Harter’s son watches Yukon Vet in their Los Angeles home. (Courtesy/Allison Harter)

Harter’s son watches Yukon Vet in their Los Angeles home. (Courtesy/Allison Harter)

What I learned from a veterinarian about being human

Sheltering in place, Harter seeks refuge in television and Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet

  • May. 2, 2021 3:00 p.m.

A.E. Harter

Special to the Yukon News

My nine-year-old son attends a progressive school just outside Los Angeles where kids are encouraged to knit, garden, whittle, cook — to live in an imaginary realm — but where technology, above all television, is discouraged. Even before the pandemic, finding appropriate shows for us both to enjoy, which wasn’t likely to trigger calls from fellow parents, was challenging. At least it had been since my son gave his friends the skinny on the Holocaust after we watched “The Sound of Music.” But sheltering in place, facing the loss of my long-term business, on the heels of a 30-day eviction, my son and I sought refuge in our television, and we found it, in the form of Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet.

Dr. Michelle Oakley, an all-species veterinarian from All Paws Veterinary Clinic based in Whitehorse, treats everything from 1,000 lb. Muskox, to pot-bellied pigs, to kittens. My son, a huge animal lover, was immediately taken with not just the variety of animals Dr. Michelle treats, but the fun, confident, and compassionate care she shows each of her patients and their owners.

We joined Dr. Michelle and her family, backlit by breathtaking landscapes and snow-capped peaks, for eight seasons worth of episodes. While Dr. Michelle kept us riveted with her expansive knowledge of veterinary medicine, her husband Shane taught their three daughters, Willow, Maya, and Sierra, and by extension, us, how to survive in the Yukon wilderness. Shane showed the girls how to chop wood, and build shelter, as well as how to fish and hunt. Each episode fed my son’s burgeoning desire to leave our home in Los Angeles and move to Alaska to live off the land.

Dr. Michelle quickly became a staple of our dinner conversation. We laughed at her corny puns, imitated her fun-loving impressions of patients, and tossed around her inventive terms of endearment. Our favorite being “Loverpants,” which she reserved for her zaftig pug, Daisy Mae. Dr. Michelle’s show even prompted thought-provoking discussions, such as how sometimes the kindest thing we can do for an animal is to let it go. This discussion followed a dramatic episode where Dr. Michelle and her family struggled to save an eagle who became trapped in hot tar. Sadly, the eagle ultimately had to be euthanized. Dr. Michelle not only entertained my son and me, she invited us to be a part of her family during the year we spent sequestered from our own.

Dr. Michelle is as goofy as she is diligent. Whether it’s the stealthy way she wields a blow pipe to launch a sedative dart into an animal’s hide, or the fun she displays casting nets fishing for Hooligan, or the way she pretends to pop Warbels into her mouth, as if they were grapes. Warbels are fly larvae, shaped to look like almonds, recovered from beneath the skin of deer. This characteristic goofiness, combined with her keen veterinary skills, reinforces why Dr. Oakley is my fourth grader’s hero. Whereas I’m drawn to the way she whispers, “let’s break out the books and chocolate,” the second her husband and eldest daughter depart to hunt caribou.

The earnest, yet light-hearted vet, perpetually outfitted in baggy coveralls with her name embroidered on the lapel, her trademark red hair flowing in the wind, Dr. Michelle employs a variety of techniques when treating her patients. There’s forking-the-pork, which entails poking a pig with a plastic fork to soothe the swine enough to give it a hoof trim. She familiarized us with porcupines, which despite how cute they are, can deliver a curious canine a face full of quills in an instant. Quills which, if not removed promptly, can migrate to other parts of the body, like the eye. Dr. Michelle, a mobile vet, must also frequently improvise when out in the field. Like the time she forgot handles and had to bind a flexible saw, called Gigli wire, around two small sticks to saw through a reindeer’s antler.

Now, one may suggest no one beyond an all-species vet, much less us city-folk, will have use for such techniques. Though I’d argue that the lesson inherent in all of these methods, is one we can all use, and that’s resourcefulness. My son seems to have taken this to heart. Much to the chagrin of my now bushy brows, he absconded with my tweezers to remove a splinter in his knee for fear it might “migrate.” One day as I searched for the kitchen shears, he suggested we bind dental floss around two pencils to break down the rotisserie chicken I’d just picked up at the market. Thankfully, I found the shears. Once he even teasingly prodded my haunches with a plastic fork, hoping to soothe me after I discovered our kitten had made our living room sofa his scratching post. My son succeeded in that he made me laugh.

Despite the buoyancy Dr. Michelle brings to almost every interaction, by nature of her profession, she is not immune to the more difficult aspects of life, mainly death. While always professional, Dr. Michelle doesn’t shy away, or try to hide her emotions when she delivers troubling, sometimes devastating, news. Even the time her youngest daughter Willow’s pregnant goat suffered a brutal coyote attack, Dr. Michelle struck a delicate balance. She displayed her anguish, while still remaining even-tempered, allowing her to focus on the job at hand.

While I stumbled upon Dr. Oakley’s show in search of programming for my son, I soon found her show held as much, if not more, for me. After a decade of reading parenting books, reciting acronyms and practicing my patience, I think any parent will relate when I confess, that no matter how much reading I do, sometimes it’s still tough to know what to say. Where do we go when we die? Why do some people get sick and not others? What if you get sick? Who will take care of me if you die? Where is God? These are the kinds of questions that emerged in our home this past year. I’m a single parent, full-time. There are no other adults to look to for support when I’m H.A.L.T. (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) or to query for guidance in our home. When my son wants to know the reason behind things, as he often does, I’ve frequently found it difficult to know what to say.

Dr. Michelle educated and amused my son, whereas for me, she became the co-parent I craved, modeling the kind of parenting I aspire to. In that same episode where her daughter Willow’s pregnant goat, Kate, was attacked, and sadly died, Dr. Michelle’s co-workers rallied around her to save Kate’s life. Michelle confessed how much it meant to have her fellow practitioners there, giving her, “the straight story and hugs.” How both of those things help. Michelle also disclosed how upset she was she hadn’t been able to do the same for Willow. “I’m devastated I wasn’t there to hug her and tell her we’re gonna do our best.” Because to promise anything more, wouldn’t be the straight story.

When the pandemic hit, we all found ourselves in foreign territory. Early into our family’s year of isolation, my long-term business closed, and my son and I were forced to move. This feeling of uncertainty grew in combination with the housing crisis in Los Angeles, evident by the scores of people sleeping in cars, on sidewalks, in our neighbors’ backyards. The growing desperation was further conveyed to us by the woman who tended to shower with the garden hose on our doorstep. One day, passing by one of the tent cities popping up under freeway overpasses overnight, with a tremor in his voice my son asked, “Are we going to be homeless?” I hugged him and gave him the straight story, “Never, we know how to build shelter.”

A.E. Harter is a writer, a recovering small business owner, and a single parent. She lives in Altadena, CA with her nine-year-old son.

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