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Wilderness Vet

Wingman Wednesday

Dr. Michelle Oakley

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Photo By: Marty Fowler

If you’re like our staff here at TrunkSpace, you have the squishiest of soft spots in your heart for any non-human species, especially those in need of a helping human hand. Many of us have fur families that include pooch pals and cat companions adopted from shelters around the country, and we have wept as our BAFFs (Best Animal Friends Forever) have grown old and left their bodies while simultaneously leaving their marks. Some of us have nursed feathered friends with injured wings back to health, while others have made it a habit to stop traffic for cold-blooded street crossers. We do all of this to assist the animals, even in our own small way, but we’re continuously inspired to do so by those individuals who make it their full-time mission to rescue and defend the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and yes, even insects, of our interwoven world.

One of those inspirations is Dr. Michelle Oakley. As star of Nat Geo WILDs “Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet” and the NBC Saturday morning series “Wilderness Vet,” the all-species veterinarian has seen it all, from a rampaging muskox to a grizzly bear unhappy with receiving a dental examination. Through her work, which she has shared alongside of her three daughters, she is encouraging a new generation of conservationists and empathetic animal lovers.

We recently sat down with Dr. Oakley to discuss hedgehog protocol, the bittersweet aspects of her work, and how a single offer of motivation from Jane Goodall at age 11 made her believe in herself enough to pursue her dreams.

TrunkSpace: For those of us who love animals and think we’re doing good by stepping in to help them, are we sometimes part of the problem as opposed to the solution? Is it best that we animal loving outsiders leave the saving to the professionals? (That being said, we can still keep stopping to help turtles to the other side of the road, right, because that’s kind of our thing?)
Dr. Oakley: Animals need our help. Period. Wild animals near urban or suburban areas with few places left to hide, marine animals swimming through garbage, even some remote ‘pristine’ wild species are in crisis – they are short on space, chronically on the run, and just trying to eek out a living in a place that is changing way too fast for them to adapt. But luckily so many people want to help. It’s just connecting all the helpers with the best facilities and professionals who can ensure we are putting our resources into what’s needed most.

Really that applies to everything from an abandoned pet in a shelter to an owl with the broken wing on the side of the road – so many ways we can support these places with our time, of course money for food or supplies, and getting at the root causes.

But hell yeah, stop to help turtles across the road, be a volunteer dog walker at the shelter, and maybe most important, think about the choices you make every day in terms of products – and what they mean to our environment or do they support these bigger wildlife centers or shelters? You can’t always do the best thing, but even setting examples of doing the little things… I’m always trying to bank spider-karma, scoop them out of harms way, and back outside – not easy for an arachnophobe, but just trying to do my part.

TrunkSpace: You are an all-species veterinarian. Does that mean your education never really stops? Are you constantly having to bring yourself up to speed on species you encounter, but have yet to treat in the past?
Dr. Oakley: YES, that is exactly what that means. Lifelong learning…which sounds exhausting and it can be, but is also actually really fun and rewarding. It can also be kind of terrifying and the source of guilt. What I mean is, I don’t do a dozen canine C-sections a month like most clinics… I do one a year, so I never get really good at it. But I’m the only vet around and there often isn’t time for the animal to get to a more experienced vet. And the next patient is a hedgehog with an abscess and although I know a lot about hedgehogs, I only have two clients in my area that have them, so every time I have to read up on it and remind myself the best protocol for the animal, sometimes contacting colleagues who are more experienced. It’s the whole jack of all trades, master of none problem. I love the variety and I will do my best to help whatever comes my way, but it’s a lot of triage and cracking the books or researching the best thing to do. That makes it hard to run an efficient business as well, but that’s a whole other problem. I am really lucky to have a solid training in zoo and wildlife medicine, because so much of that is adapting what we know about domestic species – dogs, cats cows, pet birds – to the hundreds of species you can see in a zoo. Even most of the instruments and medical supplies and splints and equipment I use was never designed for use on a muskox or a wolverine or a bear, but a lot of zoo medicine is learning to adapt what you have to help the animal even if it’s not designed for them. It’s so challenging, but so rewarding when you come up with some cool fix and it works and you are like. “Oh yeah, uh-huh, McGuyver’d the H-E-double toothpicks out of that!”

