“Easy girl …let me see,” Vic Walker murmurs, gently prying the jaws of his canine patient and leaning close to inspect teeth, then peering into the back of her throat. He examines paws, feels along flanks and belly. For Walker, it’s an everyday veterinary moment—except the formidable jaws he’s spreading and the powerful musculature he’s probing belong to an adult wolf. Sure, Walker knows Isis well—for all but the first four weeks of her five-year life. But no matter that she’s captive-born, remarkably bonded to Walker and seemingly tame at this moment; a wolf is definitely not a domestic dog. Wolves are far more independent and complex, hard-wired to a feral consciousness that doesn’t tend to accept human dominion. Yet there are plenty of family pooches that are far less willing patients than Isis. Walker’s being paid a compliment of the highest order—one that he’s earned and doesn’t take lightly.
If all this seems like a scene from the latest veterinary reality show, you’re half right. “Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet,” has filmed a couple of segments of the hit series at this same location: the Kroschel Wildlife Park, in the boonies off the Haines Highway in Southeast Alaska. Doctoring wildlife isn’t an everyday opportunity, and it’s great for the ratings. Not that Dr. Oakley isn’t a legit veterinarian doing real work. But she shows up for the same reason park owner Steve Kroschel welcomes her: It’s show biz, part of his tourist- and- professional-filming-fueled business.
Vic Walker, Alaska veterinarian, isn’t worried about camera angles or banter; he’s just working. As the park’s supervising vet, he provides oversight required at both the federal and state level. When he makes his rounds, his entourage might consist of Kroschel’s longtime assistant, Rocky. Walker’s responsible for monitoring the well-being of dozens of creatures: mink, moose, wolves, fox, porcupines and more. Need your reindeer’s hernia repaired, a pine marten screened for parasites or a wolverine’s tracking collar removed? Walker’s your guy—he’s been there and done that.
Riding herd on the Kroschel Wildlife Park is hardly a full-time gig for Walker. Most days, he’s an ordinary pet veterinarian in Juneau who spends most of his professional time treating the usual domestic canine and feline issues, with a parrot or guinea pig thrown in every so often. But he’d always held an abiding passion for wildlife. Years ago, he leaned toward becoming a zoologist before deciding on veterinary school. No surprise he ended up in Alaska, drawn by all it had to offer. Walker was one of the Juneauites who took a special interest in Romeo, the sociable black wolf who for years hung out by the Mendenhall Glacier, and struck up ( for lack of an alternate word) an interspecies friendship. That only whetted Walker’s appetite for more. So, when Walker got an out-of-the-blue call from Kroschel six years ago, asking if he was interested in fulfilling the formal obligations as supervising veterinarian for Kroschel’s wildlife park, he didn’t hesitate. “It was a pretty easy decision,” Walker says. “A once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Once every two or three months, Walker gears up, throws a sleeping bag, grub box and change of clothes in his SUV, and drives onto the state ferry for the 80-mile trip up Lynn Canal to Haines, population 1,200 or so. It’s 30 miles more to the Kroschel Wildlife Center, in the mountain- framed upper Chilkat Valley. While you might envision a variety of Dr. Doolittle moments as he makes his rounds—and he surely has those—most of his duties involve routine observation and monitoring. For example, he’ll spend hours gathering and labeling poop samples, and generally noting the condition of the animals and their habitats over the sprawling, hilly acreage of the park.
“Usually, there’s not much for me to do,” says Walker, with typical understatement. “The animals are really well cared for and healthy.” If he thinks an animal needs care or habitat adjustment, though, he isn’t shy, and his visits are four times more frequent than required. Like Kroschel, he has the animals’ best interests at heart. The goodly Doctor Walker, I’ve heard Kroschel call him. And he’s right.