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Shocking But True

October 20, 2009
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I’ve mentioned elsewhere that we are working on a project to replant an old dairy farm with native trees.  People ask me questions about the process all the time, but they never ask the most interesting question. 

Specifically, how does it feel to get zapped by an electric fence?

That is probably because they don’t immediately equate tree planting with electric fences.  But because we can only plant so much of the property at a time, a large part of it is still pasture and there’s no way I’m going to mow the lawn.  We use cows to control the grass, and the electric fences are to keep the cows away from the trees, which as far as the cows are concerned look like a mixed green salad.

You may be wondering why we need to electrify the fences.  After all, it’s not exactly Jurassic Park.  They tell me that although cows are docile, they are also single minded.  So if a cow is at point A and sees something it wants at point B, nothing will stop it.  They will just patiently and peacefully push against whatever obstacle is in their way.  Eventually even a well constructed fence will give way.

So the fences are electrified.  With about 2,000 volts.  The cows respect it and you should too. 

To answer the question du jour, hitting an electric fence isn’t like touching a bug zapper where it’s all over in a flash, literally and figuratively.

It’s more diabolical.  The idea is that you don’t want to punish the cows for accidentally brushing the fence, you want to discourage them from leaning or pushing against it.  So at first nothing happens.  A casual touch won’t do much of anything.  But if you are foolish enough to grab a wire because you thought the power was off, or if you are sure you can climb the fence without any part of your body contacting the hot wires and are wrong, you get the works. 

Believe me, I know.

One time I was cutting across a paddock and came upon a fence that I thought wasn’t on the power grid.  I decided to climb over it.  I put one foot on a wire, and grabbed another wire, intending to vault over the fence.

At first I just felt this sensation.  I knew something was wrong, but couldn’t quite place it.  I just felt funny.  Seconds later, I felt this sort of energy pulsing around me.  Like a force field or something.  I looked around to see if there was a UFO hovering nearby.  And then I realized that this isolated stretch of fence was in fact on the grid.

Worse, I also realized what was about to happen. 

That’s right.  My soon to be short circuited central nervous system actually had time to figure out what was coming.  But not enough time to take evasive action.  A nanosecond later I heard, or felt, I’m not sure which, this massive POW! 

Several nanoseconds after that, my cognitive processes started slowly rebooting.  I was on my back, on the wrong side of the fence, facing the wrong direction and wondering how I got there.  The sun was shining into my face and I expected to hear one of my dear departed tell me to walk toward the light.

But I knew that I was alive because my heart was beating at about 1,000 beats per minute.  I really wanted it to slow down, but not all the way.  I was absolutely convinced that I’d done something life threatening.  I finally knew I was OK when all I could think was please don’t let me have landed on a cow pie.

I staggered to my feet, giving the fence a wide berth and swearing that from now on I would switch off the power at the source before venturing out.    

Even so, I’ve had this joyous experience a second time.  Familiarity breeds carelessness and bravado.  Just recently, after a hard day’s planting we were getting ready to leave.  One of the volunteers realized he had left his spade behind.  I didn’t feel like walking all the way back to the shed to turn off the power.  I figured I had a fool proof way of climbing over without making contact with the hot wires.

Yeah, right.

I was astride the fence.  Riding it, as it were, like the bucking bronco it would all too soon become.  Everything was going according to plan.  I was cool in every sense of the term. 

Suddenly there it was.  That awful sensation.  What is so weird about it is that I maintained total lucidity through the process, and while fighting panic I was also rationally analysing what had gone wrong.  It was the worst of all possible scenarios.  I hadn’t noticed that one of the hot wires had been twisted around a terminal and about six inches of extra wire was sticking out into space.  My leg had caught it as I swung over the fence.  To be more specific, the extreme upper part of my leg.  On the inside.  You get the idea.  I looked up, hoping for a UFO.  Nothing the aliens could do to me in their lab could be worse than the zap I was about to get.

Fortunately, blue jean material must have some sort of insulating properties because I survived intact and am not singing soprano.

Of course the follow up question, at least among men, is what would happen if you were to accidentally hit a hot wire while relieving yourself.  My truthful answer to that is that I don’t know and I don’t want to know.  There was a Mythbusters show in which they used a squirt gun to find out.  The results indicated that nothing would happen. 

But even if I believe that intellectually, there is no way I’m going to test their hypothesis.

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