Cow-Tipping is a Load of Bull

MY FAMILY lives 40 miles from the nearest movie theater and the nearest McDonalds, on a farm in a rural county where cows outnumber people two to one. Smug city dwellers often ask how I managed to entertain myself while growing up in such an isolated backwater.

Invariably, they inquire whether I've ever gone cow-tipping.

But before I can answer, they regale me with cow-tipping stories of their own--lusty tales of suburban adventure in which they (or more likely, their "friends") drive out into country in search of cows. After finding a field full of sleeping bovines, they rush the beasts and push them off of their feet and onto their backs. The poor cows then can't get up. Great fun.

Cow tipping, Harvard classmates have told me, is a popular weekend activity at other, more pastoral Ivy League campuses. One person stated quite authoritatively that the Cornell newspaper regularly carries letters from local farmers urging students not to tip their cows because "it lowers their milk production."

The popular movie Heathers features a cow-tipping scene in which two drunken jocks push over a heifer to prove their masculinity. In her recent book "Saturday Night in America," Susan Olean writes that "On Saturday night, there [is]...the highest number of reported incidents of cow toppling in rural Pennsylvania." This claim was prominently featured in a New York Times Magazine excerpt of the book.

Just ask around. Everyone knows someone who has gone cow-tipping.

But the interesting thing is that very few people will claim that they personally have ever tipped a cow.

There's a good reason for this discrepancy: Cow tipping is a myth. It can't be done.

GROWING up on a farm, one quickly learns three things: First, cattle do not sleep standing up. They lie down. Horses sleep standing up. Second, when cows get down on their backs, they are perfectly capable of getting back up. It's sheep that sometimes have problems. Third, nothing smaller than a bulldozer can knock over a standing cow.

Several years ago, when I was still an idealistic first-year, I set out with an evangelical fervor to debunk the cowtipping myth. After all, Harvard prides itself how students from diverse backgrounds learn so much from one other. Since I never spent a year teaching calculus to Tibetan peasants or did any groundbreaking research on snail mating, I figured my unique intellectual contribution would be in the area of livestock management.

But every time I tried to set my classmates straight, they told me about some "friend" who swears he went cow-tipping regularly in high school. Harvard students, who fancy themselves the intellectual elite of the nation, seem convinced of the joys of toppling sleeping cows.

Once I met someone who claimed she did the deed herself. Pressing her further, however, she conceded that she didn't actually succeed in finding a sleeping cow to tip, but that had gone out with some "friends" in a good-faith effort to do so. (Not incidentally, the "friends" swore they had done it before.)

WITH everyone so sincere in their belief in cow-tipping, I once began to doubt my own expertise on the subject. I wondered whether my cows were an unusual, particularly stable breed, or if I'm simply too frail to push over a cow.

To settle my doubts, I asked my father, a grizzled veteran of a lifetime of farming, if he knew anything about cow tipping. He looked puzzled. I explained that suburban kids like to amuse themselves by driving out into the country and pushing over sleeping cows. He gave me a look like I had told him I wanted to drop out of school and become a hairdresser.

Next, I called my oldest sister, who spent years in college studying cattle and holds a degree in dairy science. She laughed and told me that one of her male co-workers, a city-slicker, had attempted to impress everyone with his bravado by describing how he used to go cow-tipping. She humiliated him by pointing out the physical impossibility of the task.

At Harvard, though, this kind of common sense is never enough; you have to have academic credentials before anyone takes you seriously. So I interviewed a couple of professors of dairy science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to get the scholarly perspective on cow-tipping.

According to Professor Ray Nebel, the average weight of a mature dairy cow is 1250 to 1300 pounds, more than your average "friend" could move. "A four-legged animal is pretty stable," he said. "Have you ever tried to push over a dog?"

My faith was redoubled. But my mission of convincing the Harvard community to discard the myth of cow-tipping was still a failure.

Just before despair set in, I heard of another student on the same quest. John Sparks '91, of Sulfur, Okla., also sees red when he hears anyone mention the subject. "Everybody's got a buddy who's done it, but nobody ever does it," said Sparks.

Sparks, who was raised on a ranch, first heard of cow-tipping at Harvard. He, too, wrestled with self-doubt. "I asked my daddy and a couple of the other ranchers about it," he said. "They thought I was talking about something sexual."

I asked him to speculate on the theoretical possibility of tipping a cow.

"That's like trying to push over a Volkswagen," he said. "I had a cow step on my foot one time, and I pushed and pushed, but she wouldn't budge."

And Sparks, unlike me, has no insecurities about physical strength. A starting defensive lineman for the Harvard Football team, he is a 6'5," 250-pound monolith who tosses around bulky fullbacks as if they were children.

If Sparks can't tip a cow, no number of drunken suburban weenies have a chance.

I've considered following the example of people who debunk claims of the supernatural by offering huge cash rewards to anyone who can produce positive evidence of suspicious phenomena.

In fact, I know the appropriate reward for anyone who will call me and claim to have tipped a cow. But the reward doesn't come in stacks of hundreds.

It comes in piles.