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The star of The Incredible Dr. Pol shares amusing and often poignant tales from his four decades as a vet in rural Michigan. Born and raised on a Netherlands dairy farm, Dr. Jan Pol has been treating animals in rural Michigan since the 1970s. His more than 20,000 patients have included white mice, 2600-pound horses, and everything in between ? and he has amassed a wealth of stories while caring for this menagerie. Reminiscent of the James Herriot classics, this is a charming, fascinating, and funny memoir that will delight animal lovers everywhere.
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Dr. Jan Pol is a world renowned veterinarian and the star of the hit documentary series The Incredible Dr. Pol on Nat Geo Wild. He is a graduate of the prestigious Utrecht University Veterinary program.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Open Your Mouth and Say Moo
WHY I BECAME A VET
When I was in veterinary school in the Netherlands in the 1960s, a farmer brought a cow to our clinic. “My cow is not eating,” he told us, “and she is not making manure.” We were all very confident students. We could diagnose everything and fix anything. So we examined this cow and discovered she had a fever, her stomach was not working, and she clearly was in some pain. All of those symptoms pointed toward hardware, meaning that the cow had swallowed a piece of metal, and then when her stomach contracted, that metal went through the wall of the stomach, causing the pain. This is very common; cows are indiscriminate eaters. A cow will eat anything you put in front of her, and too often there are little pieces of metal lying around the farmyard.
We had a brand-new X-ray machine at the college. Our professors were proud of this because it allowed us to see what was going on inside the animal. This X-ray capability was going to change veterinary medicine; it was going to make us all smarter and better animal doctors. After we diagnosed this cow with hardware, we sent her to the new X-ray department. The X-ray came back negative. “No metal in this cow,” we were told. “Look again,” our professors told us. “She does not have hardware.”
So then we examined this cow again. Same thing: elevated temperature, stomach’s not working, pain. Diagnosis: hardware. We sent her back to the X-ray department and got the same result: “There is no metal in this cow.” So the professors put her in the stable to see what would happen. And what happened was that she died. So then they sent this cow to pathology: There was the stomach, the heart, the lungs, on a table. And they said to us, “Take a look at this.” And that cow had hardware.
Except that it wasn’t metal, which was why that expensive X-ray machine didn’t pick it up. It was a broom bristle six inches long. That cow had swallowed it and it had punctured the stomach wall and was going into the heart, and it had killed the cow. If we had listened to what that cow was telling us—Hey, I got some hardware inside my stomach—we would have done surgery, opened up the stomach, taken out the broom bristle, closed up the stomach, and given her some antibiotics, and she would have been fine.
So I learned how to be a hands-on veterinarian, an old-style vet. I use all the wonderful machines we have and I pay attention to what the animal’s owner tells me, but mostly I look at the animal; I put my hands on the animal and I listen to what that animal is telling me. I have been practicing animal medicine for nearly a half century; I’ve treated just about every type of creature you can imagine, from a white mouse to a twenty-six-hundred-pound horse, and I’ve discovered that the longer I have been in practice, the smarter the animals have gotten!
I have spent my whole life being with animals, as a vet and as an owner. Until they start inventing new animals, I think I can say there isn’t a type of animal I haven’t looked in the eyes and wondered how it was feeling. My wife, Diane, and I once estimated that I’ve handled more than a half-million patients, without one of them ever complaining about me! In 2009 my son, Charles, who had moved to Hollywood to be in the entertainment industry, thought that people might be interested in a television reality show about a farm vet. I asked him who he thought would be interested in watching an old man who speaks with a funny accent putting his hand up the back end of a cow.
“You’d be surprised,” he said.
“Yes, I would,” I agreed.
“Everybody likes animals,” he explained. “Every day in the practice is very different,” he said. “You’re dealing with life and death all the time and doing it with patients who can’t tell you where it hurts. And unlike most city vets, you also have to consider the economic impact on the farmer’s business. Besides,” he added, “you’re a character.”
I didn’t know if your son calling you a character was a compliment. But when he also pointed out that we would be telling the story of American farmers in the Midwest, that got me intrigued. I come from a farming family, I know how difficult that life can be, and I know that is a story very much worth telling. So I agreed to let his camera crew follow our staff for a few days, still wondering if anyone was going to watch.
It turned out Diane and I raised a smart son.
