Column: The mystery by which one becomes two

  • Paul Keane. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Saturday, May 18, 2019

I’ve been apprenticing at cow births, via the television series The Incredible Dr. Pol. Jan Pol, a totally bald, 75-year-old Michigan veterinarian, who still retains his Dutch accent, is in the 13th season of his award-winning show on National Geographic TV’s Wild channel.

I got hooked on his bloody birthing episodes after trying to binge-watch all 86 episodes of HBO’s The Sopranos. I got sick of underworld blood and gore after only 26.

The gunshot murder of Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero gave me a nightmare when Tony Soprano and his henchmen stuffed the body into a bag loaded with weights and threw it in the ocean. I woke thinking I was drowning. So I switched to barnyard blood and gore.

I was soon in my 32nd day of abstinence from violent deaths in The Sopranos by participating in a program of violent births in Dr. Pol. (I watched more cow births in those 32 days than I had in my entire life, which was zero.)

And if you don’t think a cow birth or horse birth is violent, just watch Dr. Pol or one of his two assistants, Dr. Emily or Dr. Brenda, try to dislodge a calf or colt that is emerging the wrong way. Using chains, the smothering calf is forcibly pulled from its mother, landing with a thud, placenta and all, on the ground.

If it’s not breathing, the doctor and owner pick the animal up by the back legs and sway it back and forth, like a child’s swing, to get the fluid out of its lungs and oxygen in.

The show opens with a view of Dr. Pol’s humble veterinary clinic in Michigan and its sign: “Large and Small Animals.” The truth is, Dr. Pol will try to fix any ailing animal — hedgehog, parakeet, salamander, goat, horse, dogs and cats, kittens and pups. His specialty seems to be pregnant cows.

Dr. Pol is almost joyful about pregnancy. Farmers just want to be assured their cow’s fetus is still living. Dr. Pol puts on a long plastic glove (it reaches to his shoulder), and sticks his hand right in: “Pregnant!” he declares. “Six months.”

On the way out of the barn he takes the glove off and says, with his Dutch accent, to the farmer who is hoping for a healthy outcome, “Calf shook my hand. Said ‘How are ya?’ ”

Dr. Pol is philosophical about death. I have seen him put down a cow after it delivers a dead calf and is so injured by the delivery it, too, cannot be saved.

The farmers Dr. Pol deals with are philosophical, as well. One farmer, who looked to be in his 80s, had just lost a calf and its mother. “Things happen on a farm,” he said. “You just have to accept it and move on.”

Things happen. That’s a euphemism for death.

I guess that’s the difference between the violence in the The Sopranos and in The Incredible Dr. Pol: One is about people who force things to happen violently, and the other is about Nature, which tries to make things happen biologically, and sometimes fails in a violent way.

I come away from Dr. Pol’s show in awe at the mystery of blood and pain by which Nature makes one into two.

Perhaps, after I fill myself with enough barnyard births, I may be able to finish The Sopranos, but not all at once.

My own veterinarian, Dr. Christine Pinello, in Norwich, is also a small and large animal caregiver. She has treated my parade of successive dogs — two Dalmatians, a mongrel, a basset hound and now a yellow Lab. My cat was a motherless 6-week-old kitten she rescued from under a porch 10 years ago. She also makes regular farm calls. She doesn’t have a TV so she didn’t know Dr. Pol’s show.

I asked her, “How do you deal with the blood and gore and sadness?”

She knows I am a retired English teacher and she answered using my teacher name: “You know, Mr. Keane, someone analyzed Shakespeare’s plays and discovered there is sadness in 47 percent of them and joy in 53 percent of them. We view life as working toward the 53 percent.”

That’s a philosophy worthy of a National Geographic TV show, don’t you think?

Paul Keane lives in Hartford.