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Calf pulling and puppy worming: rural vet Dr. Pol is reality TV's most unlikely star

Lorraine Ali, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Cats & Dogs News

He's plucked countless porcupine quills from the snouts of dogs, delivered calves in snowstorms and castrated a petite house cat and a 2-ton bull in the same day.

There isn't much that rural veterinarian Jan Pol, 75, hasn't seen or done in a half-century of practicing animal medicine in and around his Weidman, Mich., clinic.

Reindeer with a head cold? Check. Dog with a chronic erection? Check. But even weirder than that case of the bovine with a fifth leg is the twist his career has taken over the last seven years.

While most of Pol's peers have long since retired, the no-nonsense, Dutch American doctor who can fashion a goat's leg splint out of parts from an old apple barrel has become a reality TV star of global proportions.

Now in its 12th season -- there are two seasons per year -- Nat Geo Wild's "The Incredible Dr. Pol" surpassed the 100-episode mark last year and is still breaking ratings records at the same network that gave us the smash series Cesar Millan's "Dog Whisperer." "The Incredible Dr. Pol" remains Nat Geo Wild's No.1-watched series. As recently as December it delivered the network's most-watched weeks ever with the holiday marathon "12 Days of Dr. Pol."

Pol met his wife, Diane, when he arrived in Michigan from the Netherlands as an exchange student in the 1960s. The two run Pol Veterinarian Services, which of course makes her a regular presence on the show. But she opts out of the frame more often than not and is the low-key yin to her husband's gregarious yang. The cameras also follow their son, Charles, and vets on staff who include Dr. Emily and Dr. Brenda as they deliver puppies or perform surgeries on ailing pigs.

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"The Incredible Dr. Pol" resonates with a diverse swath of viewers in ways that more targeted reality programming about loners roughing in the Alaskan outback, rich housewives fighting it out in the suburbs or Bigfoot hunters who find nothing week after week, have not. In a world of cable news brawls and social media tantrums, the down-to-earth charms of Pol have proved a soothing panacea.

Escaping society or climbing its ladder at any cost are popular themes in unscripted docu-series, and though the vet's practice is tucked into rural America, the divisive ratings ploys of reality TV have no place in "The Incredible Dr. Pol." It's drama enough wrangling a wily, adolescent alpaca without humans adding their issues into the mix.

The work here is often graphic and messy, meaning invasive emergency surgeries, equine dental treatments with giant metal files or probing arm-deep in the back ends of bloated livestock. Yet viewers still keep coming back for more. Or maybe that's part of why they keep returning.

"There was some talk that it might be too much for audiences, but it's turned out to be OK," noted Pol recently in Pasadena during the Television Critics Assn. meeting. "Kids in particular are really interested in what we're doing. It's usually the dads who are upset."


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