Thursday, December 29, 2011

This is an old set of blog posts.

For current news, please click here to see my website.

Thanks and see you there!

Thursday, November 29, 2007


I hope to be back to blogging in the near future. Right now I am writing a book on training. More information on this training technique at Thanks for reading, for writing and for the comments.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Horns of a Dilemma

Trespasser is closest. He is checking out his honey.

There was always a lot of work to do, dealing with the cows. And it even fell my lot to clean up after the cows - all six girls and one bull, though they were kept at the campus barn. That is a lot of work, added to full time school and my other full time work duties. Long, hard, hot, physical labor in the sweltering Maryland summer. I often had trouble keeping up and was at the barn long after others had left for the day. One such day, I was walking through the barn, and saw Trespasser with his head through a headstall, pointed toward the trough as if about to eat. But, there was no food, no likelihood of food, and his head was twisted a strange way.

"What are you doing?" I asked politely.

A mournful bellow was his only response.

"Why don't you take your head out?"

He strained at the grill, knocking his horns from side to side with frustrated swipes. His horns were causing him to be stuck and he was upset.

"Okay then. Maybe I can help."

Helping a bull is a matter of some delicacy. If he suddenly surges his weight, you can get pinned or slammed, your fingers or hands, pinched or severed. You can get kicked. And you can irritate him in a way he will remember. I wanted Trespasser to have only fond memories of me. Like, "Remember the time I told to Maddy that she choose you over the food?"

Gingerly, I tried to suggest to him, with gentle pushes and torques, that he turn his head just so, BEFORE trying to pull back. It is a strange but common phenomena that when someone, person or animal, gets excited, they may persevere in doing the same ineffectual thing, in rapid-fire repetition, working themselves into a greater and greater frenzy, but to no avail. Such was happening to Trespasser, despite my best efforts.

With marine mammals, we learned to use velcro on training harnesses^, so they would break away if the animal suddenly got spooked and ran away, dangling a harness after him. Otherwise, the harness, banging and spanking him as he fled, whipped him into such a frenzy it could really be bad. Or, the animal, getting a harness on for the first time, would normally extend the neck to take the harness over the head. Then, they felt the harness around their neck, and pulled their neck in, to try to look down at what was there. This tightened the strap girdling the neck, making the strap feel constricting and too small. Now the animal might freak, running away and not allowing the trainer to remove the halter. We learned to teach the animal the concept of constriction first, and to use break-away strips, but until that point, there were some difficult situations.

But Trespasser had come knowing about head halters and how to lead, so I did not give much thought to teaching him about constriction, how to act when constricted, etc. Right at this moment, however, I wished I had. Instead, I tried to help him pry his head around, pull a little to the left, and he seemed to get it, easing along with my directions, until suddenly, in a spasm of frustration, he would dash his head to one side, endangering my face and fingers. I stepped back. This was clearly a problem for a Ph.D. Say, a Ph.D. with executive authority over this bull. Say, Mark Varner.

I ran across the parking lot to the Animal Science Building, noting the lot was empty, except for Mark's olive green truck. Good that he was still around. I popped up the steps expecting to pull the door open and continue inside, but it was locked. They were all locked. What is the good of four doors if they are all locked? I banged, hoping to raise someone inside. No joy. Mark was all the way up on the third floor. I abandoned the door and ran around to the side of the building. Mark's window was closed. In fact the only open window was to the first floor bathroom. Too bad. (This was pre-cell phones!)

I ran back to see Trespasser and tell him the bad news. However, when I returned, he was obviously having a bad time, getting hot and bothered, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was a complete failure and had nothing to offer him. Better try again.

I ran back out and across the lots, past Mark's lonely truck and to the nearest side of the building. I could not climb up to Mark's window, but I might be able to make it to the bathroom window. Dang it all, why didn't they just give me a key to the building! Make a note to ask. The front of the Animal Science Building was higher than the rear, which had a basement entry. Or rather, the earth sloped down and away from the front end of the building to the rear. May I say, it sloped precipitously. I could almost step right up to the open window of the bathroom, but not quite. Part of me had to reach over a descending drop. I don't like descending drops, especially when examining them from a free-fall perspective.

So, I pulled my focus back to climbing, muttering about bulls who don't know their own horns, why was there no one around when you needed them, did I really get paid enough to worry about these things, wasn't I off work anyway... and I worked my way awkwardly, and perilously, to the window. Upon reaching the ledge, I then began a painstaking process of pulling and edging myself up onto the ledge, and from thence, inside, having to reorganize my limbs in the window in order to land on my feet instead of my head.

