “At veterinary school, being part of a study group is important – and it was difficult for them to get into study groups,” says Sheila Butler.
Butler’s friend Dr. Linda Bostick, a veterinarian in Smyrna, Georgia, recalls Butler talking about her time at Cornell as challenging. “This is a very common topic for minorities in veterinary education,” said Bostick. “These programs are strict, to say the least – you can’t get through on your own – and this isolation made it all the more difficult for Julie to enroll.”
Butler got her first job at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Brooklyn Clinic with Dr. Lila Miller, DVM ’77. In 1989 she started her own practice – the 145th Street Animal Hospital. Her clinical talent became widely known in the community and beyond.
At that time and many times thereafter, it was the only black-owned veterinary practice in the area.
“She didn’t end up where she ended up because she couldn’t go anywhere else,” says Bostick. “She stayed there because she was so committed to this community. And that comes from compassion – her compassion extended not just to pets, but to people as well. “
Professional support, a personal touch
Butler’s knowledge of the veterinary field and his ability to adapt quickly to emergency situations have saved the lives of many pets, Lang says. “She was ambitious and wasn’t afraid of complicated cases or unruly animals that were turned away by other veterinary practices.”
For the first few years of the practice, Butler and her family lived on the third and fourth floors of the building. She paid her full attention to her patients, regardless of the finances of their owners. “Providing some customers with limited solvency with good medication takes creativity and trust,” says Bostick.
Dr. Julie R. Butler, DVM ’83, attends to a patient at 145th Street Animal Hospital in Harlem.
Outside the exam room, Butler worked to improve community access to care by founding NY Save Animals in Veterinary Emergency, a nonprofit that provides funding to pet owners in need of emergency care. And she served on the board of the New York Lutheran Social Service.
Bostick says, “She was really respected, absolutely loved, in the community.”
Butler’s role as a colored vet impacted both clients and the community. “Julie and I both became vets at a time when it wasn’t as common to be a vet, less common to be a black vet,” says Bostick.
Williams-Isom recalls meeting Butler when she moved to Harlem as a young working mom. “When I walked into this veterinary clinic and saw that it was black, I was speechless,” says Williams-Isom. “I started taking my daughter when she was about 6 years old to see this African American doctor in the community. It meant more than you can imagine. “
Butler regularly attended local schools to discuss the veterinary profession and welcomed many young people to her practice as interns; many came from the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit that uses education to end generational poverty. “It gave blacks the opportunity to see this field as something to pursue,” said Williams-Isom, CEO of the organization. “She gave young people … this exposure.”
The Julie R. Butler, DVM ’83, Memorial Scholarship aims to multiply those amazing experiences, says Dr. Melanie Ragin, Deputy Dean for Inclusion and Academic Excellence at the CVM.
“We recognize that in order to create a more inclusive profession, we have to expand the pipeline of different people who come to him,” says Ragin. “By supporting more veterinary students from different backgrounds, they will be better equipped to practice in different communities and serve as role models for young people who may be encouraged to pursue this career path.”
A heavy loss
As the COVID-19 pandemic began its deadly spread across the country, Butler continued to see patients. In early March, she developed symptoms of the virus. As her sister wrote in an essay in Salon, medical professionals dismissed Butler’s deteriorating condition and ignored him – a common experience for black Americans and other people of color. “It pissed me off to see my sister being denied tests and treatment when I saw white friends, co-workers and acquaintances almost immediately got one or both of them when they showed symptoms,” Sheila Butler wrote.
Butler died of the virus at the age of 62.
After her death, family members and staff worked to keep 145th Street Animal Hospital running. When they couldn’t find a buyer, they had to close the practice on December 31, 2020.
“After her death, we received thousands of notes and cards from customers telling us how they felt like family,” says Butler’s daughter Zora Howard. “It was overwhelming to see the vastness and reach that she really had.”
“She was the vet in Harlem,” says Bostick. “It’s a loss.”
The scholarship: inspire and improve
As the reverberations of Butler’s death reverberated across Harlem, New York City, and across the country, many of her Cornellian peers grappled with the fact that this remarkable classmate faced isolation and discrimination while studying by her side.
“None of us in our small study group knew Julie well,” says Baldwin. “But Dr. Butler’s death was a real shock to our group…. Over the next 30 days, we learned more about how much Dr. Butler has done for her community and especially how much she has done to care for students interested in veterinary medicine. “
Yancey, CVM director for international programs, had heard of Baldwin’s death, Butler’s death, and her stint as a veterinarian and community leader. “Later that year, when the Black Lives Matter movement and discussions about race and diversity increased, I thought back to Dr. Butler and their tremendous contributions to their community and the veterinary profession, ”says Yancey.
Julie Butler, center, with her mother and siblings. From left: Sheila, Robert, Maurice, Julie, Naomi and Reginald Butler.
“Scholarships like the one in honor of Dr. Butlers are vital, ”says Dr. Lorin D. Warnick, Ph.D. ’94, the Austin O. Hooey Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “We have to welcome people from all backgrounds and inspire them for this profession. We regret her untimely death in such difficult circumstances and this terrible loss to her family, friends, community and veterinary medicine. “
Bostick notes that in the past universities admit underrepresented students, offer them no support, and then refer to the students’ struggle as evidence of their unqualification. “So this change has to come from top to bottom,” says Bostick.
College is dedicated to the needs of Butler’s family and friends, Ragin says.
“We know how important meaningful support is for our underrepresented students,” she says. “We are working with fellow CVM executives to design a comprehensive, comprehensive enrichment program that provides these veterinary students with transformative academic, social and holistic support to ensure that every student feels welcome, supported and seen.”
Donations to the Julie R. Butler, DVM’83, Memorial Scholarship can be made online. Questions about the fund or donation can be directed to Alison Rose Smith, Development Director.
This article was taken from the original “Remembering a Renaissance Woman”. Lauren Cahoon Roberts is Associate Director of Communications at the College of Veterinary Medicine.