Fact Check

Hunters Shoot Cow

Did inexperienced hunters mistake a cow for a deer?

Published Dec. 3, 2003


Claim:   Naive hunters mistake one type of animal for another.


Example:   [Collected in e-mail, 2003]

The latest one making the rounds here in Maine this Deer Hunting Season:

Apparently two hunters from Massachusetts travel to Maine for Deer Hunting Season. They shoot a cow mistaking it for a deer. They then tag the cow and load it on their truck. The Game Warden then spots them and informs the hunters they have shot a cow not a deer.


Origins:   Around 1970, during the drive to a distant campground in an area of Ontario popular with hunters, my father pointed to the cattle grazing in a nearby field and informed me that local farmers took to writing 'COW' in big letters on the side of these beasties every fall lest "durned fool Americans" on hunting


excursions mistake them for moose and shoot them. Having (then) no reason to doubt my progenitor, I took this as yet another proof that Americans were about as sharp as a sack of wet hammers, a view prevalent among Canadians and one which lays at the heart of a number of cherished "dumb American tourists" tales (e.g., the treasured old saw about the American couple flying into Toronto during the heat of July with downhill skis strapped to their luggage). But my father was not exactly a font of reliable information, a fact that took me years to figure out. This was the same man who quelled my disquiet over his poaching our annual Christmas tree from Crown land with the explanation that we were taxpayers, so we owned the tree we were making off with. When queried about why there was a fence around the property, he replied the fence was to keep out those who didn't pay taxes.

Youthful naivete and cultural bias aside, the "painted cows" story is naught but a legend told in rural areas about members of citified groups deemed less savvy than their countrified counterparts. In some versions, ranchers take to painting 'HORSE' on the sides of their equine stock in order to dissuade trigger-happy greenhorns who have come up from the big city to go on shooting sprees.

[Marsano, 1987]

Over the years hunters have shot numerous things under the impression that they were game animals. In most hunting areas every farmer worth his salt knows enough to paint the word COW in huge white letters on every member of his dairy herd.

The "painted cows" story has made it past fact checkers and into the news on a few occasions. In 1985 Michigan farmer Tom Guthrie became a media celebrity after a photograph showing one of his heifers with the word 'COW' spray-painted in orange on its side was ingested without the requisite grain of salt, and the photo was taken by the Detroit News and run under the headline "Truth in Packaging." From there the picture was picked up by the wire services, leading many readers to believe the labeling of cows to deter hunters was on the up-and-up. Yet the photo had been staged, as Guthrie freely admitted. He was not experiencing problems with errant hunters, nor had any of his livestock been harmed — he'd merely been obliging someone who'd asked for a favor.

A staffer on the Detroit News who'd heard the rumor about labeled

cows contacted a farmers' group to ask for its help in locating someone who was actually taking that precaution. Wires got crossed, and the farmers' group asked Guthrie to pose with one of his heifers suitably painted for the occasion. Somewhere along the way the idea that the event was supposed to be authentic got misinterpreted, resulting in the Detroit News thinking it had a photo of the real McCoy.

The legend has subsequently been told as fact in other publications. In 1991 it was kited in the Washington Post, this time about cattle in need of protection in Maryland. "Folks around here used to paint their cows in deer season," said a quail hunter from Virginia. "They'd take a can of spray paint and write C-O-W in big letters across both sides and leave it there till gun season was over." No further research into the veracity of that claim appeared to have been done by the Washington Post, leaving readers of that particular article with the impression they were staring at a statement of fact rather than a regurgitated piece of lore that has yet to be substantiated.

The "painted cow" story also serves as the set-up for some popular jokes:

"So you painted C-O-W on all yer livestock. Did it help?"

"Ayup. Didn't lose nary a head..."


"But I did get four bullet holes poked inter my John Deere tractor."

Just before hunting season opens, farmer Jones always paints COW on all of the bovines on his farm, including the bulls. As he says, "No use confusing the city folk with details."

Lore about naive hunters bagging the wrong prey surfaces not only as tales in which their mistaken acts are anticipated by stock handlers who take steps to prevent such errors by labeling their cows or horses, but also as after-the-fact accounts wherein brusque game wardens confront inexperienced sportsmen proudly making off with their trophies. This second class of tale also enjoys a lengthy history: the 2003 story about hunters from Massachusetts bagging a "deer" in Maine that turned out to be a cow (quoted above as our example) was noted decades earlier by folklorist Jan Brunvand, who heard it in Utah about a sportsman from California — that fellow had supposedly showed up at a game-checking station with an "elk" shod in horseshoes.

There is a grain of truth to such stories, as every year a few farmers and ranchers in hunting areas lose some of their stock to careless hunters who shoot first and only afterwards trouble themselves about the nature of what they were firing at. It is not that these folks are incapable of distinguishing cows and horses from elk, deer, and moose, but that they act in haste, erroneously concluding that anything that moves and is not wearing an orange vest is game. Lore parts with reality once the kills are made, however — these hunters do not continue to believe they've bagged legitimate game once they see they've downed cows and horses.

Yet in 1999 an exotic beast apparently confused a hunter in Montana who brought down an unusual critter on the Cascade Hutterite Colony near Fort Shaw. Only after he and his partner tagged and field dressed their 300 pound trophy and presented it at the local meat processor's did they begin to suspect all was not as it should have been. The processor refused to handle the carcass, so the befuddled hunters next took the animal to the state-run game check station where they were informed that their "deer" was in fact a llama.

Barbara "a fatal case of moostaken identity" Mikkelson

Last updated:   2 August 2011


    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 138-139).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   "Be Skeptical If You Hear About Hunters Shooting the Bull."

    The San Diego Union-Tribune.   11 June 1987   (p. D2).

    Bussey, John.   "We'll Never Trust Another Photo of a Man Spray Painting His Cow."

    The Wall Street Journal.   15 November 1985   (p. A31).

    Marsano, William.   Man Suffocated By Potatoes.

    New York: Signet, 1987.   (p. 44).

    Phillips, Angus.   "It's a Natural Fact, Toads and Deer Are a Dangerous Mix."

    The Washington Post.   24 November 1991   (p. D20).

    The Associated Press.   "Hunter Shoots Llama Hanging Out With Deer."

    25 October 1999.