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

Veterinarian Jan Pol, the star of Nat Geo Wild's reality TV show "The Incredible Dr. Pol," is shown at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in January.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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Television Critic

He’s plucked countless porcupine quills from the snouts of dogs, delivered calves in snowstorms and castrated a docile house cat and ornery bull in the same day.

There isn’t much that rural veterinarian Dr. 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.

Veterinarian Jan Pol and his wife Diane, stars of Nat Geo Wild's reality TV show "The Incredible Dr. Pol," are photographed during the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena in January.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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.” No. 1 unscripted series and No. 6 overall last year, right behind scripted series on OWN and CMT.

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.

“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.

Dr. Jan Pol poses with two Percheron horses at the Michigan Renaissance Festival on on Nat Geo Wild's No. 1 series, "The Incredible Dr. Pol."
Dr. Jan Pol poses with two Percheron horses at the Michigan Renaissance Festival on on Nat Geo Wild’s No. 1 series, “The Incredible Dr. Pol.”
(Michael Stankevich / National Geographic Channel)

“There was some talk that it might be too much for audiences, but it’s turned out to be OK,” noted Pol in a recent interview 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.”

“And lucky for them they aren’t also getting the smell,” says Charles, the show’s co-creator and producer, who isn’t a vet but often accompanies his father on farm calls.

Pol speaks around the globe about the care and treatment of animals, a theme that runs throughout his book “Never Turn Your Back on an Angus Cow: My Life as a Country Vet.”

In person, he’s a hearty character with brilliant blue eyes, a wicked sense of humor and a crushing handshake. He speaks with a Dutch accent yet peppers his conversation with classic Americanisms such as “yep” and “well, lemme tell ya.”

Pol’s Animal Appeal

The universal draw of helping animals, which can mean saving their lives or simply deworming them, is the initial lure of the show. It follows in a long tradition of shows featuring vets and animals that dates back to “All Creatures Great and Small.”

Other Nat Geo Wild shows feature furry and feathered fare, but they don’t have Pol as a main point of entry, and it’s clear what’s missing. His quick wit, years of experience, stubborn tenacity and generous heart are a big part of the show’s draw as he makes his way across bucolic green fields and bone-chilling winter blizzards to reach his patients.

“It's a slice of life that I think people feel very nostalgic for, even if they never experienced it themselves growing up,” says Charles while taking a break with his dad between events at the conference. “There’s also lots of space, open landscape, animals and …”

Pol, who was seated across the table, jumps in, “and that time when I dropped the syringe and Charles bent down to pick it up and boom, he got it in the head from a steer. Three cameras caught it. Where else can you see that?” he jokes.

The doctor’s quick wit, and episodes with titles like “Twist and Snout,” “Show Me the Bunny,” “Noah’s Bark” and “Paw and Order” counterbalance the heavier moments and loss that come with the territory.

Calves die unless they’re delivered on time, and even then there’s no guarantee. Dogs and cats cling to life after being hit by cars, shot by cowardly snipers or attacked by other animals. Sick horses are put down. It’s sad but also realistic, no artificial happy endings here.

“I can’t save every animal, though I wish I could,” said Pol. “But that is part of life. It is important to see that side of things too. I want the show to be real, otherwise, why are we doing it?”

Dr. Jan Pol kisses his horse on Nat Geo Wild's No. 1 series, "The Incredible Dr. Pol."
(Jon Schroder / National Geographic Channel)

Walking side by side with Diane down the hallways of the Pasadena hotel where TCA was held, Pol was recognized more often in a five-minute stretch than talk-show host Ryan Seacrest, who had walked down the same hallway a few hours earlier.

The Michigan doc was, after all, easy to spot. He appeared comfortable in his own skin, confident enough to wear utilitarian reading glasses perched atop his bald head and a company polo short that read “Pol Veterinarian Services.”

He walked with a slight limp that any Pol fan would know. It’s the result of an ice-skating accident from his youth. “Everyone thinks the Dutch are born skating. I was not one of those kids.”

Admirers who approach him do so with familiarity rather than fawning, and almost all of them eventually show the good doctor photos of their pets they have stored in their phone. He obliges and shows them photos of his Great Danes stretched out across the family couch. “It’s funny that nobody ever talks to me about something normal, like the weather,” he jokes later. “It’s about their dog’s feet or hips or something.”

“The Incredible Dr. Pol” was co-created by Charles, one of three children the Pols adopted. He grew up watching his dad work miracles on the animals around them, but he was not compelled to follow in his father’s footsteps and instead wanted to make movies and television shows. He moved to L.A. 10 years ago, where he worked at Nickelodeon in operations.

“There is a point where we all get in this business where you're like ‘Why am I working for someone else?’” says Charles, who works on the show with Monica Austin and Jonathan Schroder. “So reality [TV] is one thing where you can just go out and do it like old-school, college filmmaking. You just need to find characters who are larger than life.

“And I said to my partners that the largest character I have ever met in my life is my father. His job has both drama and stakes — everything you want in television.”

“It sounded interesting enough,” says Pol of the first time Charles approached him with the idea. “He said just do what you do, don't look at the camera. And yeah, that has been the format ever since. So what you see is real. We once had a producer who said, ‘This is what I want you to do, and people will love it if you just do this.’ And I said ‘I'm not doing it!’ Stubborn Dutchman, you know. So he just left.”

A camera crew follows the Pol Vet Services team several months out of the year. The crew’s problem isn’t fabricating a story from nothing, it’s keeping up with Pol. He’s notorious among those who know him for driving and moving quickly. “I can’t stop for the cameras or do a retake,” he explains. “Once I pull that calf out, I’m not pushing it back in so they can get a better shot.”

Pol has felt the heat from showing it all. Another vet filed a complaint regarding Pol’s treatment of a dog on the show, in particular a Boston terrier named Mr. Pigglesworth. The dog was struck by a car, and during an emergency surgery to save him, the complaint contends that Pol didn't wear sterile surgical attire and that Charles, who is not a licensed vet, assisted in the surgery. The complaint was eventually dismissed.

Another brush with the law, says Charles, happened when the police pulled over the camera crew for speeding and asked why they were in such a rush. They said that they were trying to keep up with Pol. “No one can keep up with Dr. Pol,” replied the cop.

Jan Pol
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

‘The Incredible Dr. Pol’

Where: National Geographic Wild

When: Saturdays, 6 and 9 p.m.

Rated: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)