When I opened my practice outside the small town of Weidman, Michigan—which is about twelve miles from the larger and better known Mount Pleasant—in 1981, it was about 80 percent large animals, farm animals, and about 20 percent pets. It was mostly family dairy farms when we started, with several pig farmers. We took care of all their animals. But those family farms are mostly gone now; instead, we have the big concerns that supply to the chain stores, and they have their own vets. The workhorses are mostly gone too, and there are no more pig farmers. I remember that not too long after Diane and I moved to Mount Pleasant, I got a call from a farmer named Don Hatfield. Don and his brother had just taken over their uncle’s dairy farm in Mecosta County, and they needed help with a calving. “We’re having trouble getting the calf out of the cow,” he said in his wonderfully deep voice I got to know so well. When we started talking, Don admitted he didn’t know much about dairying because his uncle, who had recently died, had taken care of the cows. So I spent quite a bit of time with at the farm, helping them out, teaching them how to care for their livestock. Don’s family had been on the land a long time; that barn was just about one hundred years old. He was a wonderful man whose real passion was the history of this part of central Michigan. He interviewed all the old-timers and then compiled thick books telling the story of this area. Don did okay on the farm for a long time; then he more or less retired and sold the cows. When Don quit the barn I went over there and picked up some things I found lying around that I still have, like porcelain mineral cups for the cows. “Take whatever you want,” Don told me. I still hear that beautiful grumble of his voice in my head.
The next thing I knew, the farm was sold to a potato farmer, who dug a big hole and pushed the beautiful old stone house and the barn into it and covered them up. I drove by the place once and stopped to take a good look, and I couldn’t even tell where the house and barn had been. All that was left standing was the electrical pole with a transformer. I just sat there for a little while staring sadly at that field and remembering the people who had once been there. A hundred years of farming history pushed into a hole.
Now my practice is about 60 percent small animals. There are basically three classes of animals: farm animals, work animals, and pets. There is obviously a big difference between them; the relationship between the farmer and his animals is based on economics. These animals are the farmer’s livelihood. The relationship between pet owners and their animals is based on love. That difference doesn’t matter at all to me; I treat all animals with the same concern.
I love animals; believe me, I don’t remember a day of my life that I haven’t loved animals. My whole family has always been comfortable with all kinds of animals. My mother used to tell us a story about her grandfather, who was said to be able to hypnotize animals. In his town in the Netherlands there was a butcher who had a big, mean German shepherd–Saint Bernard cross. My great-grandfather and the butcher met on the road, and the butcher warned him, “Watch out. He’s a mean dog.”
“No, he’s not,” my great-grandfather said.
“Oh yeah? Well, this dog will take you.”
“Then go ahead and turn him loose,” my great-grandfather challenged him. The butcher released the dog from his leash. My great-grandfather and that dog looked at each other. Neither one of them moved. Then the dog sat down. My great-grandfather took a step forward; the dog moved backward. And that dog was never very much of a guard dog after that.
Many people who have watched our show on the Nat Geo Wild channel know that I grew up on my father’s forty-acre dairy farm in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands during World War II. We lived way out in the country, in an area that was called Wateren, and we had no electricity or running water. Wateren wasn’t even a town; it was just a road with some houses on it. It was so far from everybody else that the daily newspaper came to our house a day late; it had to be delivered by the mail carrier. My dad hated that because he wanted to be on top of the news, but there was nothing we could do about it. We didn’t even have a radio until 1950.
We lived in a big house, big enough for our whole family and all our livestock to be under one roof—all the livestock except the pigs. Many farmhouses in that region were built that way. There was a hallway that led directly from our living area into the cow stable, so if you had to check on a cow at night you didn’t have to get dressed; you just put on your slippers and walked into the barn. We didn’t have indoor plumbing, so we used to take our baths in one of the big wooden tubs in the stable behind the cows because that was always the warmest place in the house. The cows kept it warm!
Behind the cow barn was the big area where we stored the hay and wheat as well as the farm machinery in the winter, and a stable for our three horses. All of this was under one big roof. Outside was the little shed for the pigs. We couldn’t keep them inside because they smelled too bad. When you grow up living with animals, you learn how to respect them.
During the war people would ride their bicycles out to our farm to get away from the city or simply to get something to eat or milk to drink. The winter of 1944 was known as the Hunger Winter because the Germans cut off most of the food supplies to punish people for supporting the Resistance. My parents never turned away one person.
