An example of advanced cow tipping
Cow tipping is the supposed rural activity of sneaking up on an upright sleeping cow and pushing it over for amusement. Some variants of this urban legend state that the cow is then unable to get up. The appeal of this myth derives from the belief that cows are slow-witted and top-heavy, and the corollary assumption that relatively little force would need to be applied to the top of such apparently precarious ruminants to tip them over.
Evidence that cow tipping is an urban myth
There is no evidence aside from (mostly unreliable) eyewitness reports that any cows have ever been tipped in this manner. In addition, there are a number of problems with typical accounts of cow tipping. Unlike horses, cows do not 'lock their legs' when they sleep. Most of their sleep is very light and easily disturbed - typical of herd prey animals. They take short naps at regular intervals throughout a 24 hour period, which means that at any given time, some members of the herd are aware and alert. The vision field of a cow is larger than that of a human, and they have acute senses of hearing and smell. Cows are not easy to sneak up on, and quickly communicate to the rest of the herd that something is amiss.
Cows are large, and would be a challenge even for several people to tip over. A grown cow can be over 5 feet high with a mass of on the order of 700 kg (1,500 lb) and sometimes reaching 900 kg (2000 lb). By way of comparison, a typical sumo wrestler masses only 140 kg (310 lb). The four corners of a large "American-style" domestic refrigerator fairly closely approximate the spread of a cow's legs. If the refrigerator were cut down to five feet, filled with 400 kg (880 lb) of lead weights, and placed in a muddy field, tipping it would offer a comparable challenge to tipping a cow.
Many variants of the legend claim that successfully tipping a cow will result in the cow's death. Although cows can die if prevented from sitting upright for an extended period of time, simply forcing a cow onto its back for a short period of time will not cause death. Under typical circumstances cows are capable of restoring themselves to an upright position.
Other versions of the cow tipping story attempt to evade these objections by claiming, for example, that although cows lie down to dream, they can still doze while standing. Others appeal to a paper published by the University of British Columbia's Zoological Physics department, which calculates that, given a sudden push, as few as five people could reasonably topple a cow.
Finally, attempting to tip a cow is a patently dangerous activity. Despite the animal's reputation for being placid and slow-moving, a cow is easily capable of hurting someone when provoked or nervous; a herd of cows or a bull (not always easily distinguished in the dark) would be even more dangerous.
Sources and analogues
- Cow tipping has been compared to snipe hunting; both are fabrications which rural teens may use to lure unsuspecting city kids into pastures at night in order to ridicule them.
- The urban legend was popularized by the 1989 movie Heathers, in which a couple of jocks perform the stunt. Regardless of the number of attempted cow tippings prior to the film, it may have inspired some new attempts.
- In the title role of the 1995 movie Tommy Boy, Chris Farley attempts to tip a cow. Standing ankle deep in mud and cow pies, he is unable to perform the feat because he does not have enough traction between the ground and his feet. He loses his footing, and the resulting commotion causes the stampeding cows to trample him.
- The cow tipping legend is only one of many examples of cow-related humor; compare the popular "You have two cows" joke.
- It is mentioned in That '70s Show as something the kids did.
- In 1991, NPR broadcast a half-hour radio play called "Cow Tipping," a comedy about five hapless college-aged cow tippers in Illinois. Produced by the Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop.
Articles discussing how cows could be tipped
Articles attempting to debunk the notion that cow tipping is real pastime
Last updated: 05-24-2005 13:38:36
Last updated: 08-15-2005 20:48:12