Do Bulls Hate the Color Red, and Does It Really Make Them Angry?

Illustration of angry bull on red background

Even if you’ve never seen a charging bull in real life, you probably know the stereotype: bulls hate red. It seems logical because bulls are only shown running at red fabric, and they look furious. Yet, there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye.

So, do bulls really hate red, or is it just for show? This article will discuss how bulls feel about red and how they perceive colors.

When Are Red Capes Used for Bulls?

In cartoons, bulls are often seen charging at red capes in rage. Those actions didn’t come out of nowhere. They happen in real-life bullfights, but unfortunately, the actual tradition isn’t as amusing as what the media shows us.

Bullfighting started in Spain in 711 A.D. The first bullfight was held as an event during King Alfonso VIII’s coronation, but it became a tradition after that. Over time, other countries picked up the tradition, despite its inhumane nature. Back then, animal welfare wasn’t as big of a concern.

In bullfights, a person known as a matador holds a red cape called a “muleta” in front of a bull. They wave the muleta to get the bull to charge at it. The “fight” ends when the matador kills the bull.

Bullfighting is used as a cruel form of entertainment. In medieval times, it was thought of as a noble sport that wealthy people enjoyed watching. Today, it’s not quite as popular. Over the years, controversy against this event has become more common, and many people are begging for it to become illegal everywhere.

In most places, bullfighting is already illegal, but in some countries where it’s a popular tradition, it remains legal. In Spain, bullfighting is still very popular despite the controversy. France, Portugal, and Mexico are a few other countries that allow it in certain areas of the country, particularly in areas that bring in large crowds for it.

Do Bulls Hate the Color Red?

Illustration of bull and matador with red cape

There’s a common misconception that bulls charge at the muleta because it’s red. Research shows that color doesn’t impact whether or not a bull will charge at a cape. Instead, it’s just an old stereotype that has been spread over the years.

In a 2007 Mythbusters episode, they tested the myth that bulls hate red. They conducted a series of tests using flags of different colors at the same time, and the bulls didn’t favor red over the other colors. They usually charged at all the flags one at a time. In some tests, they even charged at the red option last. So, using red muletas is more for the tradition rather than the bull’s reaction.

Why Do They Charge at Red Capes?

The waving motion of the flag is likely what causes the bull to charge more than the color itself. The fact that it’s an object that stands out in an unfamiliar area might also provoke them. Bulls may see the flag as threatening, so that’s why they run at it.

Bulls often have some aggression, so it’s not hard to get them to charge. In captivity, they normally require an experienced handler who knows how to avoid provoking them. Yet, in bullfighting, the matador specifically tries to get them to charge, and waving a cape seems to do the trick.

In the Mythbusters episode, the bulls charged at several colors whether they were stationary, moving, or on a dummy. Bulls charge with intent, so they likely saw those flags as threatening whether they were moving or not.

What Makes Bulls Aggressive?

All bulls have some natural aggression, but they are most likely to act out in stressful situations. Bulls have higher hormone levels and are more territorial than cows. They’re usually less socialized than cows since they can’t be raised domestically for milk. People generally raise bulls for breeding and meat only.

Bulls are herd animals naturally, so if they’re raised with other cattle, they’re less likely to act out. When they’re isolated, small things are more likely to irritate them. Bulls living in solitude are the most likely to charge at red capes (or any colored capes).

Are Bulls Colorblind?

Colorful abstract illustration of bull

Not only are bulls indifferent about cape colors, but they don’t see the same colors we do. Bulls aren’t entirely colorblind, but like other mammals, they can’t see all colors equally.

The Science Behind a Bull’s Vision

Humans have three cone cells in the retina: red, green, and blue. According to studies, cattle only have two, and red is the one that’s missing. Animals who only have two cone cells are known as “dichromats.”

To bulls, a red cape probably looks yellowish-gray. Nearly all mammals are incapable of seeing red, so the bull’s vision isn’t uncommon.

Each cone responds to the main color the most, but it can help the eyes respond to similar colors too. To create colors outside of red, green, and blue, our eyes use combinations of those primary colors.

So, any colors that normally need red may not be as vibrant for bulls. For example, red and green cone cells make yellow, so without red, yellow won’t look exactly the same as humans see it.

What Colors Can Bulls See?

Besides not seeing red, a bull’s vision isn’t all that different from a human’s. Like dogs, yellow and blue are the colors that appear most vibrant to them. Purple, black, and gray are some other colors that bulls can see somewhat well.

What Colors Can’t Bulls See?

Bulls can’t see any shades of red. They can have a hard time perceiving similar colors too, such as pink and orange. It’s unclear how they perceive red, but it probably appears black or gray to them, possibly with a hint of yellow.

Even though bulls have green and blue cone cells, they may still be partially colorblind to green, causing them to have a hard time distinguishing red from green.

Contrast and Depth Perception

While bulls can see many colors except red, their eyes are more sensitive. Sudden changes between light and dark can bother their eyes, so a darkly painted object in front of a white background can be difficult for them to process. Thus, the colors around the red cape could make them more upset.

You may see bulls avoiding water with bright reflections or shadows cast by buildings. Their inability to understand contrast means they have bad depth perception, so they may see a large shadow as a hole in the ground. They may also be reluctant to enter a fenced-in area if a shadow is cast across the entrance. They’re most likely to be stressed in areas with bad lighting.

If you’re raising bulls, it’s best to give their environment a consistent color scheme to avoid causing stress and aggression. If the fence of their enclosure is much brighter than the area behind it, the bulls may act out.

Why Is Red So Hard to See?

Red colored light in the dark

Not only is red not distinguishable to most mammals, but it’s also the hardest color for humans to perceive in dim lighting. When you look at the visible spectrum, red has the longest wavelengths, which means it has the least energy.

When lights dim, the cone cells in the retinas becomes less effective. Since the color red is on the end of the spectrum, it’s the first color our eyes stop perceiving. Animals with worse eyesight than us, such as bulls, can’t distinguish red even when the lighting is better.

What Animal Has the Best Color Vision?

All types of cattle have bad vision, and besides humans, mammals can’t see a wide range of colors in general. However, some animals have better color vision than humans. Some types of birds and butterflies can see more colors than we can, making our vision seem as bad as a bull’s through their eyes.

Bluebottle butterflies are the species with the best color vision as far as we’re aware. We rely on red, green, and blue cones to perceive colors, but bluebottle butterflies have 15 types of cone receptors in their eyes, some of which are on the UV spectrum.

Another close contender is the mantis shrimp because they have 16 different photoreceptor types. However, studies show that they can’t differentiate between some colors with similar wavelengths, so just because their eyes are built for more colors doesn’t mean they can see those colors better.

Steers vs. Bulls

Closeup of Spanish fighting bull in a grass field

Steers and bulls are both names for male cattle. The term steer refers to young, neutered male cattle that are raised for beef rather than breeding. Bulls are male cattle left intact so they can reproduce. Young bulls are called bull calves until they get fixed, then they become steers.

Heifers vs. cows is a similar situation. Heifers are young female cattle that have not given birth before. Then, cow usually refers to female cattle that have given birth and are used for breeding.

Bulls Don’t Care About the Color Red

In conclusion, bulls cannot see the color red and will likely charge at any object that provokes them. Red is the cape color that’s always used because it’s a recognizable part of the tradition, not because it angers bulls more or less.

The tradition of bullfighting has been around for over a thousand years, so it has a long history that many people aren’t ready to let go of. Yet, times have changed drastically since then, and overall, animals are treated more humanely today. So, animal advocates continue to speak out against bullfighting in hopes that it will one day be illegal everywhere.