Dr. Michelle Oakley is too busy to talk about her hit reality television show. It’s the weekend and she is taking a break from her solo mixed animal practice in Haines Junction, Yukon to compete in an ax throwing competition. It’s not a trick for the show – competitive ax throwing is only part of life in the Canadian wilderness.
Much of Dr. Oakley’s life has been on screen since 2014, when the pilot of “Dr. Oakley, Yukon Veterinarian” aired on Nat Geo Wild. The show, which was just shot in season eight, follows Dr. Oakley treating pets and wildlife in a remote mountain region known for its brutal winters while raising three daughters with husband Shane.
The representations of veterinary medicine on television have changed dramatically since All Creatures Great and Small, the late 1970s to early 1990s British screenplay drama based on the life of veterinarian James Herriot aka James Alfred Wight. Entertainment tastes developed with the explosion in popularity of reality television, pets became family members, and TV producers noticed this. In the past two decades, US television has shown at least 25 reality shows about veterinarians, mostly on cable channels Animal Planet and National Geographic.
The genre of veterinary reality television is not without naysayers. Most are veterinarians themselves who criticize an inappropriately performed procedure or an insensitive commentary on the profession. Veterinarians surveyed about their experience on reality television for this article are oversensitive to the opinions of their peers. Even so, they see the shows as a powerful medium for educating audiences about the profession they love while demonstrating their medical skills and the importance of caring for animals.
Not written reality
Reality TV is a broad category and older than most people think. Before “The Real World” and “Big Brother” there was “Twenty-One” and “The Price is Right”.
“Reality-based media has always existed. For example, game shows are based on reality,” said Mimi White, professor of radio, television and film at the Northwestern School of Communications. “But the term ‘reality TV’ begins to trickle and merge in the late 1990s and early 2000s to describe a range of programs that supposedly are not written.”
Reality TV combines documentary-style nonfiction books with the drama story arc of fiction, creating an entertainment genre that has become a mainstay of network and cable television. The cost is a reason for the plethora of reality shows that cover topics from repairing your home to forging swords to baking cakes and life along the Jersey shore. “Dance Moms” offers more normal people than a cast of high-priced talent and is therefore cheaper to produce than, for example, “Glee”.
Viewers are drawn to reality TV because Dr. White describes the interplay between the familiar and the unknown. “When ‘Survivor’ started it was ordinary people doing extraordinary things and you could watch and say, ‘I would never do this’ or ‘I could do this’,” she said.
Reality shows are edited according to an action intended to evoke a visceral reaction from the audience. “The narrative dynamic is shaped by emotional problems and decisions that are intended to reinforce and intensify the affective dimension,” said Dr. White. “Reality TV brings that kind of emotional drama to almost everything it watches.”
Selling the drama
Betsy Marino Leighton was a producer for two years on Emergency Vets, the hit reality series about the veterinarians at the Alameda East Veterinary Hospital in Denver. She said there was nothing quite like Emergency Vets on TV when the first episode aired on Animal Planet in 1998.
A selection of veterinary reality TV shows from above: “Hanging with the Hendersons”, “The Incredible Dr. Pol” and “Dr. K’s Exotic Animal ER”. (Photos courtesy of Animal Planet and National Geographic)
You don’t have to wait long for a drama at an emergency veterinary clinic. It literally goes through the door. “As a producer, it was difficult to sit there and wait for someone to come in with tragedy,” Leighton admitted. “That’s why we always wanted to make sure we were incredibly sensitive.”
The effort involved in creating a reality show about a veterinary clinic is herculean: “I would be in the field for a week – from early morning to late evening in the hospital – and talk on the phone around the clock. I was in the next week Edit the room, write stories and put the show together, and then I was back in the field.
“You worked and worked and worked and you shot a lot more than you needed. You would write it down, you would follow up every act that came to the clinic and the owners were glad you were a part of it and then you choose the stories that should be on the show. Then you do follow-ups. “
The pay isn’t great, but I can talk about our job and share whatever topics we deal with with regards to protecting wildlife and the environment.
Dr. Michelle Oakley, star of “Dr. Oakley, Yukon Veterinarian”
What sets veterinary reality TV apart within the reality genre is the cast of animal patients, said Dr. White – that and the role of the vets as carers. “It seems to me that veterinary shows are more obviously – and literally – about an ethos of care,” she said. “People love animals, common pets, farm animals and exotic animals. The viewers see someone who is an expert in not only treating animals but also caring for them. This is very different from ‘Real Housewives’ or such shows.”
