Ask not for whom cowbells toll, they toll for tourists

To many a tourist, tinkling cowbells are not only irresistibly pleasing, they are just plain irresistible. So there was nothing unusual in the recent capture by alert Swiss legal officers of a German citizen about to slip across the border with loot from an angry farmer's cowshed - a fine example of a Swiss cow's pride and joy, her bell.

A local newspaper headlined its report on this significant event: ''The Season Has Opened.'' The season is the cowbell hunt.

Each summer cheeky visitors to Switzerland, bent on possessing a cowbell with a real cow's scent, not one of those new, shiny ones from a shop, sneak across meadows to snatch the desired object from an unsuspecting animal's neck or steal into the stable for the same questionable purpose.

Though no federal statistics are kept on the number of bells stolen, the central Swiss canton of Uri alone records up to 10 such cases in the tourist months each year.

Bruno Epp, a cowbell manufacturer in the village of Schattdorf, is bent on luring as many tourists as possible to legitimate ways of acquiring a cowbell. He lends new bells to local farmers so they can acquire the right smell before sale.

''It is the cow aroma the delinquent tourists want,'' says Mr. Epp, who issues a receipt with these smelly bells so customs officers do not get the wrong idea and suddenly arrest an unwitting buyer.

A Uri police spokesman declared the cowbell craze ''a problem,'' adding that the captured German tourist was slapped with a $10 fine plus police costs. Why not worse? ''This particular bell was not that expensive and the man thought that he was just collecting a souvenir.''

Carl Schillig, Uri district attorney, uses a less understanding tone: ''I think it is absolutely miserable to steal a cowbell from a mountain farmer.''

Respectably sized cowbells cost anywhere from $40 to $300, and old examples of particular beauty are valued at more than $1,000. But covet one of those and the fine would be a hefty increase of $10.

Zurich Prof. Arnold Niederer, one of Switzerland's foremost folklore experts, points out that cowbells have been stolen as long as there have been tourists. He is quick to add that cowbells are not only a tradition, but also serve a practical purpose, helping the farmer to find stray animals.

And they continue to be prestige symbols in the Swiss farmers' ceremonial life, he says. At the end of June, when farmers in the rural canton of Appenzell drive their cattle up the mountains to high Alpine pastures, the cows don their most glamorous bells - big, shiny, heavy, and hanging from a richly embroidered, leather neckband.

Country furniture and native art from the region record the proud march up the slopes to the orchestrated sound of the aristocratic cowbells.

In the French-speaking canton in the mountainous Valais, a special breed of cows, the Eringer, fight it out in a local festival to see who gets the crown. It is, of course, a gigantic cowbell. When the winner strides away with that bell swinging, no watcher can doubt that this is an animal that knows it's the best.

To keep his cowbells out of tourist hands, many a Swiss farmer has prepared for summer by reinforcing their leather neckbands with a wire that cannot be cut easily.

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