TrunkSpace: Many of the animals that we have seen you give assistance to are predators, and often, the kind that the rest of us run away from. Has there ever been an instance where you felt your own life was in danger while trying to save the life of another?
Dr. Oakley: Yes, several times. In fact, probably more than just several. And it’s not just the predators, it’s the big prey species that are most dangerous – probably on account of the everything-wants-to-eat-me mentality. I had to claw my way up a birch tree to get away from a charging (and thankless) bison I had just treated. I had to hang on in a car that was being rammed by an angry (and also thankless) muskox. I had a mountain goat corner me in a pen and try to gore me. I had to run from a 1200 lb grizzly bear that stood up as I was doing a dental exam. (Wasn’t as anesthetized as I thought!)  And I didn’t really think a lot about these, until my daughters started working with me more in the field. In the case of the bear, one of my assistants was my oldest daughter Sierra, who is 20 (and an extremely accomplished and experienced vet assistant for 20!) and for the first time in one of these situations, I felt fear like I had never felt it. I am definitely more careful as I get older and see all the things that can go wrong. And I am very picky about how and when the girls help me in the field. It can really be distracting if I am trying to mom them and do my job.

Really, I have had more close calls with horses than with any wild species. I love horses, but they have a way of getting your guard down, and then they explode.

TrunkSpace: What motivates you to do the job and has that motivation changed from when you first began your career?
Dr. Oakley: YES, great question! I started out really wanting to do wildlife work – I was a bit snobby about how great or important the conservation applications of vet med are, and what they can do for wildlife. I still believe that, but I find more and more I have come to appreciate the importance of the human animal bond – it took getting to really know some of my clients, and their stories, and to know how badly they needed that pet to love and support. I have a therapy dog that goes with his boy to four or five surgeries a year, and alerts when that boy is in pain, and most importantly that dog is ALWAYS there for that kid to depend on and focus on and take care of. Yes, it really helps for that little boy to care for something else and not always be the one looked after.

Putting old or injured pets to sleep is so hard, and I never wanted to do it obviously, but it has also become a bittersweet part of what I do. Ending suffering is such a relief and the last kindness we do for animals that are so loyal to us, and just want love, and to be let go painlessly when it’s the end. I always knew I loved animals, but I am more and more surprised as I get older at how much I love their people, and how much of my job I know is to help those people, as well.

TrunkSpace: In terms of the work you have done, what is a memory, captured on film or not, that will stay with you for the rest of your life?
Dr. Oakley: Well, the one of the bear standing up and having my daughter in close proximity is unfortunately one I will never get out of my head. But I have a few good ones, too. An eagle flying away after months of healing, and looking so strong. I swear I could feel it’s excitement as it left. A one-eyed seal pup grubbing his chubby body toward the surf to freedom. Pretty much every time I see an animal going back to the wild, I choke up and feel this amazement that it all worked out.

Another one, when I was giving really difficult news to an older friend (recently widowed) about his dog, that it had cancer we couldn’t stop. I was crying, he was crying and when I looked up I could see tears running down the face of our main cameraman Dallas Childers while he filmed, and many of the crew nearby were so choked up. I am so lucky to have got into this TV thing with Nat Geo WILD and Lucky Dog Films – our core crew are so professional and kind and such major animal lovers, and many of them have become like family. They have watched me at my best and worst, and watched our kids grow up the last six years. It’s really been cool sharing so much of our life and favorite places and people with them. (And with so many people because of them!)

OH! And meeting Jane Goodall, for the second time (first time I was 11), with my daughter at my side a few months ago. It was amazing. Jane is a pioneer in so many ways, an absolute tireless conservationist, and like, exudes this aura of calm-inspiration.

