A semi-incredible, global life of piglets, hedgehogs and cable fame


Up close, Jan Pol is just what you expect -- a big, vibrant Dutchman who became a veterinarian on purpose and a cable-TV star by accident. Now NatGeo Wild has a special about Pol on Saturday (Jan. 10), along with an "Incredible Dr. Pol" marathon. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

PASADENA, Cal. -- So
there was this Dutch boy, not quite a teen, with his arm halfway up a
pig.

“That was so much
fun,” Jan Pol recalls, 60 years later. “I knew then I wanted to
work with animals.”

What he didn't know
was that he would become a TV star, beloved (often) and berated
(sometimes). Now he has a successful cable series (“The Incredible
Dr. Pol”), plus a new special about his life.

It's a fairly
un-incredible life in many ways. Dr. Pol has been in the same little
town (Weidman, near Mount Pleasant, Mich.) for 34 years; he's been
married 47 years.

But four years ago,
his son Charles (an aspiring TV producer in California) pushed the
idea to his friends and co-workers. “He said, 'My dad is a a
character,'” Pol said.

Others agree;
ratings – more than a half-million viewers for some hours – are
high by cable-Saturday standards. Viewers savor an old-school vet who
ranges from cows and horses to snakes and hedgehogs.

That's what Pol has
wanted to do since he was 12 and was asked to help the difficult
birth of piglets.

The youngest of six
kids in a farm family, he knew he wanted to be a veterinarian ... but
to see the world, too. He became a foreign-exchange student, choosing
Michigan by miscalculation.

“The Netherlands
is so small, you can get anywhere in an hour,” Pol said. Eyeing a
map, he assumed Mayville (in Michigan's “Thumb” artea), is near
Ontario, where his sister lived.

It's not, but he
soon liked his host family, including Diane. As he came off the
plane, he noticed her “towering over the rest.” She was
5-foot-8-and-a-half, he was 6-2; that was a start.

Her first reaction?
“I thought, 'He's not as good-looking as I thought he would be.'”
But by the end of the year, “we were good friends, like brother and
sister.” When she visited Europe, they fell in love.

Pol got his
veterinary degree in the Netherlands, worked for 10 years in the
Thumb town of Harbor Beach and sought the perfect spot for his own
practice; Isabella Counry seemed ideal – lots of horses and cows
... only “three old vets” ... and Mt. Pleasant (home of Central
Michigan University) nearby.

So the clinic
opened, at first focusing on cows and horses. “I never wanted to
quit small animals,” Pol said. Soon, people brought dogs and cats
and more; he figures he's treated a half-million animals.

Things keep growing,
Pol said. “Within five years, we built the clinic we have now. Four
years later, we doubled that. Last fall, we expanded it again.”

Now he employs three
vets, a vet-tech and more. “He is a true hero of his community,”
said Geoff Daniels, a NatGeo programmer.

But a controversial
one. “Dr. Pol may look like the wonderful ol' family farm vet, but
his medicine is antiquated,” Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, a
Massachusetts vet, wrote in petsadvisor.com, reeling off things she
feels brought excessive pain or danger to his patients. “He
(should) understand that animals have a pain center and surgery
requires clean gloves.”

She wrote that in
2012, the year state regulators fined Pol and put him on probation.
He had misread ultrasound, they said; 10 dead puppies were in a dog
for days, before the owners went to another vet.

Pol defends his
upbeat, old-school approach. “My goal has always been to provide
affordable care.”

That approach is one
reason viewers like the show, Diane said. “It is a true reality
show.”

-- “Incredible!
The Story of Dr. Pol,” 10 p.m. Saturday, NatGeo Wild

-- Surrounded by
episodes of “The Incredible Dr. Pol,” from noon to 3 a.m.