We’ve all seen a bull run from the flapping cape of a bullfighter. Since it’s always a red cape, bulls must be running from the color, right? That’s what we’re led to believe, but it’s not the color red that bulls are charging at. Their pawing and snorting behavior has a much more violent purpose.

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Why Do Bulls Charge?

Bulls charge at bullfighters because they’re irritated by the flapping of the cape, not because the cape is red. In fact, they can’t even see the color red. Cattle are colorblind. The bull would charge at any flapping fabric that was irritating it, regardless of the color. Basically, what bulls react to is movement.

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Why Is a Bullfighter’s Cape Always Red?

This is where the more sinister part of the story comes into play. Bullfighters — or matadors, as they are referred to in Spain — use a red cape for a reason. The cape is called a muleta and is only used in the final third of a bullfight. It’s used to hide the matador’s sword, which they use to pierce the bull while it charges past. The cape is red to mask the bloodstains from the encounter.

What Colors Do Bulls See?

Bulls, like other ungulates (hooved animals), have dichromatic vision. Their eyes only have two varieties of cone cells. These are the cells in the retina that detect color. One cone cell, the S-cone, is sensitive to detecting blue and violet light. The other cone cell perceives varying wavelengths of yellow and green light. Note that neither of the cone cells contained in a bull’s eye can perceive red light.

So, bulls can see some colors, particularly shades of blue, purple, green, and yellow. They have also been shown to distinguish between colors, including red, but they don’t see red as we do. They may see it slightly purple-tinged or even grey. There’s no way to truly know how the color red appears to a bull.

The Discovery Channel show, “MythBusters,” addressed this question in a 2007 episode to see if bulls charged at red more frequently than other colors. The experiment had bulls charge at three dummies wearing red, blue, and white. The bulls showed no preference toward the red dummy and charged at all of them with equal vengeance.

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Bullfighting Bulls Are Bred Selectively

Bulls as a whole are fairly calm by nature. It’s not that they’re never aggressive, because they can be, but most are content to be left alone. They don’t have lifelong goals of attacking people, and as long as you stay out of their way, they will stay out of yours.

The bullfighting industry uses bulls that are selectively bred for their aggressive tendencies. What this means is that they’ve taken bulls that are naturally aggressive and bred them to make more aggressive bulls. They are also conditioned to be aggressive by their handlers in an effort to be more entertaining. No one goes to see a bullfight with a bull that just stands there.

As with most animals, bulls become aggressive when provoked, which is exactly what a bullfighter does. They poke them, run at them, and flap capes in front of their noses, leading to a defensive reaction from the bull. Combine that with an animal bred specifically for aggression, and you have a stomping, snorting, charging beast.

Whether this is an ethical practice is a hot topic of debate. Regardless of how you feel about it, most bulls don’t behave the same way as bulls in the fighting ring.

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Final Thoughts

Bulls don’t charge at the color red; they charge at movement. If you were to stand still in a red suit while someone in a white suit ran past you, a bull would charge the moving person in a white suit. The bulls that are used in bullfights are specifically bred for their aggressive tendencies, so not all bulls will charge, stomp, and snort just because you’re nearby. Bulls are colorblind to a certain extent. They have only two-color receptors in their eyes and can see shades of blue, violet, yellow, and green.

Featured Image Credit: Piqsels