I was the youngest of six children, and we all were expected to do chores every day. We had all the farm animals—we had about twenty cows, which we milked by hand; we had horses and chickens, turkeys, geese—but my protector was a Saint Bernard that would not let anybody he didn’t know come too close to me. We always had big dogs, still do. I learned from my father that if a farmer doesn’t have respect for an animal, that animal will not work for him. He used to tell us, “If you don’t treat an animal right, that animal won’t treat you right either.”
My love of the animals almost got my family in terrible trouble one day. During the war we were not allowed to own anything; everything belonged to the occupier. All the production was for the benefit of the occupier. These weren’t TV Nazis; they were the real thing. These people were very dangerous. They would come and inspect your farm, and if you got caught hiding anything, the best thing that would happen is they would take you to prison for a few years. Well, before I could talk, I called all cows “boo.” Don’t know where that came from, but to me all cows were “boo.” Even with all the danger, my father would sometimes hide a calf or some of the food we grew so we would have at least a little milk and food for ourselves. One day the inspector came to see all our cows. I was just a toddler holding on to my mother’s hand. As we walked around, I pointed to each of the cows and said, “Boo.” But then I pointed to a closed door, the door that led to the place we were hiding that calf, and said, “Boo.” My older sister tells me that everybody got very scared for a few seconds; nobody took a breath. “Boo,” I said again, still pointing at the door. If that inspector opened the door, it was going to be a very bad time for us, but the inspector ignored me and kept walking. From then on I wasn’t allowed anywhere near that German inspector when he came to our farm.
In those times it wasn’t just livestock that we hid. For a time we sheltered a young Jewish boy who was somewhere between my age and my next oldest brother, who was seven years older than me. There was also a Jewish family hiding in a little shed, which wasn’t much more than a deer-blind, in our woods. All the local people brought them food and the Nazis never found out about them.
My sister Henny tells me that my first pet was a crippled chicken. It was a chicken that had been stepped on and probably had a broken leg, so it limped or hopped. In Dutch, that’s a kreupel kipi, crippled chicken, but the best I could pronounce it was urpa bipi. My sister says that my chicken stood by the door waiting for me to come outside. And I sat there with my chicken for hours, just petting it. So even then, I guess, I wanted to look after the hurt ones.
In the Netherlands at that time farmers didn’t rely too much on the veterinarian. There were not many vets in the Netherlands then because, in fact, there wasn’t that much they could do that farmers couldn’t do by themselves. Farmers had to be self-reliant; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be farming very long. If you had a cow, then you got a calf. If you had a horse, you got a foal. If you have a sheep, it gives lambs. If there was a problem, you’d better be able to fix it yourself. Only when you couldn’t fix it, or your neighbor couldn’t fix it, would you call the vet.
The nearest vet to us was Dr. Van der Eyck, who lived more than eight kilometers away. We didn’t have a telephone, so if there was a problem, one of us had to get on our bike and ride as fast as we could to his house; when we got there we rang the doorbell and hoped he was home. There were times he was at the farm before we even got back.
The most famous vet in the Netherlands was a fictional character named Dr. Jan Vlimmen. There were several novels written about him, and there was even a movie made. But one story sums up very well the way the Dutch people thought about vets. Late one night Dr. Vlimmen’s bell rang. When he answered, a man was standing there. “How much would it cost to make a farm call at this hour?” he asked.
After finding out how far away this farm was, Dr. Vlimmen told him, “That will be ten guilders.”
“Good,” the man said. “I will ride along with you to show you the way.”
So off they went. When they reached the farm, Dr. Vlimmen looked around but did not see any animals in distress. “So where is this sick cow?” he asked.
“Oh,” the man admitted, “I don’t really have a sick cow. It’s just that you were cheaper than a taxi!”
I decided I wanted to be a vet when I was twelve years old. I can still remember the day. It wasn’t because I thought I could make a successful career out of being a vet; believe me, I never even thought about the business part of it. In fact, on our very first day in school they warned us that there were very few opportunities for vets in the Netherlands and that most of us would never practice. I didn’t worry about that; I became a vet because it was the only thing I ever wanted to do.
My life changed forever the day Dr. Van der Eyck drove into our yard. “Come with me,” he said. I was tall and very thin, but that morning the most important thing was that I had very long arms.
As long as I can remember, I have...
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