Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Preparing for Trespasser!

(Trespasser looks on as heifer Zappa makes unfathomable choice for food over him)

Trespasser was a handsome, easy going, holstein bull, about eleven months old, as I recall. Nobody seemed to think that he was going to be upset about being told his date with the heifer was over after only 5 minutes, even if he was not finished saying good-bye. However, I was a bit concerned. I did some research before commencing work, starting with CDC animal attack information. Bulls kill more people than dogs, bears, horses and sea lions - all animals I had worked with. In fact, they kill more than all those animals combined. What makes a bull so dangerous, I wondered, and what do I need to know about them to be safe.

I am convinced of the importance of preparation and rehearsal. I have a long history of working safely with risky things: radioactive substances, pathogenic substances, chemicals, and, oh yes, various dangerous animals. I like to have a systematic approach to risk, because I don't believe in dying prematurely. Especially from my own stupidity. My father, a veteran of the Viet Nam War, and a very self reliant person, had instilled in his daughters, the thoughtfullness, watchfullness, and preparedness to minimize risk, in whatever way we could. However, even after his careful tutelage in hand-to-hand combat moves for our self-protection, when I found myself on the floor of my apartment one night, looking up at man coming toward me through the gloom, I found myself thinking "he is in the perfect position for me to break his knee!" but I failed to move into action. Later I understood that this is a perfect example of what my colleagues at Sea World dubbed "Context Shift". In other words, I had learned in a particular setting, where I also practiced a lot, but I never practiced in the new environment/context. So, when called to action, I did not just flow into execution of what I knew to protect myself. Next thing I knew, the man's hands were groping for my neck and trying to strangle and smother me. I wished I had broken his knee, but that is another story. For now, suffice it to say that soon he was running to get away, and I was unhurt.

From this experience, I learned to always prepare for whatever risks I anticipated, and then to practice the risk remediation, again and again - in all the important situations possible. So, if you work with me, I drag you into the process. This resulted in people that fainted at the National Zoo getting packed in frozen herring by volunteer keepers, my niece and nephew being required to rehearse screaming and running, and my wearing mirrored shades and carrying rocks in my huge pocketbag, in Boston, as well as routine hand washing and scuba diving with a buddy.

I also wear appropriate mask protection. One day I was loading hay into the barn loft at the University of Maryland. It was a good thing I was wearing a dust protection mask, because it was covered with alfalfa leaves, glued in place by the humidity and the vacuum effect of my trying to suck air through them. It may have looked as if my face had been attacked by a mutant tea bag. When lunch break came, I needed to check on my class registration and let my dog out, so I just started running down the street toward my cottage, about a fifth of a mile away. I did not change clothes or demask because it would cut into my time and I was just coming back to the same work. As I trotted down the street, I was baffled by people running. Instinctinctively, I ran faster, remembering the adage in scuba diving "You don't have to outswim a shark, you just have to outswim your buddy." I wondered why everyone was running and looked over my should but saw nothing. A car screeched to a stop next to me, the window being cranked down as fast as humanly possible.

"What has happened?!"

"What are you talking about?"

"Why are you all running?"

"I don't know why they are running. I just need to get home during my break to make a phone call."

"Was there a toxic gas spill?"

"Not that I heard. Why?"

"What is that weird mask you are wearing?"

".... oh. This is a special alfalfa affinity filter mask. It protects me from recognition. I have to go now."

For fear of being turned on by my fellow runners, I postponed my phone call, and turned and ran straight back to the barn. I glanced back to see the others pulling up to stops, with befuddled looks as they gazed after me. Terror, chaos, panic... my work there was done. That was a multi-purpose mask. Good for my lungs, and good for my anonymity.

In researching how to survive a friendship with a bull, I learned that hand reared bulls are usually the ones that end up killing someone - often the person that was closest to them. There is a theory that the bulls think they are people, or that people are bulls, and just express normal competitive behavior toward them, which is often fatal to humans, who are not built on the same scale. I mean really, a person can end up with the short end of the stick in a conflict with a chihuahua, for goodness sakes, they need to avoid conflicts with bulls, buffalo and elephants.

