“I don’t remember a day where it was like, ‘I want to be a vet,’ but as soon as I knew what one was, that was it. I grew up watching the Nat Geo Explorers, Jane Goodall – I wanted to be Jane Goodall,” explained Dr. Michelle Oakely, one of the only all-species vets for hundreds of miles in the Yukon Territory. “When I was 11 my mom took me to Lincoln Park Zoo, because I grew up in Indiana, and we went to see her at a book signing. I was so excited and I remember waiting in line to get my book signed and saying to Jane, ‘I want to do this, I want to work with wildlife one day’ and she was like, ‘And so you will.’”
And so she did.
As prophesized by one of the world’s most prolific ethologists, Oakley, just as she explained to Goodall all those years ago, has made working with wildlife not only her lifelong career but her mission as she constantly works to bring awareness to the public about not only the importance but also the beauty in such an occupation. As an all-species veterinarian in the vast Yukon Territory, Oakley is featured in the National Geographic Channel’s show “Dr. Oakely, Yukon Vet,” now in its sixth season. On top of running her mixed practice on the show, she also runs specialized conservation programs throughout Canada, in Scandinavia, Sri Lanka and Europe.
But before all that, Oakley earned her undergraduate degree in zoology at the University of Michigan. It was there that Oakley was set on the course that would change her life forever. While on a trip to the Yukon as a field assistant for an Honors Thesis, Oakley fell in love, with the environment and with the man who would become her husband, Shane.
“I didn’t even know where the Yukon was,” said Oakley about her first trip there. “I just loved it — all the wilderness. I loved the people who were just so tough and living off grid in a lot of places.”
After school, Oakley worked as a chemist for a while but kept thinking of going back to school to be a veterinarian and so a couple years after finishing her undergraduate degree, she did. It wasn’t easy, however, as Oakley had her first two children while still attending school, her first daughter was only six weeks old when she started her second year.
“It’s one of those things, in retrospect you just sort of do it and you make it work for you,” explained Oakley on how she managed her career and family. “I think that was a big part of my career change, too, from being a government wildlife vet to wanting to do mixed practice because there would be so many meetings or different things I was in — I was traveling for government and I was just, ‘Enough of this I want to do my own practice. I’m going to drag those kids along!’”
It was difficult, but Oakley made it work. With her husband, Shane, working as a wild land firefighter and the many trips and rotations necessary for her job, Oakley’s three daughters grew up with quite the experience, running wild on farms, learning about many different animals and getting to see their mother live her passion.
“Now this season gets my heart. I can barely watch any episode,” said Oakley of her National Geographic show that her daughters are now a huge part of. “My older two are 19 and 21 and they’ve worked for me full time now for a couple of years in the summer and they just, they know what they’re doing now — they’re just confident and know what they’re doing that it’s just really cool and that has been really special to me to watch this season.”
While incredibly proud of her daughters’ growth and abilities, Oakley, however, has no special hopes that they will follow exactly in her footsteps.
“I don’t care if they become vets at all,” Oakley said. “But the thing that I can see in them is that they do want to help people and they see me be so passionate about what I want to do and I can tell that they’re trying to figure that out. It’s not just about helping people, it’s finding your own passion and making sure that helps someone and then don’t let anyone in your way. Just do it. Just find a way to make it work.”
Making it work seems to be Oakley’s life motto, as it has carried her from season to season of both her professional and personal peaks and valleys. In fact one of the turning points for Oakley that pushed her to leave government work and go into her own mixed practice was while working on a Caribou project that she had started, she was told that she could not bring along her then 7-month old daughter who was still nursing.
“That burned,” said Oakley. “I was like no, I’m not going to wean my baby and I can’t believe you’re going to make me choose over a project that I started.”
“Things like that come up for sure,” said Oakley, referring to a hint of perhaps some inequalities or obstacles because of her gender. “I’m sure it was there but I think the fact that I just kind of like steam-rolled over it that I was just, I’ll do what I have to do and figure out how to make it work. Whether it’s a man standing in the way or its reality – If you had asked me if a woman has stood in my way I probably would have some stories of that too – but again, there’s a whole bunch of obstacles out there. Find your way around them.”
This attitude, while necessary in her field, comes naturally, seemingly without any effort at all and Oakley attributes that mostly to her parents, namely her father, who very recently has passed away.
“It definitely comes a lot from my dad,” said an emotional Oakley. “He’s a huge force in my life and he has a huge determination — he’s always been like ‘go get em.'”
Having always had the encouragement of her parents Oakley has lived with a “go for it” attitude that seems to come in handy for the type of career she has fallen into.
With no day ever like the other, Oakley can find herself being dropped by helicopters into a field of bison one day or being called into an emergency C-section for a dog the next day. But the real magic of having her television show that chronicles all this is the awareness Oakley is bringing to the public, not just of what it is she does, but how amazing these animals are and how beautiful their natural habitat is.
“That’s the one thing when I’m out there doing my work,” Oakley said. “If people could just see this. This is intense! When you’re out working on wolves and you’re in the middle of this incredible spot and I’ve been on the ground and the helicopter went to go look for a wolf and they dropped me off and I can just hear all of a sudden all the wolves are howling all around me and I know they’re there. I think, ‘people would protect this.’ You really just want to share that somehow.”
Initially, under the assumption that the National Geographic show was just a one-off episode, Oakley was taken back when she realized they wanted to make it a series but went full steam with it, knowing it would enable her to keep doing the things she was most passionate about.
“It worked because it made what I want to do more possible,” Oakley said. “It means a lot to me that I can travel around to a lot of these remote communities. I can bring my family. We can work together. We can help people and animals and that’s just been really cool.”
“I want them to care and find ways that they can make a difference,” said Oakley of the viewers of her show. “It ‘s not going to be the same way that I’m making a difference but there’s way we all can.”
Currently working on putting together a non-profit to help pull people and resources together for many different conservation projects, Oakley remains just as passionate about encouraging others to do their part as she is in the very work that she does.
“Do it with love and with humor. That’s a huge part of our show I think, is that we laugh,” Oakley said. “A vet’s day is tough, even in the clinic, you know, you might have puppies and then you have a lump that turned out to be cancer, you have to give bad news and then someone comes in with a really old dog that you have to put down but then someone comes in with a new puppy again. It’s like a rollercoaster, every day, all day long.”
“You have to find ways through that and for me it’s always been humor,” added Oakley. “Sometimes it seems inappropriate for some people I think, but we laugh. We laugh at ourselves, we laugh at the crazy things the animals do. So it’s important too. Doing these things for the good of everything but also finding ways to protect your heart and to do it gently with other people so you’re not bowling over anybody, you’re still, being kind.”