April 07, 2014

Dr. Oakley, Vet to All Things

Lifelong learning of creatures great and small.

Famed veterinarian James Alfred Wight, AKA James Herriot once wrote a memoir entitled All Creatures Great and Small, but that title could just as easily apply to Dr. Michelle Oakley’s incredibly diverse list of animal patients. Over her career, which, in addition to her journeys around the Yukon wilderness has included stints at the Calgary Zoo and trips to exotic locales such as Sri Lanka, she’s treated eagles, muskox, moose, caribou, bears, wolves, dogs, cows, goats, boa constrictors, wood bison, gorillas, elephants, leopards, porcupines, and owls, to name a few.

One of the animals that most fascinates her is the wolverine. "They look like something prehistoric," she says. "They’re almost like a miniature bear, just super-tough." She once did an autopsy of a wolverine that somehow had managed to survive and function normally with a porcupine quill lodged in its heart.

Working with that range of creatures, with their daunting differences in anatomy and physiology, is a major challenge. "You can’t possibly learn about every species in vet school," Dr. Oakley explains. In order to cope, she continually studies veterinary journals and looks up information on the Internet, and frequently consults with other veterinarians who’ve become experts on various animals.

Even so, it’s often a challenge to figure out how to treat some of her animal patients. "I have to do a lot of adapting," she says. "I’ve had to work on porcupines, for example. How do you even pick them up? How do you give a snake an IV? How do you put a collar on a snowy owl?" She’s had to figure out how to do exams on female caribou to determine whether or not they are pregnant. "With a caribou, you can’t just put your arm up in there, like a cow," she explains. To solve the problem, she devised her own innovative instrument, a wand fashioned from plastic pipe.

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