TrunkSpace: You don’t have to tell us that saving animals, particularly in the wilderness as you do, is compelling television, but does it surprise you that people tune in to watch you do what you love? Do you still experience those “pinch me” moments?
Dr. Oakley: Yes, the things people love about what I share sometimes totally shocks me. You expect the wild things and places are going to be cool, but I love that it’s often the little pet that a kid loves so much that people really love. It kind of follows my own life, love the wildlife, love that work, but that human animal connection is real and so resonant across cultures and ages. I have been pleasantly surprised to hear so many families watch our show together, and feel it’s one of the few shows everyone wants to watch together. That really means a lot. And as much as I love where I live, you still get used to certain things that are extreme elsewhere but your norm… like I Tweeted a vid the other day of Willow walking to the bus stop, cause I thought it was so cool that her dog Bindi runs and herds her to the bus stop 50 yards from the house, waits for her to get on and then rips home all excited like she did her job. I kinda didn’t even clue in that it was the middle of a blizzard and snow blowing sideways, and as usual, Willow was only in a sweatshirt and no hat. People were losing it about her going to school in that weather, and wondered why school wasn’t canceled! (Laughter) I had to laugh. If we canceled over little squalls like that, the kids would never go to school. Really cracked me up. And yeah, Willow is a typical teenager, and we tell her, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing choices.” But she continues to choose to dress for school as if looks and appearances matter more.

OK, I guess I remember those days. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: We read that you watched Nat Geo programs throughout your formative years. What is it like for you personally to now be inspiring future Dr. Oakleys?
Dr. Oakley: YES, see Jane Goodall above. I grew up watching her and Dian Fossey on these Nat Geo specials and I was like, “I am going to do THAT!” So I totally identify with all the kids who write and tell me that, and it feels SO GOOD to be giving that back, to maybe be inspiring others to do this kind of work. Wow, cant even describe how that feels. We are all becoming so much more aware of the importance of having so many kinds of role models that all different kinds of kids, boys AND girls can identify with and emulate. I watched “Wonder Woman” a few months ago on an airplane, and I had no interest in most of those comics when I was a kid, or superheroes… and I couldn’t look away, and I felt inspired to help people more and do my thing more. It’s funny how important that is for all of us, at any age.

When I met Jane when I was 11, I got to talk to her for a few minutes at a book signing at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. I told her I was going to work like her in the wilderness, helping wildlife, and she said, without batting an eye, “I believe you will.” And that was it. Jane said it and I knew it to be true. Others teased me or thought it was weird, but that didn’t matter anymore.

TrunkSpace: As you mentioned, your three daughters often work alongside of you. Does that make the job even more special, being able to share it with family?
Dr. Oakley: Yes, it has. It was initially out of necessity. My husband is a firefighter (wildfire), so he can be gone weeks at a time on a big fire. And I still had a practice to run, and I wanted to be with my kids as much as possible. So they had things to do in the car, and they loved to help on the farm and run around and see the animals, and they often felt great about the small ways they could help when they were little… a lot of our memories are helping animals together, which is kinda cool. I remember Maya helping me pull out porcupine quills form the face of a big rottweiler when she was just tiny, and she flinched with every last pull – and there were hundreds. She has such empathy for animals and their pain. And Willow has mothered and raised so many little creatures. Sierra, I have a memory of her shivering at -40 holding a horse for an owner who had to wait inside because she just had surgery. I was trying to suture up a large laceration on the horse’s leg and the instruments were freezing to my gloves, and Sierra was absolutely frozen herself but never complained.

Willow has mothered and helped raise every little creature you can think of – the kid is always out in the bush and mountains, and is completely feral, our little WillowWild. But it has been hard too in terms of making sure their little hearts can take it. It’s a very emotional job and a lot of the wildlife work is difficult and heartbreaking, and a few times, I wished I had not had the girls there. One in particular was the golden eagle found in tar and brought to us. The girls were so excited to help, and we all got so hopeful as we got the tar off and then suddenly I could see there was no hope, flesh missing from bone and no skin left over 2/3 of the poor creature’s body. I can still see Sierra carrying Willow away as she sobbed into her shoulder, and I stayed behind to put the eagle out of its misery. I noticed since then her being more reluctant to help for awhile, and it’s so understandable, but made me so sad that I hadn’t protected her little heart.

