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Community Honors Memory Of Harlem Veterinarian, Mentor Who Died During Pandemic


We are losing loved ones because of this pandemic, people who are important to our communities. And with closures and social distancing, it's hard to celebrate their lives the way we'd like, people like Julie Butler, a veterinarian from Harlem, N.Y.

SHEILA BUTLER: She always had this idea of monitoring the animals in our neighborhood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Julie's sister Sheila Butler.

S BUTLER: If she ever saw a bird down with a broken wing, that bird would generally end up at our house with a splint on its wing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Julie and Sheila grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., where their parents supported Julie's passion for animals, come what may.

S BUTLER: And even though my mother was deathly afraid of snakes, she bought Julie two snakes. One of the snakes went pretty much everywhere with us. And one time, the snake got out of the cage. And my mother felt it around her ankle and had my father pull the car over. And even before he stopped the car, she jumped out. Well, we were able to save the snake. And, you know, Julie was very happy about that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Julie Butler was at a high school leadership development conference when she met her husband.

CLAUDE HOWARD: She was pretty. I was attracted to her physically. But she was just very, very smart, thoughtful and deep. She was somebody different.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Claude Howard. Julia and Claude became friends and dated. They married a few years after Julie earned her doctorate of veterinary medicine from Cornell University. She began working at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Dr. Linda Bostic (ph) also worked there.

LINDA BOSTIC: I admired her knowledge, the manner in which she's able to treat her patients.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Butler soon opened her own animal hospital in Harlem. She cofounded the nonprofit New York SAVE, distributing small grants to help clients in need care for their pets. She mentored youth in the area who wanted to become veterinarians. Dr. Ericka Gibson (ph), a veterinary neurosurgeon, was one of them.

ERICKA GIBSON: She was such a strong influence and stabilizing force in her community. She was someone that you could rely upon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Julie Butler's influence stretched beyond her neighborhood. She was president of New York City's Veterinary Association and, in 2007, received an award for outstanding veterinary medicine. And she supported the arts, co-creating the South African Harlem Voices Choir.


SOUTH AFRICAN HARLEM VOICES CHOIR: (Singing unintelligibly).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She even acted in a film.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) My bad, ma.

JULIE BUTLER: (As Karen) I have to get out of here now. Warm up the spaghetti in the freezer. And you don't keep your brother up too late. You make you make his, honey.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's from the short film "Showtime," which aired on BET. Filmmaker Rashaad Ernesto Green says Butler was an inspiration on set.

RASHAAD ERNESTO GREEN: She was really encouraging. And I viewed her like my mother, you know, my neighborhood mom.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Julie Butler encouraged her own two children to foster their talents. Her son, Alex, took to cooking.

ALEX HOWARD: Every time she would go to the grocery store, she would buy ingredients that were kind of obscure. We would do cooking experiments with them and see what they tasted like.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alex Howard is now a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York. Her daughter, Zora, is a playwright who just wrapped production for her off-Broadway premiere. She says she'll always remember how much her mother loved - loved her, loved their community, loved others.

ZORA HOWARD: Through her veterinarian work, through the activism that she did, through her family, she gave without a second thought. If somebody reached out in need, if my mother was capable, she would do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Zora Howard talking about her mother, Julie Butler, one of the many we've lost and haven't really been able to grieve during the ongoing pandemic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.