Cow tipping is the purported activity of sneaking up on any unsuspecting or sleeping upright cow and pushing it over for entertainment. The practice of cow tipping is generally considered an urban legend, and stories of such feats generally viewed as tall tales. Unless injured, cows routinely lie down and can easily regain their footing. The implication that rural citizens seek such entertainment due to lack of other alternatives is viewed as a stereotype.
The urban legend of cow tipping relies upon the presumption that cattle are slow-moving, dim-witted, and weak-legged, thus easily pushed over without much force. Some versions of the legend suggest that because cows sleep standing up, it is possible to approach them and push them over without the animals reacting. However, cows only sleep lightly while standing up, and they are easily awoken from this state. Furthermore, numerous sources have questioned the practice's feasibility, since most cows weigh over half a ton, and easily resist any lesser force.
A 2005 study led by Margo Lillie, a zoologist at the University of British Columbia, concluded that tipping a cow would require an exertion of 2,910 newtons (654.2 lbf) of force, and is therefore impossible to accomplish by a single person. Her calculations found that it would take at least two people to apply enough force to push over a cow if the cow did not react and reorient its footing. If the cow did react, it would take at least four people to push it over. Lillie noted that cattle are well aware of their surroundings and are very difficult to surprise, due to excellent senses of both smell and hearing, but that according to laws of static physics, "two people might be able to tip a cow" if the cow were "tipped quickly—the cow's centre of mass would have to be pushed over its hoof before the cow could react". The Lillie study has been replicated by other researchers, who confirmed that at least two to four people can, in fact, push over a cow.
The belief that certain animals cannot rise if pushed over has historical antecedents, though cattle have never been so classified. Julius Caesar and Pliny record a belief that European moose had no knee joints and could not get up if they fell over. This belief may relate to the ancient custom of trapping moose in steep-sided pits.
In 1255, Louis IX of France gave an elephant to Henry III of England for his menagerie in the Tower of London. Drawn from life by the historian Matthew Paris for his Chronica Majora, it can be seen in his bestiary at Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, with an accompanying text revealing that at the time, Europeans believed that elephants did not have knees and so were unable to get up if they fell over. The bestiary contains a drawing depicting an elephant on its back being dragged along the ground by another elephant, with a caption stating that elephants lacked knees.
The American urban myth of cow tipping is said to have originated in the 1970s.
In popular culture
Pranksters have sometimes pushed over artificial cows. Along Chicago's Michigan Avenue in 1999, two "apparently drunk" men felled six fiberglass cows that were part of a Cows on Parade public art exhibit. Four other vandals removed a "Wow cow" sculpture from its lifeguard chair at Oak Street Beach and abandoned it in a pedestrian underpass. A year later, New York City anchored its CowParade art cows, including "A Streetcow Named Desire", to concrete bases "to prevent the udder disrespect of cow-tippers and thieves."
Cow tipping has been featured in films from the 1980s and later, such as Heathers (1988), Tommy Boy (1995), and I Love You Beth Cooper (2009). It was also used in the title of a 1992 documentary film by Randy Redroad, Cow Tipping–The Militant Indian Waiter.
The Big Bang Theory episode 'The Thanksgiving Decoupling' opens with Sheldon and the boys proving to Penny that it is scientifically impossible to tip a cow, despite her claims that she has in her home state of Nebraska.
As a metaphor
The term cow tipping is sometimes used as a figure of speech for pushing over something big. In A Giant Cow-Tipping by Savages, author John Weir Close uses the term to describe contemporary mergers and acquisitions. "Tipping sacred cows" has been used as a deliberate mixed metaphor in titles of books on Christian ministry and business management.
An article in USA Today uses the phrase "urban cow tipping" to describe a form of vandalism involving small cars flipped on their sides.
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In his article at the Harvard Crimson, John Larew insists that since he arrived at college, every time he has told someone (especially someone from the city) where he grew up (deep in the country), they inevitably ask what he does for fun, and whether or not he's been cow tipping...[T]he New York Times... perpetuates the mistake when the editor writes 'Saturday night is associated with pleasure and abandon, with toppling cows in rural Pennsylvania'
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