Life is a classroom
Growing up, Dr. Lindsay Gallagher religiously “Emergency Vets”. She cites the show as one of her reasons for a career in veterinary medicine. As a child, Dr. Gallagher developed a corneal ulcer in the family’s Jack Russell Terrier – an achievement she attributes to “Emergency Vets”.
“I said to my mom, ‘I think Pebbles has a corneal ulcer’ and she said, ‘You’re 10. What do you know about corneal ulcers?’ Lo and behold, she had a corneal ulcer, “she said. “If I hadn’t seen Emergency Vets as a kid, we might not have known so quickly. It’s so important to me that I might have done it for someone else.”
Dr. Gallagher is referring to “Life at Vet U,” the 2016 Animal Planet series, in which she appeared with five other fourth year veterinary students at the University of Pennsylvania during their final semester. Today Dr. Gallagher General Practitioner at Boston Veterinary Clinic and well on track to specialize in veterinary behavior.
According to Dr. White, Veterinary Reality TV is a hybrid of lifestyle, education and entertainment in the larger, non-written television context. As a result, “Life at Vet U” viewers learn about veterinary medicine, for example, by watching a group of easy-going students earn their veterinary degrees and prepare for their careers.
Depending on the show, the educational content is not limited to veterinary medicine. Dr. Ryan Henderson, who stars with his veterinary father and brother on “Hanging with the Hendersons,” says the Animal Planet show is a “huge platform” about family practice as a “huge platform” for showcasing the profession and discussing important issues use, such as conservation and the environment.
In one episode, Dr. Henderson with his new electric car, filled with dogs and chickens, to the family hut. He enjoyed presenting the car and talking about reducing CO2 emissions.
Dr. Oakley feels the same way with their show. “There are just so many cool parts to a show like this,” she said. “The pay isn’t great, but I can talk about our job and share whatever issues we think about protecting wildlife and the environment. Where we live in the Yukon and Alaska, the climate is changing so quickly , its scary.”
Not without controversy
Dr. Jan Pol is arguably the best-known name in the veterinary reality TV genre. His show about Nat Geo Wild follows him, his family, and his co-workers at his mixed-animal practice in central Michigan. The series premiered in 2011 and has been a consistently hit for the network. In 2017, the show averaged almost 1.4 million viewers per episode, leading to the 100th episode and the finale of the 10th season. This made it the most watched season in network history at the time.
As a producer, it was difficult to sit there and wait for someone to come in with some kind of tragedy. That’s why we always wanted to make sure we were incredibly sensitive.
Betsy Marino Leighton, producer for “Emergency Vets”
However, the controversy has haunted the star “The Incredible Dr. Pol” after a complaint was filed in May 2011 of inferior veterinary practice in connection with his treatment of a dog injured by a car. The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs later fined Dr. put his license on probation. In 2016, however, the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned the chamber’s punishment as “arbitrary and capricious.” The court described the case as “curious” as Dr. Pol saved the dog’s life.
Dr. Pol seems to have survived the storm unscathed. Season 15 of “The Incredible Dr. Pol” premiered last July on Nat Geo Wild. Fans from all over the world regularly call his clinic to say how much they love the show. “The most notable thing was a phone call from a 13-year-old Romanian boy,” said Dr. Pole. “He spoke perfect English and translated questions from his mother.”
Dr. Pol says his critics only see part of what actually happens in the clinic. “With over a hundred hours of recording for a 40-minute show, it’s clear that not everything can be shown,” said Dr. Pole. “Since critics don’t know all the details, they don’t know what else happened.”
Initially, Dr. Jessica Vogelsang’s opinion on veterinary reality TV is not good. The Pawcurious blog author and veterinary journalist believed some of the stars purposely invited controversies to improve reviews and ended up speaking badly about the profession. Dr. Vogelsang wrote this in a July 2015 article for the PetMD website, in which he specifically confronted the star of “Dr. Jeff: Rocky Mountain Vet” because, unlike other vets, he was not motivated by profit.
The show’s fans reacted en masse, defending Dr. Jeff versus Dr. Vogelsang’s criticism. Their number and the intensity of their dedication surprised Dr. Vogelsang and caused them to reconsider the matter. “Veterinarians are caught up with the details of the treatment they see, and it’s just not worth having a public debate about what’s appropriate and what’s not. That’s why we have regulators,” said Dr. Vogelsang.
“If you publicly criticize what they do that in the customer’s eyes helps pets, you’re boomerangs,” she added. “Anything that veterinarians show in a positive light is a good thing and we can take that away at the end of the day.”