Was a freak spring windstorm behind Charity the chrome cow's demise?
Ontario city ordered removal of controversial cow statue after windstorm downs one of its steel maple leaves
Charity, the larger-than-life stainless steel cow, was the gift an Ontario suburb did not want.
It was a gesture to memorialize "the greatest cow of all time." Instead, it morphed into a year-long battle to remove the sculpture — including a lawsuit — involving residents, the city of Markham, Ont., and the developer behind the unsolicited present. In the end, an unexpected windstorm may have been Charity's downfall.
Danny Da Silva, an outspoken critic of the chrome cow, moved to Cathedraltown in 2014, drawn by its peacefulness to raise his young daughter.
He and his wife, Joanna, were particularly pleased to have found a house on Charity Crescent, a collection of two-storey houses around a parkette.
"One of the reasons why I moved here was because of the quietness of the area and especially the park," Da Silva said.
But one morning in July 2017, trucks and heavy machinery appeared in the parkette.
By the time Da Silva got home from work, a seven-metre sculpture had been installed: a life-sized cow on stilts by renowned Ontario artist Ron Baird.
"In the middle of our once-quiet parkette, two storeys up in the air, was this very large cow," Da Silva said. "We didn't really know what to make of it."
A sign installed nearby — the only explanation the neighbours had — said the sculpture was "to commemorate an internationally award-winning Holstein cow that was raised on Romandale Farm." That land is now Cathedraltown.
Cow never 'set hoof' in Markham
A few weeks after the sculpture appeared, Toronto Star reporter Noor Javed discovered the history of Charity the cow, as told by the city, wasn't quite accurate.
Javed called up Ken Trevena, a farmer in Port Perry, Ont., who she heard had taken care of Charity in the 1980s.
"I asked him if Charity had ever set hoof in Markham, and he said, no."
Cathedraltown developer Helen Roman-Barber commissioned and donated the sculpture specifically for Charity Crescent. Her father, Stephen Roman, had purchased a half-interest in the grand champion cow in 1984, Trevana said. But Charity stayed under his care at Hanover Hill Farm in Port Perry.
Charity is the "greatest cow of all time," Trevana said, and the only cow he ever gave a proper burial. She was named grand champion at the Royal Agricultural Fair four times.
Would you change the Mona Lisa because you didn't like the look on her face?- Helen Roman-Barber, Cathedraltown developer and donor
Her gravestone is on Hanover Hill Farm beside the field where she took her last steps.
"I'd call her a stylish cow," he said. "She was very graceful [and] held her head up nice."
Sculpture's donor refused moving it
The statue's agricultural and artistic pedigrees aside, Da Silva and his neighbours nonetheless wanted it gone.
They worried about how the sculpture would affect their property values. What if one of the sharp metal maple leaves around the cow's neck wiggled loose and impaled a child or a dog playing below?
They started making calls to their city councillor.
In the beginning, the neighbours were open to finding a compromise, such as lowering the cow to the ground or removing the sharp metal leaves around its neck.
But both options were a no-go for Roman-Barber.
"That's why it's called Charity Crescent," she said. "That crescent and all this land was originally owned by our family."
She also vetoed modifying the sculpture.
"Would you change the Mona Lisa because you didn't like the look on her face?"
Neighbours take fight to city hall
On Sept. 25, 2017, Da Silva and his neighbours gave deputations to Markham's Development Services Committee.
They presented several photos of the cow, including from the vantage point of their second-storey windows.
In some of those homes, the blinds in children's bedrooms were permanently closed, "because they don't want to see the cow staring at them when they're sleeping," Da Silva said.
After hearing the residents' deputations, the committee voted to remove the sculpture.
And in October, Markham city council ratified that decision.
July 2017: Chrome statue of Charity the cow goes up on Charity Crescent in Cathedraltown, Ont., donated by the suburb's developer Helen Roman-Barber.
Sept. 25, 2017: Cathedraltown residents present deputations to the city of Markham for the statue to be removed. The Development Services Committee votes in their favour.
Oct. 17, 2017: Markham city council ratifies decision to remove Charity, saying it'll remain on site until a new home can be found.
March 2018: Roman-Barber's company sues the city of Markham for breach of the donation agreement to the tune of up to $3 million.
April 4, 2018: A violent windstorm blows one of the sharp, stainless steel maple leaves from the wreath around Charity's neck. It lands in the parkette.
April 24, 2018: Markham city council votes to remove Charity within 10 days.
May 16, 2018: Charity leaves Charity Crescent and returns to the donor until a new home is found for her — one in which "she'll be loved and adored."
The plan was for the cow to remain on site only until a suitable alternative location could be found.
The residents of Charity Crescent thought they had won.
Donor goes to court
But removing the sculpture wasn't as simple as returning it to Roman-Barber.
Unlike public art that is commissioned by the city, Charity was an outright gift.
A contract between Roman-Barber's company and Markham stipulated that the city would only take full ownership of the sculpture once installation was complete. The base of the sculpture was still unfinished.
The sculpture stayed up throughout the fall and into 2018.
In March, developer Romandale Farms Ltd. filed a lawsuit against Markham for breach of the donation agreement, seeking up to $3 million in damages.
It was now looking like the cow would be up for at least as long as the issue was before the courts.
Mother Nature intervenes
It also downed one of the metal leaves from the wreath around Charity's neck.
The neighbours immediately called city staff.
The city erected a security fence around the sculpture. An engineer found that the welding on 20 to 25 per cent of the remaining leaves was insufficient.
On April 24, 2018, Markham city council voted to remove the sculpture within 10 days.
Roman-Barber's company filed a motion for an injunction to stop the removal of the sculpture while the lawsuit was still before the courts.
That motion was rejected by Ontario Superior Court Justice Andras Shreck on May 2.
In his decision, Justice Shreck wrote: "The residents of Markham have stated, through their elected representatives, that they do not want the gift that Romandale wishes to bestow on them. A true philanthropist respects the wishes of those he or she wishes to benefit."
Two weeks later, Charity left Charity Crescent.
A team of workers separated the cow's hoofs from the stilts. They slung straps under her reflective belly, and a crane lifted her through the air onto a waiting flatbed truck.
For now, Charity is in storage with Roman-Barber.
Her main criteria for Charity's new home is somewhere she will be truly appreciated.
"There are people who would just give their eye teeth to have Charity," she said. "I think Charity needs to go somewhere where she's loved and adored."
After nearly a year, Da Silva and his neighbours were happy to see her go.
"Now we've got our neighbourhood back."
Listen to the documentary "Charity the Cow" by clicking the Listen link at the top of this page. Or download and subscribe to our podcast so you never miss a show.
About the producer
Her audio documentaries have won an RTDNA Adrienne Clarkson Award for Diversity Reporting and she has been a finalist for a Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) Broadcast Feature Award. Her documentary films have screened in festivals around the world. She teaches multimedia reporting and audio documentary at the Ryerson School of Journalism.
This documentary was edited by Acey Rowe with additional reporting by Noor Javed.