Bull-Running: Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

(If this video cannot be seen in your region, you can able see the longer version here, or the dramatic closing seconds of it here.)

Although I am something a beginner when it comes to running on the streets of Pamplona – eight times and counting – I do know a little something about bulls and a little something about animal behaviour – I’ve fought the former and studied the latter. So I was sent this clip from the recent BBC TV series Frozen Planet, I thought what a useful study it was of running bulls such as is done in the streets of Pamplona every July for the past half-millenium.

One thing I observed while studying footage of the Spanish toros bravos, the Spanish fighting bull, in Pamplona – there is no time to study when running – is that they have a three-stage stampede psychology. I know that this is generating a theory with very little testing, but it seems to hold.

First, there is the sort of head-down stampede, which is personified by the large bull-bison at the end of this footage, and also by the young and females of the herd under attack from the wolves. This I believe is the mindset of the majority of bulls run in the streets of Pamplona: stick to the herd, keep going straight and ignore distraction – or jump over it, or knock it out of the way. What is more, fighting bulls have not seen a man on the ground before, and have no evolved instinct to fear man in particular – unlike with wolves, the ancestral enemy of bison and aurochs, the forefather of all ‘cattle’ from the toro bravo to the black and white Frisian-Holsteins, which is why most attacks on humans by dairy and meat cattle are when they are accompanied by dogs. As far as the bulls of Pamplona in this state know, the strange bipeds are running away from the same threat they are, like zebra and antelope stampeding alongside African buffalo. Knocks and jabs are merely to clear the path or chivvy a fellow stampedee, not put down a foe.

However, you can also observe in footage of the encierro in Pamplona, and in those bison catching up with the herd whilst passing the wolves attached to the young bison, the “hunting horn”. This is my own shorthand for the sort of punchy hooking at nearby objects, performed while maintaining a forwards motion. It is as much a threat as an attack, and the real danger to a runner is that he will end up attached to the bull through this passing jab, who will then have to stop and deal with the problem properly. Which is why runners must not wear belts, wear white trousers and a white t-shirt or shirt that will rip, and tie their faja, the red sash, and panuela, the red neckerchief in slipknots.

Which leads me to the third, final, and fatal-for-some mind-set of the ‘lone bull’. Note that with the bison, you can see the dominant bulls peeling off to turn and face the wolves, anger overtaking fear, something I have witnessed first hand riding with Don Álvaro Domecq on his ranch Los Alburejos, where the Torrestrella bulls are bred.

Photo by Nicolás Haro (Click to enlarge)

In the photo you can see one of the farmhands having to dance his horse out, lance ready like a picador, as a bull breaks from the herd to take a shot at the horses who are herding him and whom he has now decided are predators. After he did this, another bull joined him, and led us all a merry and extremely dangerous chase…

A suelto, or ‘loose one’, as they are called in Pamplona more often than not has this psychological state forced upon him by falling and losing sight of his herd among the human runners. However, once in that state, once the attack-switch has been flicked, then God be with those who surround him. For while he may not have been the lider, the ‘alpha’ bull in his herd, when standing alone he has by default just become Number One in his world. And everyone around is now a wolf to him…

The Editor

P.S. Just as the horse in the picture below is ten times the bullfighter I am, some of you reading will be ten times the bullrunners. Please feel free to comment below. I am learning…

P.P.S. And if you have not already, read my book about my two years in Spain, including running in Pamplona and training and performing as a bullfighter: Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, which has just been shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Books Of The Year Award 2011. Details here.

Photo by Nicolás Haro

About fiskeharrison

English author and journalist, broadcaster and conservationist. Author of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, shortlisted for Sports Book Of The Year 2011. Editor & Co-Author of Fiesta: How To Survive The Bulls Of Pamplona. Author of 'The Unbroken', finalist for Le Prix Hemingway 2016
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20 Responses to Bull-Running: Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

  1. Excellent points all around, especially how the stampeding runners in the Pamplona’s encierros, to the bulls, are escaping the same dangers and fears they are. Well put. That way the runners are as well involved in a massive ‘herd instinct’ action, which we all know to be true. Strange, bu thre video won’t open on my browser due to a conflict in the country I live in. Saludos.

    • Thanks Jim. You might want to try the two links I put in brackets after the embedded film. You should be able to watch at least one where you are… Apologies for BBC licensing (as a license-payer!). Xander

  2. Yoey Spicehandler says:

    Absolutely fascinating!Now that you mention this, I see the behavior so clearly.
    Have always had a fascination about bulls and wolves. Never knew about their ancient relationship. Makes sense.
    Could not open the video either.