Whew! That done, and once inside, I pulled my clothes back into position, before resuming emergency mode. Passing the mirrors, I noted that I looked a disheveled mess. Tsk, tsk. A girl can only do so much. Throwing hay to cattle, full time school, hours of searching in the library, dance classes - one has not much time for beauty. In fact, none at all, unless I wanted something. But, that is another story.

Thus I mused as I bounded up one of the staircases. There was another, and an elevator, and I hoped Mark would not choose this moment to go home, via another exit. So I pressed on. No worries! I saw Mark's open door as I exited the landing, and commenced to trot. Breathlessly, I surprised Mark at this desk.

"How did you get in here?! I thought the doors were locked!"

"Yeah, we need to talk about that. I had to climb through the window."

"Drat" said Mark. "They should have locked that too."

Mark was overjoyed at being pulled away from his never-ending work, in order to be physical therapist to a bull.

We discussed the course of emergency action as we walked toward the barn...

"You might have to call the fire department and get them to bring those thingies*."

"Well, let's hope we don't really need the 'Jaws of Life'", returned Mark. I really need to get that paper done and get home."

"Well, I am sorry to call on you, but I did not know if this might go critical, and while I am expert at dodging bulls, as of yesterday, I know nothing about untangling their heads, and I was afraid we might have to cut the bars and I did not want to start dismantling the barn with blow torches without your approval. Heck, blowtorch, bull, hay - that situation could go 'Barbecue', and that would effect the validity of our study, which is based on responses from live cows."

Mark shot me a withering look. "What happened to initiative?"

"I think 'initiative' is that part where I risked my dignity, not to mention life, to scale the bathroom window!"

"It's a first floor window, for god's sake!"

"Ha! That last third is at least a couple of feet higher then the rest! You know, this is why workers fail to strive - lack of appreciation, not to mention lack of hazardous duty pay. I think untangling bulls is definitely classified as hazardous duty!"

"I thought we weren't mentioning that part," growled Mark.

"Well, if I had gotten killed trying to rescue this bull, then think of all the paperwork it would require."

"That's true!" said Mark, brightening. He always got that look when some idea impressed itself on his psyche.

And suddenly, we entered the barn, crossed a hall and we were there.

But Trespasser was not. Or rather, he was there, but he was not standing, panicked and bellowing, with his head through the bars. Instead, he was eating calmly, be-knighting our arrival with a placid eye.

Mark fixed him in a hard glare, as if interrogating him about what had REALLY happened.

And Trespasser munched idyllically, as if to corroborate Mark's suspicions.

So. No emergency. Well, no problem! A little inconvenience, but... I mean, if the worst that happens is that the bull is fine, that is not such a bad outcome. I thought, turning suddenly to run.

I could run like the wind and I could outrun Mark. Shoot, I could even scale the window faster.

^ I believe Jim Mastro may have been the person I worked with at Scripps who started creating break-away harnesses, 1973 -6.

* For the non-scientific reader, in scientific jargon, a "thingy" is any apparatus whose name doesn't immediately spring to mind, which is most of them. If you desire to stay abreast in the newest and most creative developments in scientific notation and terminology, please also see "Cover's Annotated and Adulterated Compendium of Terms of Science, Faith and the Occult", which currently is available only in my imagination. However, if you send your email and $9.99, you will be the first to know when it is available in a material form, and also, when the English translation comes out.

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

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Yentas for Heiferly-Romance...

This was a feasibility study, not a full-blown research study. A lot of the time was invested in mapping the area under the learning curve. As someone who spends most of my training time in innovation, I have learned that everything that is new takes longer than expected. Much longer. For example, the first pigs that we taught to stand while we stuck a five inch needle into the vena cava, an inch from their hearts, took about three times as long to train as the second group of pigs (one hour each). But that is a different story...

With the cows, first I had to get to know them, and they had to know and trust me. We had to cover basic training, so that we could work together harmoniously and safely. I had to figure out logistics - how could they communicate with us. Should I have them push a button, and if so, what kind of a button would stand up to a bunch of cows!?? And, very importantly, we needed to figure out exactly what to ask them. Mark and I were working on that one together. We finally decided to give them a choice between food and a five minute date with a bull.

