CHICAGO -- This city's relationship with bovines hasn't always been so cozy.
There was, of course, that mysterious incident in Mrs. O'Leary's barn, with the ensuing fire. And the sprawling South Side stockyards, where thousands of cows, bulls and steers were dispatched to their eternal pastures.
But all of that is forgotten -- at least by humans -- as the city embraces one of its most unusual public art exhibits. More than 300 life-size, fiberglass cows have been painted and planted, sawed and fused, dressed and bejeweled by local artists as part of a display called "Cows on Parade."
The cows can be seen throughout downtown, popping out of flower boxes, meandering down median strips, clambering up skyscrapers and loitering on sidewalks. One is perched atop a tour boat plying the Chicago River, where it passes several times a day under another one, dressed as a city worker with hard hat, rubber boots and orange vest, mounted on a drawbridge.
A winged, jet-engine cow hangs from the ceiling of a terminal at O'Hare International Airport. Three gold-painted cows are stacked one atop the other on the landmark Water Tower. Four purple cows, fashioned into park benches, are clustered in an outdoor plaza beneath the city's trademark Picasso sculpture.
The show, based on a similar one last year in Zurich, Switzerland, began June 15 and has been a hit. People photograph the cows, pet them, talk to them and hoist their children atop them.
Hotels have concocted walking tours and added cow T-shirts to their gift shops. Sales of disposable cameras reportedly have zoomed. The city's main visitor center has had 10,000 visits more than usual each month. They can't keep the cow guides in stock.
"It's pretty amazing," said Michael Lash, Chicago's director of public art, who is overseeing "Cows on Parade." An easel painter by training, he generally is involved in more serious pursuits. A few years ago, for example, he arranged an outdoor exhibit of large bronze sculptures by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. It was well received.
But nothing like the cows.
"There are a lot of psychological factors," he said. "Maybe it's been too hot a summer."
Sometimes, interest in the cows has been excessive. Teams of repairmen are working overtime to patch up over-loved cows and keep them upright until the display ends Oct. 31 and the cows are auctioned for charity.
The ruby-red lips of a Marilyn Monroe cow have had to be repainted twice because so many visitors posed for pictures while kissing her. A prickly bush, planted in front of the cow in hopes of detering the amorous visits, was trampled.
Police have nabbed vandals spray-painting cows, sawing off their horns or trying to tip them over. That's no easy task. Ground-level cows are mounted on 500-pound concrete pedestals.
Eduard Juan, the Swiss consulate general based in Chicago, said the Zurich show of 815 cows was well received, as was a similar display of fiberglass lions a few years earlier. But not like in Chicago.
"It's something that is hard to explain," he said.
Theories abound about why the cows have generated such a reaction. Lash attributes it to the nature of the beast. Cows are friendly, maternal mammals. Their "mooing" is one of the first sounds children are taught.
Whimsy, too, is at work, he said. "There's an immediate breakdown in reality. They catch you off guard. It breaks down your adult barriers and lets you be a kid again."
Mayor Richard M. Daley thinks the appeal is rooted in the resurgence of cities.
"In the past, cities have been a place where you don't want to go. This is where every social problem in the world is, always in the major cities. And now people can come to the city and enjoy it," Daley said.
There is also the city's long association with cows, said Peter Hanig, owner of a chain of upscale shoe stores. He is the one who talked local officials into the cow display after returning from a vacation in Zurich.
"We've been known for it for so long, why not celebrate it?" Hanig said.
At its peak, the Union Stock Yards had 30,000 employees and inspired a poem by Carl Sandburg and novel by Upton Sinclair. The O'Leary cow was for many years blamed -- wrongly, historians now say -- for starting the Chicago fire of 1871.
And the city reveled in the championships of the Bulls of the National Basketball Association.
Justine Kmiecik, a legal secretary, roams downtown during her lunch hour with an Instamatic looking for cows. She has pictures of 120.
"They put a smile on my face. You don't expect them, and you come upon them," said Kmiecik, who lives in suburban Orland Park, Ill.
Planning for the show began last year. Requests for proposals were sent to 10,000 registered artists in the city. About 500 responded with renderings, which were shown to corporations and individuals interested in sponsoring a cow. Most cost sponsors $2,500.
Lash reviewed proposals and matched them with sponsors. Some provided their own "creative agents," which worried Lash. "We didn't want Nike swooshes on them or 'Eat at Joe's,' " he said.
For the most part, he was able to restrain the commercialism, although some cows came close to the edge. For example, there is a green, two-headed one in front of the headquarters of the Wrigley Co., makers of Doublemint gum. And one sponsored by a real estate firm that is called "Mooveena Newhaus." Or the pair decorated as vacation destinations by United Airlines (one in the uniform of a Buckingham Palace guard, complete with a black fur hat).
Commercialism is but one element that has rankled purists.
"I have a real problem with the project because it's presented as public art. In reality, it's a tourism project," said Jackie Terrassa, education director for the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.
"When I think of art, I guess I think of something that is part of a creative process by the artist. Here I think the artists have had to adapt to the medium and the sponsors," Terrassa said. "I guess I think of public art as a little more complex."
The exhibit also masks a drop in support for art in the city, Terrassa said. Some galleries that catered to up-and-coming artists have moved to New York recently, and grants have been harder to come by.
"What frustrates me is to see the amount of money and resources of the city and businesses that are being put into the cow project," she said.
One of the cow artists, Arthur Myer, said, "A lot of people put a lot of thought and effort into it and had a lot of fun. The fact that people can find it enjoyable and interesting is fine."
His cow has a solar panel on its back that charges batteries by day. At night, it glows. He sees great elegance in the biological metaphor of his cow processing sunlight the way real cows do grass.
"It's perfect: a cow that eats light during the day and digests it and at night it glows," he said.
Lash, the city's public art director, said critics are wrong to compare "Cows on Parade" with a traditional, curated show.
"This is supposed to be fun. The people who are uptight are the ones I worry about," he said.
Officials in other cities, including New York, Milwaukee and Toronto, have talked to him about putting on shows (he refers them to the Swiss corporation that makes the cows, trademarked "Cows on Parade," and is marketing them). Iowans want to do the same thing with pigs. Columbus, Ohio, is considering fiberglass trees.
"Art can be and is fun. I don't care if it is high art or low art. I care that people are relating to an art object," Lash said. "That's going to get people into an art museum."
He is also heartened that Chicagoans, long self-conscious about their second-city status, can poke fun at their city's "cow town" image.
"I don't think 20 years ago we could have gotten away with it," Lash said. "But now we can embrace it."