  3. LEROY says:

    I’ve run with the bulls and I have hunted buffalo ……….your insights are right on.

  4. Buffalo-Bill says:

    Great post and video. Of course you know the guy doing the voice-over hahah. You’re something else Xander! I do feel however that human’s are natural predators of Bison and Bulls. Native Americans hunted Bison up until fairly recent years. Yet, I agree that when the heard is in its head-down stampede-mindset we are a probably seen as prey evading the same danger. I guess human’s are both prey and predators; hunter-gatherers. Interesting points Xander…

    • Thanks Bill. And I agree. The point in terms of the bovine mind, though, is that they haven’t had time to evolve an instinctive dislike and response, we’ve only encountered aurochs for a hundred thousand years, and bison for a fifth of that – eyeblinks in evolutionary terms. Wolves and aurochs & bison have been slugging it out for millions of years (and African buffalo with hunting dogs and hyenas for as long). Un abrazo mozo, Xander

      • Buffalo-Bill says:

        Abrazo Xander! You’ve got me researching now, buddy. I’ve found some academic support that Homo Erectus corral-hunted big-game during the Acheulean tool tradition. That would put it at somewhere around 1.7 Million years back. There is some opposition too. Do you know of any good books on Pre-historic hunting evolution? Thanks, you’ve got me all fired up on this topic now.

  5. Bill, you’re quite right to pick me up, I was being slack. The ancestors of Homo sapiens sapiens would not have met the ancestors of the relevant aurochs branches because we were in sub-Saharan Africa, outside their range, but Homo erectus off-shoots and other hominids would have come across them over the millennia. I just don’t think they would have done so in large enough numbers, and regularly enough, for them to have evolved a response to the ‘upright ape’ body-plan. Whereas, given how 99% of aurochs would have been killed over a much longer period, there is a clear selective pressure towards spotting and reacting to the canid and large felid shape. I have read ethologists on how bad lions are at attacking the upright human form and they’ve been with us since we were in the trees! (Leopards have spent far longer conflicting with baboons and thus know how to attack it.) The way bulls try to hook the torero between his legs, indicates a strategy against a four-legged opponent – going for the soft-underbelly. Were humans within their defensive repertoire, they would aim higher for our visceral mass too. This is all speculation of course… And I’d just be interested to learn more about it on the man side of the equation.
    Re: research on hunting… I’d head for the bibliography of the relevant chapter of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution. I did this as undergraduate in ’94-’96 and I know it’s moved on (especially now they are looking harder following Katharine Milton of UC Berkeley’s research on the necessity of meat for brain-size). In my day it was still Richard Leakey and Donald Johanson…
    Abrazos, Xander

    • Buffalo-Bill says:

      Interesting about the Leopards. I’ve watched a lot of film on big-cat attacks on hunters. The only near successful one was a Leopard which went directly for the chest and sank its teeth. Missed the guy’s heart by centimeters. Supposedly they then claw your stomach and spill your intestines. Lions seem to want to knock the hunter’s down with a blow from their paws which works but is less direct. I’ll check out the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution, thanks. I do believe that hunting is a main part of what helped us to evolve to humans. When you watch Lion’s rolling in dung before a hunt, that is high level sent camouflage. It’s nothing short of reasoning. In the end though I think you’re right. The Bull’s evolutionary response to humans is tremendously under-developed in comparison to their more historic-predators. One thing though that might trigger an instinctive response in bovine is our close set eyes. Only predators have them. Thanks again, great post, very evocative. Abrazo,-Bill

      • I agree Maestro, except on one minor point from the plaza rather than the streets: the bull never sees your eyes. The anatomy of his eye and skull means that he literally only sees from the waist down. The multiple skulking figures in the grass are your enemy when you weigh a ton (or even a half like the bravos) and have horns – low movement: stripes against grass, pale fur ghosting over white snow – the hecho in the capote or toque in the muleta only make the bull react when they roll down the fabric to its base. If he was watching even as high as your hands toreo would not be possible…

        I absolutely agree about hunting being vital in our history (although let’s not forget the gathering part of hunter-gatherer, just because we happen to be a couple of guys who like to do crazy things…) My actual argument is one of humility – it was important to humans, but not to the prey species (or, as the lion example shows, the predator species). Bipedal man is a newcomer, and was very low in numbers for most of that time. And, after we domesticated cattle, evolution in that direction stopped, because we killed and ate all of them with impunity. The ones we let have the most children, i.e. artificial selection, were the most placid and calm for ease of farming. (Something that has been reversed in Spain.)

