Dr. Michelle Oakley gets around. As the only veterinarian for hundreds of miles in Canada’s Yukon Territory and adjacent Alaska, she tends to creatures great, small, domestic and wild in a typical day’s work that ranges from routine pet vaccinations to removing hundreds of porcupine quills from the face of a sled dog, examining injured bald eagles, a yak with a hernia, and lynx kittens — after she catches them.
Operating out of a home office, a satellite clinic, the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, and any number of house calls at farms, ranches, and rescue sanctuaries, she approaches even the dirtiest tasks with good humor, including giving a cow a rectal exam to check for pregnancy and expressing a dog’s anal glands, “One of the more glamorous parts of being a veterinarian,” she jokes. The only thing that upsets her is having to euthanize terminal animals, such as a deer hit by a car and a nighthawk with a severed, infected wing. Oakley’s mission: “Help the animal or end the suffering,” she says.
The six-episode series, which premieres April 12 on Nat Geo Wild, follows the peripatetic vet as she juggles her busy job and her family life with her firefighter husband, Shane, and three daughters, Sierra, 16, Maya, 15, and Willow, 9, who often accompany her on the job. “They’ve been dragged along since they were little,” notes Oakley, who filled us in on how she does it.
MNN: Which came first for you, the Yukon or animals?
Michelle Oakley: Animals. I grew up in Indiana. My uncle had a farm. We lived on a creek in a wooded area, half rural half suburban. I was always building forts, catching animals.
Did you always want to be a vet?
Yes, or Jane Goodall. I was watching wildlife shows on Nat Geo in those formative years. I wanted to do something with wildlife and I wanted to be a vet. I didn’t know I could do both. I went to the University of Michigan for undergrad and that’s how I got to the Yukon. In my junior and senior year I went to do an honors thesis and study in the Yukon and fell in love with it. And I met my husband there.
What’s the biggest challenge you face?
Providing good veterinary care,being really remote and working in field situations. Sometimes I’m working on sled dogs off the grid or horses in 30 below, racing to fight frostbite, the instruments freezing in my hands. The challenges are the remoteness, the environment, and balance. It’s really challenging to balance it all. I can’t say no to people. I’m the only vet in the area. And I’m still trying to be a mom, keep everyone together.
What’s the furthest you've had to travel?
I do clinics in my hometown a couple of times a week and I’ll do mobile clinics several times a month. Often emergencies are an hour out. A lot of it is driving, especially for pets. The wildlife work is almost all helicopter-based because it’s super remote, no roads. It’s usually big government projects, conservation work. I’ve been working with wood bison for about 12 years now. They’re an endangered species in the U.S. and a threatened species in Canada. There’s a big bison reintroduction program in the Yukon and I’ve been working on bison anesthesia, trying to perfect it. I’m going to Sri Lanka in five weeks to train wildlife and zoo vets and work with them to improve their drug protocols and work with elephants. We did this caribou project where we took pregnant cows in, the herd was really old and the calves weren’t surviving because the females were old and the wolves were picking them off. So we kept the pregnant ones and protected the calves for a month. We had 80-90 percent survive as opposed to 10 percent.
There are so many shows set in Alaska these days. What do you think the fascination is?
It’s so different from where the rest of the United States is living. It’s super remote, harsh environments, a whole breed of “Do it yourself because you have to.” My daughters chop wood to heat our house. Hunting is a way of life where we are, and my daughter shot her first caribou this year to feed our family. I wasn’t that self-sufficient. But I am now. I’m so excited for them to grow up like that. We live in a community that’s off the grid. It’s 800 people but it’s an hour and a half drive from any other community.
In the video below, Oakley uses a little bit of ingenuity to treat a great gray owl with an amputed wing.
Does living where you do give you a unique appreciation for Mother Nature?
Yes. My husband calls it the 40 Below Rule. You have to be nice to everybody in a small town and never drive by anyone because it could be you next. Don’t piss people off. And we never go out without checking the weather forecast.
Do you ever go to the lower 48? Take a tropical vacation?
My husband and I got married in Hawaii 21 years ago and last year for our 20th anniversary we all went to Hawaii together, It was a blast. We went snorkeling and scuba diving. But after two weeks I want to go home. It’s the absolute freedom of where we live. You do what you want.
What kind of pets do you have at home?
We have a zoo going at all times. There are always owls and ravens, various raptors that we’re rehabbing. Our permanent residents are Daisy Mae Loverpants, our pug, and we have a Lab mix who’s the most wonderful, loyal, beautiful rescue dog ever. We have an old grandpa cat and a hamster and a snake and a couple of fainting goats. My daughter Willow figured she would be an entrepreneur with the cashmere but I think she’d make more money selling tickets to watch the goats faint.
What’s the takeaway for viewers of the series?
It’s going to be really exciting to share what we’re doing. I want them to see this amazing, gorgeous incredible place that’s left on earth. There are so many different lifestyles there. It will be cool for people to see how girls can be so self-sufficient. It’s a great balance of work and family.
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