It really happens: A community art project that installed 37 fiberglass cows in and around Vermont's biggest city has been plagued by vandalism, leaving four men charged, one injured - the cow he tipped broke his foot - and sponsors beefing up security.
In all, six of the 600-pound sculptures have been targeted by vandals since being installed in May.
"These aren't quickie, random acts of stupidity," said Tom Torti, president of organizer Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce. "These acts of stupidity take time."
Taking a cue from cities that have used ersatz pigs, moose and bison in similar street displays, Burlington businesses signed onto the $90,000 "Cows Come Home" project, in which sponsors agreed to pay $3,500 for each cow and then use a decorative theme to promote their businesses.
The brightly colored cows, which stand about 4 1/2 feet high and are fastened to cement bases, now dot the Church Street Marketplace pedestrian mall and have proved big draws for camera-toting tourists and families with small children.
But they've been irresistible to vandals, too, even though they're no easy marks. Each weighs about 120 pounds, but the base weighs about 500.
The moo-dus operandi: Young, drunken men taking late-night potshots at the sculptures, according to police Lt. Art Cyr.
"As much as we'd love to, we can't have an officer standing by each cow," said Cyr.
Four people have been charged with felony unlawful mischief so far.
Among them is 21-year-old Christopher Newton, who broke his right foot in three places when a cow outside Leunig's Bistro - a French waiter in tuxedo, pencil-thin mustache and black beret - fell on him as he and co-defendant Christopher T. Healy, 23, allegedly knocked it over.
"Instant justice," said Newton's lawyer, Jasdeep Pannu.
On Wednesday, Newton - who made his first court appearance wearing a protective boot over his broken foot - was ordered to serve a two-day jail term and pay up to $3,500 restitution for his part. He will plead guilty Friday in exchange for a deferred sentence.
Kyle Valway, 22, of Pottstown, Pa., who police say was "heavily inebriated" when he vandalized a cow May 30, is also expected to change his not guilty plea Friday, according to prosecutor T.J. Donovan. The fourth suspect is James C. O'Neal, Jr., 25, of Proctor.
Organizers aren't ready to surrender.
This week, "Cow Tender" lapel buttons were distributed to bartenders, servers and merchants along the Marketplace in hopes they will discourage people from harming the cows and keep their eyes out for the bovine hooliganism. The fear is that the resumption of classes next month at the University of Vermont could spell more vandalism.
"To have what I call overprivileged and underdisciplined kids out there ruining it for everybody, it's sad," said Torti. "But we're not going to let this ruin it for everybody."