Her patients are big and hairy ... or small and creepy ... or others


Like many people, I've never wished I was living in the Yukon, dealling with bears and bison and such. But that life seems to work fine for Dr. Michelle Oakley and her daughters; they are bright and likable people whose show -- "Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet" -- returns Saturday (Oct. 6). Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Dr. Michelle Oakley
never planned on this career, you know.

“I didn't know
there were any wildlife vets,” she said.

There aren't many,
but there's Oakley – based in Haines Junction, a Canadian town of
589. Her patients include wolves and wolverines, bears and bison and
bald eagles and more; they're all part of “Dr.
Oakley, Yukon Vet,” on NatGeo Wild.

For Oakley and her
family, this is an uncrowded life. There are about 80 kids in the
school district; a typical graduating class has six. “There are
some years when no one graduates,” Sierra Oakley said.

The older daughters
– now in Canadian colleges – seem happy with their lives. Sierra,
21, plans to be a Yukon vet like her mom; Maya, 19, is studying
criminal justice, which she may do elsewhere. “I can't handle the
cold,” she said.

Their mom wasn't
expecting to be there, either. It all started during a summer as a
field assistant for a ground squirrel ecology study. “When they
said it was in the Yukon, I thought, 'Oh, is that in Mexico?'”

She had grown up in
Indiana, with strawberry fields nearby and a fondness for nature and
the people who study it. “I met Jane Goodall when I was 11 years
old (at a Chicago zoo event). “I said, 'I want to go into the
wildlife and do what you do.' And she said, 'I believe you will.'”

Oakley assumed she
would focus on research, as Goodall does. At the University of
Michigan, she “spent so much time in the natural history museum”
that she wasn't overwhelmed by the mega-campus.

Then came the field
study in the Yukon, where she met Shane Oakley, who kept calling her
“squirrel girl.” He's a wildland firefighter, rooted to the
North. “At the end of the summer, he said, 'Please stay.'”

She couldn't; she
had to do her senior year, so the romance was probably over ...

... Except he soon
surprised her by visiting. “He had never been on an escalator
before,” she said. “But he flew into Detroit .... He said, 'There
are no mountains; I don't know how to tell where I am.'”

After she graduated
with a zoology degree, they married. She got her veterinary degree in
Canada in 2000; after nine years as a government vet, she set up her
unique practice.

At her clinic,
Oakley can see the standard dogs and cats and such; other work has
been for the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, the Alaskan Wildlife
Conservation Center, the American Bald Eagle Foundation ... and even
for special programs in Scandinavia and Sri Lanka.

The TV series –
now in its sixth season – is filmed from April to October, when the
weather is warm. (“It's not ever warm,” Maya corrects.) That has
allowed the girls to take part during summers.

“That was probably
hard for a teenage girl,” Oakley said, “to be on TV and be
working with her mom .... They'd be like, 'Could you not say
“testicles” on TV?'”

One assignment had
mom and daughter in a tree, observing a hulking bear. That required
total silence, not a skill all college kids have. “I love it,”
Sierra said. “You sit there, with nothing else to do.'”

There were potential
problems that day, Oakley grants. “He could have gone up the tree
after us.”

But he didn't ...
and Oakley isn't especially wary of large animals; instead, “I'm
afraid of spiders.”

That was one of the
first things she confronted while interning at the Calgary Zoo. “It
was a tarantula that was trying to shed its skin ... and they're
like, 'Ewww!'”

-- “Dr. Oakley,
Yukon Vet,” 9 p.m. ET Saturdays, NatGeo Wild, rerunning at midnight

-- Opener, Oct. 6,
is surrounded by reruns fron noon to 3 a.m. ET