So, one minute, the bull is your buddy, and the next, he is mortally (your mortality) offended by you and decides to take issue, and your life. It struck me that it would be good to be able to recognize this moment. It would also be good to know how best to avoid it, apologize for it, and maybe derail it, if things looked to be heading in that direction. I wanted to know how bulls attack, where is the best place to stand, the rhythm of the interaction, and more. AND, I wanted to practice what I learned.

"Hey Karen, have you ever worked with a bull before?"


"Neither have I. I want to figure out how they attack and what we can do if attacked."

"I don't think there is going to be any problem..."

"We have already established that you do not have any heirs. Dr. (Edwin) Goodwin is experienced with bulls and he is willing to come educate us and help us to practice and I think we should do this."

"Okay. I'm in."

The little torque of her eyebrows, as she inclined her head was not lost on me. She was humoring me. I ignored it. This was, after all, a girl who voluntarily rode on roller coasters, WITHOUT checking the inspection history first. There was a reason I had already lived longer than her. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Living by the saying that there are bold mountain climbers, and there are old mountain climbers, but there are no old, bold, mountain climbers, I err on the side of precaution. I intend to be an old, bold, holstein bull trainer.

So, standing in the hall of the Animal Science building, I conferred with Drs. Edwin Goodwin and Jerry DeBarthe, both experienced with dairy bulls. They explained to me how bulls look when they are getting upset, how they move, where you should stand when working with bulls, when you should no longer be standing there, and many other choice morsels of bull lore. It was an informal session, but intense and full of information exchange, its critical nature obvious to all.

"Mark, did you see Kayce?"

"Yeah, I think she is down the hall, shooting the bull with Drs. DeBarthe and Goodwin..."

Next was the actual practice. This was conducted at the end of the day of business, due to the need for a distraction free environment with no spys or witnesses.

"Okay, Kayce. I am going to try to show you how bulls tend to charge. Are you ready?"

"Yeah, Dr. Goodwin. Go ahead. ... What's that you are doing?"

"That's me pawing."

"Are those your paws? I thought those were your ears!"

"They are, but only when I am not pawing. Pay attention now, or you may get trampled!"

"Okay, okay, but one more thing. Where are your horns?"

"My horns are also my ears and my paws."

"Okay, I'm ready..."

He then proceeded to walk through a series of actions typical of a bull making a charge, cueing and coaching me to move through my evasions, as he had taught me. We moved like two dancers, trysting in the twilight.

"Wow, sorry I tripped you."

"It's okay, Kayce. At least you didn't hit me with your bucket like last time."

"I think I am getting that part now. It is tempting to just stand there and bash the bull over the head with the bucket, instead of deftly moving aside."

"Yeah. I kinda wish that you had withstood that temptation."

"Sorry! Let's try it again, because we still have to rehearse the use of the cattle prod."

:"Let's leave that for next time. I think I am going to replace the batteries before we work on that. With dead ones."

By the time my education was completed, I had learned, to the best of Dr. Goodwin's ability to impart to me, without actually putting me in with a charging bull - no matter the temptation - many critical skills. I learned how to recognize a bull getting tense, how to try to defuse him, how to carry myself so that I emanated an august presence that he would instinctively respect, how to teach him about the deterrents I used, in a fair way, so that he would be slow to want to challenge me, and how to lead him gently. And finally, I learned how to stand in quiet readiness, if charged, till the exactly correct moment to move to the side, waiting till the bull was close and fast enough that he could not adjust to my movement in time to gore or trample me, all the while, taking the potential arc of his horns into my calculations.

Did I mention that math is my weak subject? In this case, it did not matter. Trespasser was a great guy and never made any aggressive move toward any of us. However, his horns were the source of a serious problem, but that is another story.

Karen and I practiced with Dr. Goodwin, and then between ourselves until we really had it down.

"Kayce, what is that you are doing?"

"I am pawing."

"Are those your paws?..."

Next: The Horns of a Dilemma

Copyright June 2006, Kayce Cover