TrunkSpace: We’re watching habitats disappear around the world at an alarming rate. Is the Yukon Territory and Alaska headed in that direction as well or will they remain relatively safe from human destruction due to their location and climate?
Dr. Oakley: Unfortunately huge parts of the Yukon and Alaska are more affected by climate change than most other parts of the world – there is a lot of information out there about the degree in temperature change is twice as high here than elsewhere, and the weather patterns are so different now. The problem with this is all the animals and their habitats are SO cold adapted and actually need cold to survive. As much I love a good day or two above freezing mid January, I know that will likely lead to the deaths of a number of hibernating animals – bears, marmots and other species need that insulating snow cover to stay warm underneath it. When high temps in winter and rain take away the snow, and we get cold temps the next week, the animals can freeze to death in their den. We hear a lot about polar bears and lack of ice to hunt on, but there are so many other ways that a rapidly changing climate is leading to loss of plants and animals, even in remote, seemingly untouched ecosystems of the north.

TrunkSpace: For those reading this interview who don’t want to see any of that happen, what can people do to help those species and habitats in danger of disappearing? If we all put in a spoonful of water, we’d have an ocean, and yet, many species are still endangered and may never be seen again. Where is the disconnect?
Dr. Oakley: The disconnect is, it’s a huge, complex problem and if it was as easy as do this one thing, we could do it. But we are still learning what we can do, and the bigger solutions are tied up in big business or in the hands of many people of different cultures and motivations. It’s not as easy as a spoonful of water each, but it’s not impossible either. I have a lot of hope actually – it seems like the alternate sources of energy and technology was slow to get started, but it feels like it’s gaining momentum and becoming more accessible, maybe in a less organized way that we expected, but that was the only way around the big blockers. People are becoming more connected to animals, not less, and we are able to share more about the risks and plights to wildlife, and people genuinely care.

Help the turtle across the road… then go home and Google how you can help endangered sea turtles. Gotta start somewhere.

TrunkSpace: We’re about a quarter of the way into 2018. Did you make any New Year’s resolutions for yourself and if so, how are you doing sticking with them thus far?
Dr. Oakley: Yes, to floss and I did that – blood everywhere, mission accomplished. Just kidding. I’m a huge fan of “The Office” and spent the holiday binge watching it.

I had two resolutions… one I have every year, and it’s find ways to get more family time. That gets harder every year as Sierra and Maya are away at school, and Willow is less (never) interested in hanging out with us, but it’s finding even small ways to connect and stay current in each others lives. We FaceTime several times a week. We also have a group chat, Fam Jam 3.0, that we check in and tease each other and stay in touch.

My second resolution is to make better use of the notoriety I have from the show, to do something really useful and good to help animals and inspire/train/involve people who really want to help. It’s early yet, but I am working with an amazing environmentalist (Lisa Bicker) and some cutting edge biologists and projects and facilities to see how we can make this work. I get so many messages from people who love the show, especially young students who want to do more and learn how and work with me. My daughters have written those same letters to people they were inspired by and I want them to hear back and be encouraged. And I want to find a way to do that too! Part of that is through our show, and getting more cool science in the episodes and more learning right there each case, but part of it is pulling in students and mentors and getting everyone out on projects doing some real good together. It might take more than 2018 to get that one done, but I’m excited to just get it started. I really loved the hashtag #inspire for 2017… it was about being inspired myself and sharing that with others. I think for 2018, I need something more like #LiveUp. (Laughter) Inspire, but follow through and make a difference. Find a way to pull people together. Don’t just share your story, pull in others to help you make more chapters. (Laughter) That sounds super corny, but that’s OK, as long as it keeps me moving in the right direction.

Catch up on “Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet” at Nat Geo WILD.

“Wilderness Vet” airs Saturday mornings on NBC.

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