I’ll admit that over the years television has let me down, taught me some tough lessons. No, Mr. Ed could not really speak, and apparently the MASH unit ostensibly operating in Korea was actually filming near Malibu, and Cosby … well, you know.
Having already documented my attachment to and fondness for Survivor, I’ve clearly fed beyond the pasture, consuming my share of Reality TV, and, although this is not the time to rail against most scripted television (Thank God for Madame Secretary and This is Us), I find myself much more inclined to wallow in someone else’s televised home renovation; it’s far less costly than taking on any of the long-postponed projects around my place and rarely means we lose a bathroom for a month. And, there are some remarkably accomplished people out there who doing remarkable things. Chefs battling, designers designing, dancers dancing, singers singing — I’ll take them all.
Absorbing and impressive display of talent almost certainly free of bloodshed.
Against all odds, however, my wife and I choose to eat dinner while watching The Incredible Dr. Pol, now in its eleventh season. How we missed this show for the first ten seasons I cannot fathom. It’s the highest rated show on Nat Geo Wild, one of the most successful non-scripted shows in the cable universe. It’s not as though we haven’t travelled in the same circles all alongl; we’ve watched saddle repair, rodeo roping, and This Week in Agribusiness on RFD TV, My Cat From Hell on Animal Planet, and The Forest of the Lynx on PBS; how did we miss all ten previous seasons of Dr. Pol?
So, we have a lot of catching up to do, which does not explain why we watch this show at dinnertime.
Dr. Jan Pol is a Dutch-American vet working in central Michigan. His practice includes a variety of large animals, cows, horses, alpacas, an occasional zebra, and all of the ordinary small animals. Yes, he trims nails and feathers of macaws. Sure, he deals with depressed bearded dragons. Got a listless goat? Bring it on. Week-in and week-out, Dr. Pol’s office is awash with pet owners holding pups for first shots, cats needing a worming on the spot, and pea fowls with a nasty beak infection. The doc and his team spend easily as much of their time in the field, pulling calves from cows stuck in delivery, castrating llamas, not-so-gently piercing a bull’s nose.
All of which is surprisingly fascinating. One would think that if you had seen one rowdy male castrated, you’d probably not have to witness that again, and yet, there are so many curious differences, so many. The team of vets deal with emergencies large and small, horses with abscessed hooves, goats with polio, cows that have fallen and can’t get up, cats that refuse to eat, dogs hit by cars. Some procedures take place in the vets’ operating rooms, others in a muddy field or in the back of a pick up truck.
My wife and I love animals, and in a year of some dislocation and angst find our faith in humanity has been reastored by the care and respect with which animals of all sorts are cared for by the doctors and their staff. We identify with the pet owners, of course, and worry with them and grieve with them, but are equally moved by the distress a farmer feels for a heifer as she labors or for a horse as it nears its last days. Farming is tough, and farming in central Michigan is not for the faint of heart. Farmers with little formal education, not much in the way of sophisticated banter, good natured relatively uncomplicated men and women, talk about their animals with simple affection.
Jan Pol is a veterinary savant, capable of intuiting on-the-spot diagnostic insights based on years of hands-on experience with all sorts and conditions of creatures. By hands-on, I mean hands-in, more often than not. Whereas we had once been unnerved at the thought of slipping on a long pair of plastic gloves in order to invade a horse’s rectum, it now seems all in a day’s work. I’ll admit we don’t get the full effect of nursing a bloated cow into belching trapped gas, and I suspect the smells of the farmyard might be tough to ignore, but plunging in to grab an unborn calf’s hooves, dragging the just born to its full length into a bed of straw, rubbing it until it yowls and stumbles to its feet and finds its mother, remains a remarkable accomplishment, even if we witness it every night as the microwave pings. The frequency with which Dr. Pol or Dr. Brenda or Dr. Emily arrive with chains to pull the trapped calf from its mother , however, does cause us to wonder how many cows survive birthing.
Part of the attraction of the show for us is that Dr. Pol and his staff are authentically invested in every interaction. Yes, they are pros, and yes, the sorts of tasks they perform are tasks they have performed for years, but there is nothing pro forma or unfeeling in their approach to the six year-old whose guinea pig is failing or the rancher whose horse’s teeth have to be filed. 4H kids raising pigs to be shown at the State Fair get as much attention as the owners of a huge dairy farm.
We started late. The Dr. Pol we first met is seventy-two years old, slowing down slightly, but still vaulting fences to escape a maddened bull, still gamely shoving a prolapsed uterus back into place with little help from an understandably inconvenienced cow. He is a hard-working man who wears the world like a loose garment, finding good humor in almost every encounter, encouraging owners and animals.
In a way, we are watching an extended love story. Pol meets an abandoned Newfoundland dog, takes its face in his hands, holds it in his gaze, and adores it. He’s a realist and often makes pragmatic decisions about treating animals, but he respects each one. He pushes his glasses up, moves close, and meets each animal as a friend, even when the work to be done will not be pleasant. On those occasions when he or his team have to put an animal down, it is done with profound respect and gentle care. He is an energetic, strong man, but his shoulders slump as he walks from the side of animal he has lost.
Then, as the next patient arrives, his smile returns and the work begins again.
The other vets are equally impressive, if slightly less charismatic. Dr. Brenda answers every call with solid good sense and unfailing willingness to do whatever it takes to save her patient. Of the three, she seems to be most frequently making the house calls that bring the possibility of being trampled. Our only question is why strapping farm hands are willing to let Dr. Brenda wrestle a boar to the ground by herself, syringe in one hand, and boar in the other; come on, fellas. Dr. Emily was clearly a good student and a knowledgable vet who has learned the rough and tumble of large animal veterinary care from a mentoring Dr. Pol. Is she as willing as the others to work in the muck? Apparently, as she wrestles still-born calves to the hay well into her own pregnancy.
We have made this show a regular part of our dinner routine because it is real and predictably straightforward. The election and its aftermath left us battered and bruised, in part because every story we watched arrived with sound and fury and the full force of political conviction, carrying hopes we may have endorsed, but so weighted with certainty that when the votes were counted, we felt bamboozled. The reporters for the news outlets we admired were sincere and meant well, but we can no longer hear their accounts without seeing the filter through which it is presented.
Dr. Pol is what he is, an unassuming, hard-working man willing to put his hands, well, anywhere. He works with creatures great and small for owners who love their animals. Some probably share none of our political beliefs, but we can see them at their best, hoping Dr. Pol can find a way to keep a loved animal alive.
Time to get out the TV trays.