Life is indeed wild for ‘Dr. Oakley: Yukon Vet’

  • By Luaine Lee McClatchy-Tribune News Service
  • Tuesday, April 15, 2014 5:07pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

PASADENA, Calif. — You’re not likely to spot Michelle Oakley at the watering holes with Hollywood’s cougars. You won’t see her posing of photos on 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 Vet.” 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.

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, seated in the alien environment of a lounge in a hotel here.

“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.

Smiling, she says, “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. “Whitehorse is an hour and a half from the next town. There are several small communities I service now as a veterinarian, but they’re an hour-and-a-half to a two-hour-and-a-half drive in every direction. None of them has a vet. It’s a big area to cover,” she says.

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.”

With her busy life, Oakley had no intention of starring on a TV show. “An email went out; they were interested in people who were doing wildlife vet work. I do some wildlife vet work, but I do everything, so I kind of ignored it.

“Then six months later it went around again, but I didn’t see it. Several colleagues said, ‘You should do this, you should really do this.’ I thought it would be kind of fun but I thought it was just one show. So I contacted them. They said, ‘Would you like to do six episodes?’ ‘Wow, OK, I’m game.’”

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.”

Channel surfing

Linda Hamilton guest stars on SyFy’s popular series, “Defiance,” when it returns June 19. She plays Pilar McCawley, the wife of Rafe McCawley, who reunites with her family after years of separation. Jaime Murray, who plays Stahma Tarr on the show, says “I had a scene with her. And Stahma’s so icy and cold, and she’s pretty scary in her own way too. And Linda has got this power and this status, and she is quite scary too, but there’s such a warmth about her with it. She’s so earthy that it was just an amazing scene to be in with her.”

We’ve consorted with the Borgias, commiserated with the Tudors, battled with DaVinci’s demons and pillaged with the Vikings — can Marco Polo be far behind? No, it turns out. Netflix is conjuring a 10-hour miniseries about the intrepid explorer. Filming is taking place now in Malaysia, Italy and Kazakhstan. Produced by the Weinstein Co., the show stars Lorenzo Richelmy as the 13th-century wanderer, along with an international cast including Benedict Wong, Zhu Zhu, Tom Wu and Rick Yune. The series is due later this year.

The engrossing “Orphan Black” returns for its second season Friday on BBC America. Tatiana Maslany, who won a Television Critics award for her work on the show, tells me she was considering quitting just before she landed the part.

“I constantly think of quitting … I did a play in January and was really jazzed about it, it got a great reception and then I went to L.A. for pilot season and had the most difficult time. I tried out for loads of things and thought I was right and thought I did an interesting audition or whatever, and then you don’t hear anything. And as it’s the hardest as far as rejection goes, but I think we’re kind of addicted to that high-low thing. I had the most dead year I’ve ever had, and then I got ‘Orphan Black,’ and it’s the best job I’ve ever got because the part is insanely exciting. The part is like something I would’ve dreamed about and never thought I could actually do or be seen for.”

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