April 07, 2014

Dr. Oakley, Action Hero

Be in touch with your inner-ninja.

While you might imagine a veterinarian wearing a white lab coat and working in a nice, comfortable clinic office full of shiny equipment, Dr. Oakley’s job often takes her into wild, dangerous places, where she has to perform hair-raising tasks. If her career was a Hollywood action movie, a lot of her scenes probably would require a stunt double. She’s chased wild horses in a helicopter, pulled hundreds of porcupine quills from a sled dog’s face, and even fired a blow dart at a charging muskox.

A typical day at work in the field might entail landing in a helicopter in a remote area hundreds of miles from civilization, and performing procedures in 30-below temperatures, where she has to struggle to keep her hands from getting numb and the drugs and instruments from freezing. And her feral patients aren’t always the most cooperative. There was the time, for example, when she was darting a female bison with tranquilizer so that she could treat the animal. "We had the animal down, so I told the helicopter pilot it was okay to go refuel and come back," she recalls. "Those were almost my famous last words. After the helicopter left, I watched her get up, and she looked at us. She raised tail and ran for us. So we had to try to run to get away, in waist-deep snow." Oakley managed to get to a stand of trees, but they were too slippery for her to climb up, and she was confronted by the angry, snorting animal, just 20 feet away. Fortunately, she didn’t lose her nerve. "Just as she started to take a step toward me, I just went ‘Aggggggh!’ with a sort of crazy laugh," she recalls. Somehow, it worked. The bison, apparently spooked by the scream, "just turned and walked away."

As Dr. Oakley explains, in her line of work, "you’ve got to be in touch with your inner ninja. You always have an escape plan."

She’s also been kicked in the knee by a moose. "It dislocated my kneecap, but fortunately, it popped back in," she recalls. She’s also had a lynx bite through her index finger.

Wildlife, she explains, tend to be unpredictable, but the riskiest animals to deal with are ones who’ve had some exposure to humans and have lost their fear of them. "They’ll lure you in," she explains. "Then, suddenly, you’re in trouble. Tame bears, even muskox, are more dangerous. The completely wild ones are easier."

Coping with the dangers requires Dr. Oakley to be in top physical condition. Fortunately, she’s a fitness enthusiast who enjoys running and outdoor sports such as hiking, snowshoeing and canoeing.

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