DES MOINES, Iowa Just when it looked as if the Missouri State Fair would trump Iowa this year on the scandal scale with a rodeo clown wearing a President Obama mask, the Iowa State Fair grabbed headlines with its hallowed butter cow smeared in fake blood.
Don't worry: The butter cow has been scraped clean, and the Iowa State Patrol is investigating the vandalism.
One of those protest groups for which no membership is verified, calling itself Iowans for Animal Liberation, soaked the cow in red paint early Sunday and smeared the words "Freedom for all" on the viewing window inside the fair's Agriculture Building.
This is what happens when such quirky, unique institutions as the 102-year-old butter cow endure and gain global fame. They're no longer just quaint public art. They attain the status of potential, prominent platform ripe for commentary.
The instant interconnectivity of the Internet age and tsunami of social media means this: The state fair as forum for shrill differences over animal rights, corporate agriculture, water quality or whatever else will become only more of a megaphone.
"That's the equivalent of somebody shooting a bald eagle," farmer Brad Marek of Riverside, Iowa, said Monday at the fair. He and fellow farmer Scott Hansen from Adel were chatting near the milk shake window at the Dairy Barn treat stand.
"It's an insult to agriculture, for sure," Hansen said.
The stated purpose of the vandals apparently was to decry the "11 billion animals murdered each year in slaughterhouses, egg farms and dairies."
"But it's a butter cow," said Sudha Krishnaswamy of Buffalo, N.Y., while standing in full view of the sculpture, incredulous at the news that protesters picked an inanimate figure and a byproduct (butter) that doesn't require killing the animal.
Yes, it probably would have been more precise for the vandals to slather their paint, say, all over the outdoor grills of the Iowa Pork Tent across the street where dead animals are seared daily at a state fair shrine that draws every politician who sets foot on the fairgrounds.
But it wouldn't have delivered their message as effortlessly.
The Des Moines Register skipped its political soapbox this year in this relatively low-key, non-presidential election cycle. Thus the sacred butter cow became the soapbox.
The fair was so swift to clean up the mess in the wee hours Sunday that nobody might have noticed until Iowans for Animal Liberation began e-mailing media later that night, thoughtfully including a photograph of their members' work.
On Monday, the fair's marketing director, Lori Chappell, called the vandalism "sad" but emphasized that nobody was hurt.
Overnight hooligans armed with paint, in the scheme of things, are preferable to a lot of other mischief at an event attended by more than 1 million people annually.
My heart goes out to Sarah Pratt, the chief butter sculptor for her eighth consecutive Iowa State Fair. She doesn't deserve any of this, and as far as I know, preferred to remain quiet Monday and decline comment.
The Midwest Dairy Association, the 10-state industry advocacy group that donates 1,200 pounds of butter for Pratt to sculpt into the cow and other statues, certainly wouldn't touch this issue with a 10-foot stick of butter. They directed all questions back to Chappell.
I had no such problems trolling for opinions on the fairgrounds.
Sen. Chuck Grassley's message to the vandals, via my reporter colleague Jens Manuel Krogstad, probably summed up the majority mood nicely: "Get real."
Even the woman who has run the fair's popular veggie corn dog stand on the Grand Concourse for 32 years, Ruth McCoy, said that it's "terrible that somebody would vandalize something that's there for everybody to view," particularly when you consider all the kids who gawk at the butter cow.
No doubt the pun-loving copy editors and headline writers of the news industry spent Monday salivating over this story.
Iowa politicians scrambled online to capitalize on the issue. Rep. Bruce Braley's folks proposed a #TeamButterCow hashtag, while the Gov. Terry Branstad-Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds re-election Twitter account proclaimed, "I SUPPORT THE BUTTER COW!"
Meanwhile, the fair has promised tighter overnight security for the butter cow, which was accessed by thwarting a lock with a screwdriver. I walked by the back entrance to the butter cooler hallway Monday, where a blue curtain and "authorized personnel only" sign were the visible daytime deterrents besides staffers.
But sometimes the thematic butter sculptures themselves stir controversy without help from vandals.
Memorably, the fair scrapped plans to carve a butter Michael Jackson in 2009 after objections that he wasn't Iowan, wasn't a role model, or was just a tad too creepy in his latter career take your pick.
Last year another anti-meat group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, riled folks and dismantled its booth after fair officials objected to the f-word audible in a 13-minute video of slaughterhouse footage narrated by Beatle Paul McCartney (who wasn't the guy who dropped the f-bomb).
The mere unveiling of a new Cy-Hawk trophy for the Iowa-Iowa State college football game at the 2011 fair rated a minor crisis as fans rejected its design.
After a frisky couple of years of fair controversy then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney's "Corporations are people, my friend" uttered in 2011 on the soapbox, and President Obama's visit last year that shut down businesses in deference to security it was looking like this year might pass with little friction.
Don't forget Hank Williams Jr.'s Grandstand gig last year in which he lambasted Obama as a "Muslim president who hates farming, hates the military, hates the U.S. and we hate him!"
I have to admit that splattered paint might be the more eloquent statement compared to Hank Jr.
"I sure hope they don't come vandalize my cow herd," southeast Iowa farmer Marek said of the Iowans for Animal Liberation after he gave me his bald-eagle quote.
Note that Iowans for Animal Liberation apparently took care not to spatter this year's thematic butter sculpture of President Abe Lincoln. Not even they were stupid enough for that.
Maybe the vandals missed this over the weekend as they lurked inside the Agriculture Building: A "Fruits & Veggies" display just three windows down from the butter cow implores fairgoers to "make half your plate fruits and vegetables."
If that's not the spirit of compromise, I don't know what is.