You’re not likely to spot Michelle Oakley at the watering holes with Hollywood’s cougars. You won’t see her sashaying down the red carpet or signing a sexy 8-by-10. While she may be the star of a TV show, Oakley prefers her wildlife on the hoof.
Hanging out of a helicopter trying to dart a bison, performing a C-section on a horse or removing porcupine quills from a Labrador can be all in a day’s work for Oakley.
Oakley is a veterinarian and subject of NatGeo Wild’s new series, “Dr. Oakley: Yukon Doc.” The show follows the Oakley family as it copes with 40-degree-below weather, vast, impenetrable distances and a job that keeps Oakley constantly on the move.
The way it all began sounds like a Harlequin Romance. Oakley, who grew up in Indiana, was studying zoology at the University of Michigan. “I was in my third year of university and working on my thesis. As an undergrad you usually go somewhere, so I went to the Yukon for two summers in a row. I met my husband, harbored a huge crush over the winter and hoped they’d go back, and they did,” she says.
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“I came back the next year and we started dating. He’d actually never left the Yukon before … and he came to visit me at the University of Michigan … landed in Detroit. I picked him up. And he’d never been in an escalator before, never been in a building over three stories high. My friends called him ‘Crocodile Dundee’ because that movie was out around then. It was a different experience for him. He came to visit me. And I went back after I graduated. The rest is history,” she says.
It may have been love at first sight, but Shane Oakley, a wild-land firefighter, had no idea what he was getting into when he met Michelle. She’d worked as a naturalist and hiking guide, she toiled as a chemist on Alaska’s North Slope. But she always dreamed of being a veterinarian.
“I started thinking about if I won the Lotto I’d go to vet school in style. I said, ‘Wait, I don’t need to win the Lotto to go to vet school. What am I waiting for?’ ”
She was 26, and went on to have two of her three daughters while she was attending vet school. Shane cared for the children while she studied. “In retrospect I must’ve been crazy, but I was living life. I was doing everything I wanted to do – all at once. It was awesome. But of course, it was difficult as a mom, you get the guilt and you miss this and that.”
For eight years she worked as a wildlife biologist for the government before she established her veterinary practice.
Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, serves as headquarters.
Oakley makes house calls in her medically equipped Toyota Sequoia. “I basically do mobile clinics in small communities,” she says, “inoculations, spay-neuters, emergency care, emergency C-sections, lots of bite wounds, many bear attacks on dogs. Porcupine quills are a huge problem in the North. I do everything now. I used to do just wildlife when I worked for the government. I still do some wildlife work, but now I’m also running my own private practice where I do dogs cats, parrots, everything from lap dogs to horses and cows.”
Fulfilled by her work, her only regret is that she wasn’t more attentive when her professors talked about the animal-human bond. “I worked with wildlife for a while and didn’t have a lot of client reactions. When I first did, I think I wasn’t as appreciative of that human-animal bond and how rewarding that would be to work with,” she says.
“I was excited I was going to go hang out of a helicopter and dart a bison or a moose and that was so neat … But I find now that I’m just as excited about the bond between these sled dogs and their owner, or this dog that this guy takes fishing everywhere because there are so many bears around, or someone’s lap dog … That means so much to me now. I think it’s because I’m older and have kids. But it really touches my heart every time with every pet, every owner. It’s so rewarding, and I really didn’t appreciate that until this stage of my life.”