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.
Dr. Pol's book is available at the following retailers:
Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Dr. Jan Pol with David Fisher, 2014.