TV's top veterinarian talks about life, cows and how farming has changed
The success of 'The Incredible Dr. Pol' surprises its star more than anyone else.
Thu, Aug 21, 2014 at 08:18 AM
Dr. Jan Pol and his son, Charles, make a house call to tend to a sick cow. (Photo: Michael Stankevich/National Geographic Channel)
Three years ago, it seemed unlikely that a 70-year-old Dutch-born veterinarian from rural Michigan would become a TV star with a top-rated series and legions of fans, but Dr. Jan Pol is an unconventional success story — thanks in part to "The Incredible Dr. Pol," Nat Geo Wild’s top show.
Aided by his associate, Dr. Brenda Gettenberger, office manager Diane (also his wife of 47 years), and his son Charles (who returned to the veterinary practice after trying his hand as a movie producer), the DeLorean-driving vet travels from farm to farm, caring for creatures of all shapes, sizes and afflictions.
In October, Pol's TV real estate will expand with the Saturday morning premiere of older episodes under the title "Calling Dr. Pol" on the CW. As "The Incredible Dr. Pol" returns with new episodes on Aug. 23 — and coincides with the release of his first book, "Never Turn Your Back on an Angus Cow" — the veteran vet took time out from a conference in Las Vegas to reflect on his life, career and popularity.
MNN: Has the series' success taken you by surprise?
Dr. Jan Pol: Yes, I am so very surprised by the success of this show, because I'm just doing my job!
Why do you think it's so popular?
I think a lot of people love what we do on the farm. Most people in the United States don't know about farming anymore and it gives them a window into what goes on. Farming is still a big way of life but it's all big farms now. Thirty-five years ago it was all family farms. There are very few now.
What can we expect in the new episodes?
In this practice, expect the unexpected. In my business we never know what the day brings. In the morning we come to the clinic, we have our routine, we do neutering and things there, and then the farm calls, but anything can come in during the day. You never know what to expect.
Where did your love of animals come from?
I grew up with a big St. Bernard. I was 2 or 3, but I remember that dog. I was born and raised on a farm in the Netherlands. I thoroughly enjoyed my childhood because we had everything on the farm. My mother was one of those that [thought] "The more animals the better" so we had geese, turkeys, cats, dogs, horses, pigs.
Did you always know you wanted to be a vet?
No. That came later. My father was a farmer, and I thought I'd be a farmer. When I was 12 years old, I was almost as tall as I am now, and a sow was gonna have piglets and the local vet got me to help out with the piglets, reaching in and pulling them out. I always worked with the birthing of animals, calves and everything.
You treat a mix of livestock and pets and you also have a menagerie of your own.
Right now we have three big dogs in the house: two Great Danes and a Newfoundland. If you get up in the middle of the night you have to watch out for the dogs or you'll fall over them. We have three cats in the house, and we have horses, lots of chickens — I love my fresh eggs and give them to other people who need them. Charles rescued some turkeys last Thanksgiving.
In this clip below, Pol treats a dog involved in a hit-and-run.
Are you always adopting abandoned animals?
No, we can't do that, or we'd be flooded!
What do you love most about your job?
What I like about the job is that I can make people happy by helping them cure or work with their animals. It's not always a good outcome, especially on a farm. Sometimes we just can't do anything — but we try
Is there anything you don't like?
It's a 24-7 job. That's why I never want to be alone in the practice cause it just wears you down.
Do you ever think about retiring, or at cutting back a little?
No. As you see in the show, pulling out a live calf, it's such an elation and so gratifying. It's something that I enjoy and I have the long arms to do it! I'm not Superman but I keep going.
But are there other things you want to do in life?
Diane and I love to travel. We've seen quite a bit but mostly in the United States. Australia and New Zealand are still on the bucket list.
Do you still have family in Holland?
Yes. We go, but not as much as we used to. We're going again in October. I also travel for the show, and I enjoy what it's doing for the younger generation. People come to the clinic from ages 2 to 92. We went with Nat Geo Wild to New York, talking to 400 kids about animals. Locally, I go to so many 4-H meetings.
What do you tell kids who want to be vets?
They say, "I love animals so much, I want to become a vet." The thing is, you may love animals but animals hate you. You poke them and prod them and they don't like that. I have a love of medicine — get the sick animal better, give them a better life.
What else do you want people to know?
Animals can fill a big void in your life, but they're not humans. I could not live without a dog. But they're still animals and I've seen sometimes where people try to hang on too long instead of letting the dog go. When the quality of life is gone, you let go. People don't want to hear it, but animals are not afraid to die. For them death is part of life.
How did your book come about?
It was [co-writer] Dave Fisher's idea, when he saw the show. It's not only me — he interviewed other people. It's a little bit of everything.
So how do you like Las Vegas?
We've been here several times for veterinary conferences and it's great. I just won 10 bucks in the slot machine!
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