Cow Fighting

But, Usually, the Contestants Seem to Prefer Ruminating To Serious Head- Butting

MARTIGNY, Switzerland--Moooooove over, Toro.

Let the Spaniards have their bullfights. Here in the Alps, the whimsical Swiss have their cows lock horns. King of the beasts these critters aren't, but the most belligerent bovines do win a prized title: "Queen of the Alps."

Those who believe all that bull about cows being docile have never met Junon of Conthey. Seven-months pregnant, mud-spattered and inclined to drool, she doesn't strike a menacing pose. But don't let that fool you. Junon is a queen, a half-ton fighting machine.

"She wants to fight," says Gerard Evequoz, who spoils her with white wine. "When I come to get her in the morning, she knows she's going to fight. For her, it's a pleasure."

Grazin' for a Bruisin'

Actually, the supreme pleasure seems to be that of the owners and spectators. The contestants, for the most part, find the whole thing pointless. Even the fighting Swiss cows, with names like Samantha, Dolly, Venus, Coquette and Fanny, give the impression they would rather graze than brawl.

"A cow is a peaceful animal--there is absolutely no killer instinct, no anger at all," says Luzius Theler, a cow-fight enthusiast who runs a small newspaper near here. In the arena they need prodding, and even then, the result is a lot like Monty Python's soccer game between German and Greek philosophers: lots of ruminating, very little action.

A typical fight at the October championship in Martigny goes something like this: A dozen pregnant cows enter the circular arena to duke it out. Cow No. 112 (Capion) wanders over to gaze into the press gallery. Cow No. 122 (Medaillon) eats some grass. Five minutes pass. Cow No. 106 (Java) charges toward cow No. 125 (Gitane), who drools and walks away. Cow No. 118 (Tigresse) strolls over to the sidelines to take some bread from her owner. The crowd of 6,000 is very quiet. Medaillon, apparently bored with the whole thing, tries to step over the rope and quit the contest.

If a cow refuses to fight when challenged, retreats or just doesn't have the stomachs for it, she is eliminated. Sometimes, all the cows in a ring will fight, mooing and kicking earth to impress one another, then locking horns and pushing. But at other times, they exhibit palpable ennui.

Manicured Horns

Unlike bullfighting, which exploits the male animal's aggressive instincts by antagonizing him, cows don't kill or seriously hurt anybody, not even one another. Veterinarians file the cows' horns before a fight if they are too sharp. It's hard to provoke an unwilling cow to fight. Lst year, some Austrian animal lovers came to protest the cow fight but, when they saw one, withdrew their objections.

The cow fight nevertheless evokes strong passions among the Swiss, who, during fights, are considerably more animated than the animals. Here in the Valais canton, with a long dairy-farming history, a cow owner is so close to his cow that "he thinks through his animals," says Yvonne Preiswerk, University of Geneva anthropologist and author of the book "The Land Where Cows Are Queens." Cow fights are used "to resolve conflicts between people."

When a cow named Bijou wins a big fight at the Martigny competition, her trainer bends down and kisses her on her frothing mouth. Owner Rene Dubuis says of his 1,300 pound cow, Promesse: "She's like my wife. If I have a problem with my wife, I go to the cow." Mr. Dubuis exercises with Promesse and feeds her a secret recipe of herbs and grains. The cow answers to her name. As Mr. Dubuis talks before the Martigny cow fight, he pours some wine for himself and feeds Promesse a piece of cake. "She's mad about sweets," he says.

Coveted Calves

Farmers also get excited about their queens because the calf of a bell-winner (the prizes are cowbells) can sell for nearly $25,000--10 times the going price of an ordinary calf. So fierce is the competition that two years ago a queen named Samba was attacked and beaten while grazing in the mountains. Many here suspect rival cow owners.

Cow-fighting tournaments began around 1920, but cows, docile as they are, actually were skirmishing casually and intramurally long before that. When females leave the stables for the mountains each spring, they compete to see who will lead the herd, in a series of fights rather like shoving matches. The hardy Swiss breed of Herens, short and black with white horns, are particularly feisty.

Spirits are high at the fall final in Martigny, billed as the "grand combat de reines [queens]." The cows have just returned from the Alps for the winter, and the queens have come to do battle at Martigny's Roman amphitheater. Spectators paying $8 a ticket cause a traffic jam in the village. A din of cowbells fills the air, cow droppings surround the amphitheater. Venders sell wine and sausages (no beef, they promise). "It's in the atmosphere, not the sport" that brings out the proud Swiss crowd, explains Oliver Bonvin, who came to watch the fight with his wife and children.

Cattle Prodders

The morning preliminaries are relatively sedate, requiring rabatteurs to come in. Men with sticks, the rabatteurs nudge the cows when they refuse to fight, and make sure coes don't gang up on one another.

But in the afternoon finals, the cows do come in fighting. The 170 entrants compete in five categories, according to weight and age (after 12 years, even the proudest queen becomes hamburger). In the heavyweight class (Over 1,300 pounds), the fighting is so intense at one point that two cows push each other from the ring, knocking over posts and video cameras.

In the finals of the third category--middleweight by cow standards, but 1,100 pounds nonetheless--the crowd roars as Junon, wearing No. 46, clashes with a cow named Reveil, No. 92. Junon tries to impress Reveil by kicking up dirt and letting loose a savage moo. Unmoved, Reveil turns to give Junon a head- butt. Cowbells clanging, the two cows joust, push and rest against each other like boxers in a clinch. Her eye bleeding, Junon launches a final charge that forces Reveil to retreat. Junon is the queen.

Mr. Evoquoz leaps into the air, shaking his fist. He takes the first-place cowbell from the judges and flashes a broad smile for the photographers. As the fans cheer and throw confetti, man and beast take a victory lap. Boasts Mr. Evequoz: "She's the best in the Valais."