The choice would be offered via two vinyl tiles, each with a unique graphic, one representing a bull (it was a bull's eye shape) and the other representing food. When a heifer made a choice, she then must proceed directly to the reward station that she chose, thereby proving that she knew what she chose. In other words, if she chose the bull, she must go straight to the gate leading to the bull - or she would have lost her chosen reward. Likewise, if she chose food, she had to go directly to the feeding station, on the opposite side of the paddock. Only once the heifer was in position, awaiting her reward, did the graduate student move to deliver it. No heifer ever made an error in going to the station for her chosen reward. It seemed that they knew exactly what they were doing.

At the same time, Mark was designing the rest of the study. Besides figuring out exactly what to ask the heifers, Mark had to make sure that he could determine the reproductive state of the heifers, so that he could later see if they chose the bull when they were fertile and not otherwise. And, he had to be sure that none of us knew whether or not a heifer was going to be in estrus. He designed the experiment so that I, being the one to offer choices, did not have an opinion ahead of time as to what that choice would be. In addition, he designed the experiment to give the heifers up to three choices per session, to be determined by a random number generator. Mark would be using injected hormones to synchronize the heifer's estrus, and he and Karen would be doing the injections, while I would be giving the choices - so I never knew what the estrus schedule was.

Meanwhile, Karen Clingerman was a grad student of Mark Varner's, and became a valued friend and colleague. You can see her in the photo, standing on the outside of the fence watching the heifer make her choice. Karen had a vested interest in what the heifer chose. Karen and I logged a lot of hours together, training, cleaning and socializing with cows. One thing we did not do together - cow chaperoning. That was strictly Karen's domain, courtesy of a conversation that went something like this:

"Mark, if you are going to let these heifers in with that bull, how do we get them back out."

"You Just go in and take the heifer away from the bull after their five minutes are up."

"When you say "you" do you mean "some as yet unknown person", or do you mean, "you, Kayce Cover," because Kayce Cover has never worked with bulls before and I don't want to learn what makes them really angry by being the one to tell them that the date is over."

"No guts, no glory, Kayce. Well, then, the graduate student will do it."


"Hey Karen, Mark says you will go in and tell the bull that the heifer has to go home."

"That's cool."

"Karen, I know you don't have heirs yet, but I told him I didn't think it was totally safe and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't want to do it...."

"I'm cool with it."

"Are you sure."


Karen was quiet, self-contained, and had a huge wild streak.

"Well, if I were you, I would be very polite about it."


"Karen, If something happens to you, can I have your stereo .... can I have your car?"

Next time, "Trespasser"

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Launching Kayce's Chronicles

I travel a lot in my work with animals, and would like to share my experiences. I train and manage animals, and communicate with them. When I say communicate, I don't mean in a psychic way, although I don't dispute that that is possible. I mean in a tangible way, where I ask a question, which an animal answers, and which can be objectively evaluated. In other words, if I ask a heifer if she wants to go in with a bull or have a snack, and she chooses the bull, she must also go straight to the gate leading to the bull's enclosure, rather than to the food dispensing station, proving that she knew what she chose.

So, let's take that example of the heifers choosing a date with a bull or some grain. The University of Maryland's progressive dairy science researcher, Mark Varner, Ph.D., was looking for an economical way to find out when cows are ready to be rebred - to keep them in milk production. This was a 1.5 billion dollar question in the dairy industry in 1987. It used to be that it was easy to tell when cows were ready to be bred - they would mount one another at that time and not at others. However, with the advent of new dairy farm building practices, resulting in less room and oftimes slippery floors, cows quit jumping around, and subsequently, quit mounting one another when they were estrous (fertile and ready to breed). So now, how was a farmer to tell when his girls were feeling romantic?

I was at the University giving a seminar presentation when a youthful looking Mark Varner raised his hand to ask a question.

"Can you teach cows to tell you when another cow is estrous?"

"You don't want to do that"

"Why not?"

"You will turn a lot of good cows to lying! If you are going to pay them to tell you that Suzy cow is in estrus, then they may tell you what you want to hear. Is there something they want when they are estrous that they don't want at other times?" (This brought many smiling, speculative looks.)


"Great. Why not ask each one if she is estrous? We need to ask her if she wants that thing that she wants when she is in estrus, that she does not want at other times. What might such a thing be?"

"How about a bull?"

"Do you have a bull? "

"We can get one..."

Bulls and bull by-products are surprizingly easy to come by at agricultural universities, but that is another story. Our bull was named Trespasser, and he was quite a gent. I say our bull, because I agreed to collaborate on a feasibility project, and went back to school at U Maryland, to complete a Bachelor of Science in Animal Science. It was a great school and a great program, and we had some great cows.

Next time, the research design...