MY FRIEND KATIE grew up in an area that’s much more rural than my own roots in the Southern California suburbs. The stories she tells sometimes involve unfamiliar elements like John Deeres and alpacas, and I sometimes Google things when she’s not looking, just to know what she’s talking about. (Turns out an alpaca looks more like a deer than a John Deere does.)
I once asked Katie over BJ’s beers if she’d ever gone cow tipping. I’d been led to believe that in small, rural towns—towns without, say, a bowling alley—bored teens liked to sneak up on upright sleeping cows and push them over. Then (presumably) they'd stand around laughing as the groggy creature struggled to stand back up. A roaring good time for all the bipeds involved.
Katie shook her head and took a slow sip of her Nutty Brunette. “Nah,” she told me. “I didn’t run with that crowd.” Something about her knowing smile set me to wondering. Back to Google I went.
It didn’t take long to learn that cow tipping is not an actual thing. While cows can sleep while standing, it is usually a very shallow sleep, and they’d be easily wakened by the sound of an approaching pickup blaring Keith Urban, boots stomping through grass and drunken giggling. The only way you could likely catch a cow by surprise is when it is in a deep sleep, and for that it lies down. (Horses sleep standing, but no one claims to tip them.)
But for arguments sake, let’s say you did manage to creep up on an unusually inattentive cow. Could you really tip it over? (If you plan to try, keep in mind that the CDC estimates that 22 Americans are killed each year in bovine-related incidents; that’s more than the number of deaths caused by sharks, alligators, and bears combined.) The average, run-of-the-pasture Holstein weighs 1,600 pounds. (That’s one and a half grand pianos, people—and a Steinway has only three legs.) How much force would it take to manage the deed?
In an issue of The Atlantic, zoologist Margo Lillie and biologist Steven Vogel spent some time doing math nerd stuff on this very physics problem. They concluded that it would take at least 10 people to topple a heavily-sedated cow that wasn’t putting up a fight.
So, I’m here to call cowshit. This stuff never happens. How did this yarn get started? Maybe it was a way for country folk to hoodwink those city slickers who had only seen cows from the pine-scented interior of a passing BMW. Whatever the story’s source, cow tipping turns out to be the most urban of urban legends; no one who lives in the country would likely fall for it.
So, no matter what your third cousin five times removed claims he and his frat bros did one night after a kegger, when he and his buddies were shoving something in the dark, it wasn’t a cow.