Practicing in the Wilds of the Yukon


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Dr. Oakley examines anything from sled dogs, horses and cows to people’s lap dogs and pet snakes.

Michelle Oakley’s road to veterinary practice took her from Munster, Ind., to Ann Arbor, Mich., to Prince Edward Island, Canada, and finally to Haines Junction, Yukon Territory, Northern Canada. 

Today, Dr. Oakley runs a small veterinary clinic out of her home in Haines Junction,  population 800, where she lives with her husband, Shane, a firefighter, and their three daughters, Sierra, 16, Maya, 15, and Willow, 9.

In April, cable channel Nat Geo Wild will follow Oakley on her calls across the remote Yukon in a six-part series, “Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet.” It premieres at 9 p.m., Eastern/Pacific on April 12.

But back to that road to Haines Junction.

Growing up in Munster, Ind., Oakley knew early on that she wanted to be a veterinarian.

“I always loved animals. We lived on a creek and I was always down building forts and rescuing animals I thought needed to be rescued. Then when I was at the University of Michigan, I went to do a wildlife study in the Yukon—I barely knew where that was at the time—and when I got there I met and fell in love with the place, and with a local firefighter who would later become my husband,” she said in an interview during a promotional meeting in Pasadena, Calif.

Oakley factoids

* Vacations: “Last year for our 20th anniversary, my husband and I and the girls all went to Hawaii, to the Big Island. Scuba diving is our big thing, and we love snorkeling. But almost every year we head up to a little cabin in the mountains where we usually spend a week ice fishing and just hanging out.”
* Idols: Growing up, she considered Jane Goodall one of her idols.
* Her family’s take on her working in the wild?
Her parents live in Indiana and her brother in California. “I think they range from thinking I am crazy to being proud of me. But most of all they know I am happy."
* Pets growing up? “A pug cross and snakes. And I rode horses a lot. My uncle had a dairy farm so I spent a ton of time out there.”
* What does she do for fun? “We do a lot of snowshoeing. It’s seven months of winter there so we also do snowmobiling, ice fishing and camping and hiking. It’s all kinds of outdoor things that we love.”
* Technology? “We just got cell phones about two years ago."

After marrying, she graduated from Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Outside of her home clinic, she runs weekly clinics in Haines, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

She also works with the Yukon Wildlife Preserve as an on-call veterinarian, does clinical sessions with the American Bald Eagle Foundation and works on-call at the All Paws animal clinic in Whitehorse.

Oakley travels long distances along lonely, often heavily snow-covered roads to tend to animals.

“I am the only vet in Haines Junction and it’s 2½ hours to Haines, Alaska,” she noted. “Haines Junction is in the Yukon and the next town is over a mountain pass 160 miles [away].  There’s no town in between and there’s no vet in either location except for me.”

If she needs help with a patient at her home clinic her daughters often pitch in.

“There’s no technician in town, so if someone shows up at the door with an animal and it needs an IV right now, my daughters come and help me. Vet tech assistance comes from Whitehorse, which is an hour and a half drive away,” she added.

Her patients run the gamut.
 
“I work on anything from sled dogs, horses and cows to people’s lap dogs and pet snakes.

“One day I can be pulling hundreds of porcupine quills out of a sled dog’s face. Later that day I could be pregnancy checking a moose at the wildlife preserve. A few days later I can get a call on a horse that has a hoof laceration. That actually just happened,” she said, adding that the temperature was 30 degrees below zero and the instruments kept freezing to her hands.

Oakley said her family is excited about the TV series.

“Probably about a third of the show involves family life,” she said. “It’s going to be neat for younger girls and teenagers to see. If they want to be a vet they might identify with me because I am female, but I think they are really going to identify with my daughters to see how they are learning about what I do.” 

Oakley came to the attention of Nat Geo via the production company that made the series. She first became aware that the company was looking for a veterinarian when an email made the rounds in her area. She didn’t respond to it.

“Several colleagues forwarded the email to me and said ‘You should really do this.’ I thought it was just a one-show thing. So I said ‘Sure, that sounds kind of fun.’

Filming of the six-part program was completed late last fall.

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