Dr. Michelle Oakley begins every day with a schedule, a noble attempt to organize a life filled with so many unknowns. Most days that schedule goes out the window as Oakley is the only vet covering thousands of square miles in the Yukon, a territory in western Canada that is flanked by Alaska and the Northwest Territories.
She’s also the subject of Nat Geo Wild’s Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet, which returns for its sixth season on Saturday, Oct. 6. The series follows Oakley on her daily journeys, which can range from castrating angry boars and capturing wild bison to transporting bears with tractors and horses with helicopters.
“It’s a roller coaster every day,” says Dr. Oakley, who explains that in the Yukon, even mundane-sounding patients, like a pregnant four-pound Yorkie, can be a challenge. When the dog went into labor in the middle of a snowstorm and needed to be evacuated to an animal hospital, life got hectic. “You have to watch and see what happens,” she teases.
For Dr. Oakley, the highlight of Season 6 is getting to help with the release of a herd of bison. “They’re breeding the animals for release, to start a new wild herd,” she explains. “So we got to go out there, work with them, do the health checks, do the quarantine, get them ready for shipment, and they’re gonna be starting a new herd of wild bison in Siberia.”
For Oakley, being able to reintroduce an animal to its natural habitat is a rare gift. “I mean, that’s what it’s all about, right?!? I love working with pets, that’s so important, but when I’m doing the wildlife work — especially on animals that are injured and you’re trying to get them back out to the wild — when you let them go, there’s no feeling like it. It’s like you’re righting some wrong. That you’re making up for so many things that we’ve done wrong, but this, we’re doing right.”
The TV series has allowed her to serve small communities that she would not ordinarily be able to access — remote communities one can only fly into. One of the communities they visit this season is Yakutat, 500 miles from nowhere, where Oakley held a multi-day clinic. “We had a guy show up with a llama in the back of his van. He opened the doors, dogs came out and there was a llama looking at me!” While treating patients, Oakley has traveled by helicopter, jeep, horse, tractor, dogsled, snow mobile, snowshoes, boats and even via Jet Ski.
Oakley shares that she grew up in Indiana and knew at a young age she wanted to work with animals. “I met Jane Goodall when I was 11 years old. I’ll never forget it,” she says. “My mom took me to a book signing at Lincoln Park Zoo. I’d spent so many years watching her on Nat Geo Explorer, and then I met her, and I said, ‘I want to go into wildlife and do what you do!’ And she said, ‘I believe you will.’ And I’m like, ‘All right! I’m doing it.’” Now Oakley hopes to be a role model for other young women growing up loving wildlife just like her.
Now known as an all-species specialist, Oakley was first a veterinarian with the Yukon’s fish and wildlife department for eight years. Then, out of necessity, she branched out to cats and dogs after training at the Calgary Zoo in zoo and non-wildlife medicine. She moved to the Yukon about 20 years ago and wouldn’t choose anywhere else to live. “You learn to love it,” she says. “There is beauty at 40 below.”
Dr. Oakley feels that to succeed as a vet in a remote area, you need a sense of humor. One minute you are dealing with cute puppies; the next you are delivering terrible news. One of her more unusual house calls involved a chicken who had been attacked by a hawk. The hawk had eaten all the meat off the chicken’s wing. They amputated the wing, and Oakley is pleased to report that the chicken is doing just fine.
In another challenging adventure, Oakley described a trip to the Aleutian Islands to help round up 3,000 cattle. She helped to ear-tag the cattle, but she also had to check over a thousand female cattle to make sure they were not pregnant. However, she forgot her extra-long exam gloves. The cook came to the rescue by saving all her bread bags. Oakley improvised. “I put on a glove, then a bread bag, then duct-taped my arm into my rain jacket!” She laughs. “It was horrible!”
When asked how many pets are in her personal menagerie, Oakley reveals that her family’s flock includes three dogs, a snake, a hamster, a number of birds — including a raven — horses, a wild boar and a baby rabbit. One of Oakley’s daughters who came to the interview said, “We call it the Oakley Ark,” and reveals there is scarcely a pet they haven’t owned.
Except perhaps spiders, which Oakley is deathly afraid of. Once, when asked to treat a tarantula while interning at the Calgary Zoo, her care instincts flew out the window. “It was a tarantula that was trying to shed its skin, which they get on their back,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Where’s my slipper?!?’”
Oakley thinks many of her clients could have their own reality shows. “But that is part of what makes the show work,” she says, and notes that you’re going to meet many unique people (and animals) when you ride along with Dr. Oakley.
Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet airs on Nat Geo Wild Saturdays beginning Oct. 6