Photograph by AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Michael Paulsen
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Animal ER
The GCVS staff handles big cats like this Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. jacksoni). Benjamin Macuil (left) and Dr. Brian Beale examine Pandu before elbow surgery at the Houston Zoo.
Photograph by AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Michael Paulsen

These Vets Go to Extremes to Keep Animals Healthy

A checkup with Dr. Michelle Oakley and the team at Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists is not your average trip to the animal hospital.

This story appears in the October/November 2016 issue of Nat Geo WILD magazine.

There is no length too great, no distance too far, and no feat too extreme for some of the most creative physicians tending to the animal kingdom. In the pursuit of a household pet’s well-being or the rescue of an entire herd of wild animals from extinction, Dr. Michelle Oakley and the staff of Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists may occupy wildly different workplaces. Yet they hold one ambitious mission in common, an animal medical practice that knows no traditional bounds.

Dr. Oakley, who claims the entire Yukon of northern Canada and beyond for her patients’ waiting room, has been known to make house calls with a helicopter for a herd of caribou and chase down missing horses by land and by air. Her subarctic adventures are chronicled each week this fall on Nat Geo WILD’s Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet. Thousands of miles away, Dr. Brian Beale leads a team of 200-plus specialists at Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists (GCVS), in Houston, Texas, delivering a high-tech level of care encompassing everything from dentistry to cancer for all kinds of creatures—dogs, chimps and pythons alike. The GCVS crew, operating a clinic rivaling anything humans could frequent, joined the network’s lineup in September with a new weekly program of their own, Animal ER.

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Oakley Land Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) patrol a river favored for salmon fishing on the Yukon vet’s domain.

The everyday tools of these veterinarians’ trades are sometimes as simple as the tasks at hand. Oakley, who cannot always get too close to the patients she’s treating, totes a sedative-shooting rifle named “Sassy” and a blowpipe for vaccinations of creatures that won’t sit for an injection by hand. This is how she typically treats musk ox, moose, and lynx, and it requires occasional target practice: Oakley slides a syringe into the long pipe and blows.

Then there are the technological tactics of a clinic as sophisticated as Beale’s Animal ER, offering an array of services ranging from cardiology and orthopedics to diagnostic imaging and neurosurgery. It takes an entire team of technicians to wrestle a reticulated python that arrived with respiratory problems to the examination table for a radiographic look inside the snake’s lung.

The northern realm of one veterinarian poses its own set of challenges. The Yukon of northern Canada is an intense place for humans and animals alike, home to some of the world’s toughest animals. That hasn’t stopped Oakley from caring for the animals that, just like her, call the Yukon home.

Running a small clinic out of her home in Haines Junction, population 810, Oakley lives with her husband, Shane, a firefighter, and their three daughters. Yet it’s the fieldwork that distinguishes this far-flung veterinary practice. It can take her 13 hours to cover the 610 miles to the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage, Alaska, to examine the healing progress of juvenile bald eagles who suffered burns by scavenging too close to a fire. It takes a helicopter to save some endangered caribou in a distant quarter of Quebec, where the Val-d’Or herd’s numbers have been reduced to fewer than 25 animals, exposing them to predators. Oakley and a team of scientists take to the skies, using a chopper to find four pregnant cows. They take some shots with that sedative-firing rifle. In the chopper, ultrasound confirms that the first caribou is pregnant. “Hopefully, it’s a girl,” the doctor says. “We need more girls.” This mother and others will be taken to a pen for delivery, and then released to the wild.

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All in a Yukon Day’s Work Dr. Oakley (left) and an assistant tend to an alpaca on a farm outside Whitehorse, Yukon.

In the land of the midnight sun, days for Oakley seem to never end. The sun’s been up for hours one morning as Oakley sets out for a house call 200 miles away. Oakley and family fly a floatplane floatplane—traveling by air is the easiest and cheapest way to get into the backcountry—to an outfitter with a horse in need of surgery. While there, they’ll also help round up a half dozen free-range horses gone missing. In a 50-mile search area, the plane comes in handy. Still, it’s difficult to see horses hidden in the thick brush below from the air. Spotting them is only one part of the job—the ground crew still has to catch them. Even though the horses wear bells when out to pasture, a searcher has to get pretty close to hear the toll and rein in the horse. In the end, the roundup is successful. Yet Oakley still has work to do back at the stables—the horse hernia that brought her here.

It isn’t always indigenous creatures that require the care of the Yukon vet. The Calgary Zoo calls on Oakley to draw blood from and implant microchips in its newest attractions, eight baby meerkats. The Yukon vet has even tended to a cheetah, performing emergency surgery to remove a chicken bone. (While cheetahs may not be house pets, their docile nature does make them one of the easier big cats for the doctor to handle.)

In the warmer climes of Houston, the staff of Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists know a thing of two about extremes—as one the country’s first referral-only veterinary hospitals, they see it all and treat them all—be they birds, ferrets, rabbits or snakes, cats and dogs or bighorn sheep.

Their vision was to build a team of highly specialized veterinarians for the most comprehensive level of specialized care possible. The co-owners, Drs. Beale, Wayne Whitney, and Heidi Hottinger, are at the center of the biggest medical decisions and the most intricate surgeries.

“Unfortunately our pets aren’t able to verbally tell us when they are uncomfortable or in pain, so some chronic issues—like hip dysplasia—can go undiagnosed for months or even years,” Beale has told listeners on his Sunday night radio show, Your Pet’s Health, on Houston’s KTRH.

In Sammy’s case, the treatment was a total hip replacement. Sammy was an active, happy seven-year-old German shepherd. Then Sammy’s owners noticed him slowing down some. The dog’s vet referred Sammy to the Animal ER. With the surgery performed, Beale recalled, “a couple of months later, Sammy was running, playing and jumping like he had when he was a puppy.”

Some of the more compelling stories at Beale’s Animal ER come from the hospital’s relationship with the Houston Zoo. A chimpanzee’s root canal may sound extreme, yet it’s all in a day’s dentistry for a team that deals with fractured teeth, full-mouth extractions, even cleft palates.

Walk-ins and urgent referrals may be wild cards, yet chronic ailments pose big challenges, too. The clinic arranges a cataract surgery for a dog that will then see his owners for the first time and treats war dogs with PTSD. GCVS’s neurology and neurosurgery department takes on an array of cases ranging from weakness and back and neck pain to seizures and paralysis.

Coping with the deadliest of diseases sometimes, Beale notes that dogs are diagnosed with cancer at roughly the same rate as humans—more than half of all dogs 10 and older will succumb to some form of cancer. This calls for the veterinary oncologists on duty at Animal ER.

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Rambulance Aries the ram arrives at GCVS from Second Chance Farm for a post-op checkup.

Ultimately, the basic question of preventative health care is as important for the clientele of the Animal ER as it is for the people who bring their pets here. “Unfortunately, approximately 25 to 45 percent of our pets are considered obese—a huge number, considering that our pet’s weight is largely under our control as pet owners,” Beale says. Some breeds, including Labrador retrievers, beagles, basset hounds, and English bulldogs, have a predisposition to obesity. And unwanted weight can stress a pet’s body, accelerating arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes.

In delivering care of this nature, the doctors at GCVS are ready to go to yet another relative extreme. Granted it’s one more often associated with overweight humans—personal trainers. A physical therapist offers a customized individual program—including exercise on a water treadmill.