Does the color red really make bulls mad?

Does the color red really make bulls mad?

The crowd goes quiet; you could hear a pin drop. The bull stamps its feet, and everyone holds their breath. Finally the bullfighter twirls his red cape about and the beast starts charging, rushing right for the bright red.

At the last instant the bullfighter swishes the cloth away and the bull charges right past him, angrier than ever, just as the crowd lets out a deafening roar.

Source: Fran HoganSource: Fran Hogan

Bullfights are exciting, and people from all over the world watch them each year, particularly in Spain. The encierro, or bullring, draws hundreds of spectators ready to watch this exciting and often controversial sport that can trace its history back through the centuries.

But what is really known about bullfighting? For instance, is red really the reason that bulls charge at bullfighters? Many people think so, but unfortunately this is just not the case.

Read on for a history of bullfighting and common myths and misperceptions revealed!

History of Bullfighting

Bullfighting has a long and complex history, and it didn’t originate in Spain, the country we so often associate with bullfighting today.

The sport has its origins in ancient Mesopotamia and around the Mediterranean. Greece and Rome got into the act not long after, and both cultures often practiced sacrificing their animals.

Bullfighting became linked with religious festivals and even weddings during the Middle Ages in Europe. The chivalric class of knights began to fight and duel one another, often as a way to both practice for battle and entertain their countrymen. Oftentimes this could result in injury or even death for the combatants, something any king looking to send his best fighters off into battle wouldn’t have been happy to see.

Perhaps that’s why in Spain the decided to fight bulls instead of each other. The first bullfight took place in Spain in 1726 and the bullfighter was Francisco Romero. It quickly grew in popularity, not just the fight but the fighting style.

The Bullfighter’s Cape

It’s not until the final round of the bullfight, or the “third of death” (tercio de muerte) as it’s called, that the bullfighter comes back into the ring wearing his red cape. This red cape is then hung from a stick, called a muleta, and is different from the cape that the bullfighter wore when he first entered the ring, which is usually colored gold or tan and is called the capote de brega.

The reason the cape is hanging from the muleta is so that the bullfighter can twirl it about easily. You see, it’s not the color of the cape that’s angering the bull, but the fast movements of the cape by the bullfighter. Bulls are colorblind. They can’t see red so there’s no reason for them to get agitated by it.

Red has traditionally been used as a color for the bullfighter’s cape because it’s the best at masking blood. Remember, the bullfight always ends in death, most commonly that of the bull but every once in a while that of some unlucky matador. A red cape just makes it a little easier for them to turn their eyes back to the spectacle.

If the bullfighter wants to live he has to know the many different varieties of ways to use his cape to good effect. For instance, he may start out with the veronica, a swing of the cape that attracts the bull to charge right through it while the bullfighter keeps his feet planted. The bullfighter will do a series of these fanciful movements and gestures, both wooing the crowd and tiring out the bull so it’s easier to kill.

That’s the sole job of the matador – to kill the bull. Matador means ‘killer’ and they do a good job of it. The final cape wave is called the faena and this is when the bullfighter stabs his sword down into the heart of the bull as it passes by, or failing that, severs its spinal cord on the next pass.

Bulls and Color

Now, remember that bulls are color blind. The red of a cape has nothing to do with them charging, it’s the movement of the cape that angers them.

To test out this hypothesis the Discovery Channel show MythBusters did a series of color experiments with bulls. They first put out colored flags – red, white, and blue – and saw the bull charge at all of them. After that they tried putting some dummies into the pen with the bull, each dressed in different colored clothes, again red, white and blue.

Not surprisingly, the bull charged at all three dummies, but perhaps what was a little humorous is that the dummy dressed in red was charged last.

Bulls are color blind and have dichromacy, and are thus dichromats. What this means is that they have two types of color receptors, cone cells, which function to only give them two colors – black and white. People, and many other creatures as well, are thrichromats, which allows us to see all the colors of the rainbow.

Dichromancy occurs when one cone pigment is missing, thus making it so colors can only appear in two ranges, black and white. But that doesn’t stop them from seeing movement, and it’s this that bulls are zeroing in on, not the color of the cape.

As you can see, bullfighting is quite complex and there are a lot of misperceptions about it. While it’s true that the sport may not be for everyone, it does have a long cultural tradition in Spain and other countries and will likely continue for some time to come.

Further reading – Bullfighting
webEcoist – How Do they See? Views Through the Eyes of 7 Animals – Bullfighting terms
PETA – Bullfighting: A Tradition of Tragedy