This Yukon Vet's Day Job Includes Life-Or-Death Animal Encounters You Wouldn't Believe
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Dr. Michelle Oakley fell in love in the Yukon, in more ways than one. While an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, she took the opportunity to study wildlife in the expansive territory of northern Canada. It’s there that she met her husband, a traveling firefighter today, and solidified her connection to the wild. After earning her veterinarian degree, Dr. Oakley spent about nine years working in wildlife conservation for the Canadian government, until she started growing her family and felt compelled to start her own practice. “I had two daughters during vet school — my first after my first year, my second in between final exams in third year and board exams in fourth year. So, it was very well timed,” she says. “I just wasn't getting to spend enough time with them when I was on the road, so I decided to leave, start a mixed practice, and basically haul them around with me.”
Now, on her National Geographic series, Dr. Oakley: Yukon Vet, the Indiana native takes viewers along with her as she does dental work on 1,200-pound Kodiak brown bears, wrangles wild caribou, castrates wild boars, and so much more in remote areas of Canada and Alaska.
With her now three daughters and husband often by her side, the vet continues to make her groundbreaking work a family affair. Aside from her domestic pop-up clinic in which she treats dogs, horses, and the occasional llama owned by the some 35,000 people who live in the Yukon area, Dr. Oakley has made important strides in wildlife conservation as well. In her “spare” time, she does contract work for wildlife across the globe. One project she worked on called “captive rearing” has helped double the isolated caribou population in Yukon, effectively saving the species from local extinction. Places across the country are now using her technique to save populations in Quebec and Alberta, too.
Up next for the adventurous vet? She and her daughters plan to launch a platform that easily matches eager wildlife supporters with organizations and non-profits that need help, paying it forward in the name of environmental and animal preservation. “What’s happening in the world is not just polar bears getting skinny,” she tells InStyle. “There’s a huge domino effect to [climate change]. We have to wake up.”
Mixed practice: With Dr. Oakley’s mixed practice, she essentially manages pop-up clinics, going into communities, setting up, and opening her doors for whatever animal needs may come her way. “In these remote communities, you never know what's gonna show up,” she says. “We had someone pull up with a van, and he said, ‘I want you to look at my dog.’ When he opened the van door, two dogs jumped out and there was a llama sitting in the back of the van too. He's like, ‘Oh yeah, and could you look at my llama's eye too?’” Dr. Oakley relishes in her family’s fun sense of humor — key she says to handling all the wild situations she encounters.
The wild life: Conservation has been a passion of Dr. Oakley’s since she was a pre-teen learning about Jane Goodall’s work with apes. “We have to have people who care. I mean I still remember growing up watching Jane Goodall and Nat Geo. As a 10-, 11-year-old kid I was just like we've got to do something about these chimpanzees. We've got to do something about deforestation.” As a kid, Dr. Oakley had the chance to meet Goodall, whom she considers the “original badass,” and she still remembers the icon encouraging her to get out there in the wild when she mentioned wanting to work with wildlife, too. “And I get all these emails now from all these young girls saying, ‘I want to be a vet,’” Dr. Oakley says. “And I reply, ‘You will. Yu-kon do it. Get out there.’”
Overcoming fear: “Sometime, it's just getting in the helicopter for me, because I have to admit, I'm afraid of flying,” Dr. Oakley says of her work that requires reaching remote areas. “There are so many things that will get in your way, and then you'll just sit back and be like, ‘I could've done that.’ Well we need people who are going to do it. We just gotta get over it, get up there, and do it,” she says.
As her family has grown, Dr. Oakley says her fears have shifted more from getting in helicopters to fearing for her daughters’ safety. “My latest fear is having my daughters work with me,” she admits. For example, Dr. Oakley says she and one of her daughters were working on a 1,200-pound Kodiak brown bear that had a dental problem last year. It had been sedated, but she explains is tough to tell if the sedation has taken hold. “I basically had to go in there, stalk it, and dart it with the help of my daughter and a couple other people,” she says. “After I darted it, I started opening its mouth and checking its teeth. I turned around to do something, and when I turned back, I saw the bear stand up and look at us. The scariest thing was that between me and the 1,200-pound bear was my daughter looking at me too.” Dr. Oakley says she was able to do what she needed, but it was harrowing nonetheless. “I want my daughters there because they're getting passionate about wildlife and they're really into it, but I still have the momma fear of having them along.”
Human connection: When students reach out to Dr. Oakley and say they have more empathy for animals than humans. “For me, it started out being all about the wildlife and conservation. That's still super important, but I found that what really touches me now are the people's stories,” she says. “If you want to help that animal, you're going to have to help its people, because if they don't trust you, if you aren’t patient with them explaining why you're doing what you’re doing, they won't do it." Dr. Oakley says one of her proudest moments has been watching her daughters take on this role of explaining to an animal's owners what the vet is doing.
Family affair: “I'm most proud of the family involvement and keeping it real that way,” Dr. Oakley says. All of her daughters have a unique connection to the wild. Her oldest is studying to become a vet as well. Her middle daughter is in her junior year of studying criminology, but she works for Dr. Oakley in the summer. “And then my youngest daughter is feral,” Dr. Oakley jokes. “She's probably somewhere out in the mountains right now. We haul her in once a month and pull the sticks out of her hair and make her brush her teeth and send her back out. I don't know what she's going to be. I don't think there’s a job for little female Mowgli right now, but she'll figure it out. She just loves the outdoors and the wildlife.”
Badass attitude: “People say to me, ‘Oh you must be an adrenaline junkie.’ No, I long for days in the clinic where I just sit at the computer. Wouldn't that be nice? But it's just, you know what you have to do to get stuff done. You have to get out there and just do it,” Dr. Oakley explains. This philosophy is also how she sees badass women. “I think, it’s [all about] getting out there and getting the job done.” We’d have to agree.