        By the way, I look forward to empirically testing all these theories with you on the cobbles next year hermano.

        Hasta entonces,


  6. Buffalo-Bill says:

    I love it. I didn’t know that bulls don’t see above the waist. It may be true. I just can’t believe it. I swear to you Cappuccino looked me dead in the eyes. Looked right into my very soul and said ‘naw… maybe later’. I’m trying to scan through things off the top of my head but the goring’s to the face, throat and chest of matadors seems to argue against it. But I guess it’s possible that the animal is just thrusting upward in their power-range and hitting those areas accidentally. I wonder too if in high-charged adrenaline-pumped moments they have instances of magnified-vision like human’s do. But I swear I was broadside of Cappuccino and he locked his eye on me, stopped and considered it. And yes my friend, it’ll be a lot of fun experimenting with these ideas along Telefonica!

    • I love the poetry of the Capuccino example, and don’t deny the sensation. Here’s the science:

      Cattle have “have limited vertical vision… they only have about 60 degrees of vertical vision, compared to 140 degrees for humans.” (from the current ‘Cattle Handling and Working Facilities’ an Ohio State University Extension Bulletin). Of course, they can move their heads, which will alter what comes into the 60 degrees, and that is why in toreo the aim is to get humilidad, ‘humility’, by bringing the animal’s head down. However, even with the head raised, you will run into another problem. “In common with many other mammals, there is evidence that cattle may be myopic (Rohler, 1962)… visual acuity is less than 1/50th of that possible for humans… From a distance of 1.5m, cattle can only detect a white circle of diameter 1cm or more, when it is within a black cirlce of diameter 36cm (Rehkamper & Gorlach, 1998).” (from the 2002 book Cattle Behaviour and Welfare by C J C Phillips.) So, unless you are right by it, I’m afraid this is not a species which will pick up our close set predator eyes… Xander

  7. Barbara Ritchie says:

    The insertion of a “third player”, i.e. MAN , into the arena of “the battles which have shaped both prey and predator into the species which they have become” (D. Attenborough narration) is yet one more thickening agent to the endless “plot” of the evolutionary drama. MAN (a species which has become what it is thanks to its having evolved a “social brain” which thinks metaphorically) USES other animal behaviours as “tools” for its own “human” ends.

    Having cultured wolves into dogs and bovines into cattle and toros bravos, MAN also manipulates these “natural materials” into art forms and uses these to express its OWN human Cultural (and metaphorical) “messages”, which, in turn, feed and feed into the continual evolution of MAN’S own “social brain” ….and so on. Thus, and as this article and these comments almost recognize , MAN, using its tool of Culture, is yet one more element in these “battles which have shaped each species…”. (and therefore, the “arts” of La Corrida and Rejoneo—crafting a bovine into a toro and a horse into a “dancer” to perform metaphorical-laden battle drama based upon the “raw materials” of the evolved instincts and reactions of these other animals (the Spanish used also to use dogs in the plazas!) in order to both feed dopamine production in the human brain and to express cultural notions (of gender, of Christianity, etc., etc.) and thus augment the further evolution of the “social brain” of MAN in modern life is as “natural” as the wolf/bison “battle” filmed here in Frozen Planet in the ongoing evolution of species.

    • Interesting and true Barbara. Although on this blog the goal is more how to survive running alongside, which while gendered, is more a metaphor of the hunt than anything else (for those who do it on a metaphorical level, rather than a thrill-seeking one, whose evolutionary cause may be the hunt, but whose reasons are elsewhere). Quite right about tauromachy in the plaza, though. Best, Xander

  8. Barbara Ritchie says:

    Thanks for the kind comment (“interesting and true”) in re: my comment above. It is interesting (but in the realms of Anthropology where the focus is sharpest upon understanding and describing the behaviour of the HUMAN animal in context of evolutionary processes) and, I hope, true, in that I truly believe that this process of species interaction is one of the most salient mechanisms in species “formation”, as it were. But I’m not certain if/that what I have written above has been understood. (There is no such thing as A “metaphorical level” in re: human brain operations; there is no such thing as AN “evolutionary cause”, nor evolutionary “reason”–the Human brain THINKS metaphorically at ALL levels of its operation and the evolutionary process is just that: a PROCESS). All the rest , in Dawkinsenian terms, is process manifesting “the world” (as in “The Blind Watchmaker” ).

    The interactions of species with each other and within an ecology of similarly interacting forces and materials of “nature” all contribute to the materialization of “the world” as we know it (and to the materialization of the forms of species within it). Bison, wolves, Human brains, Toros bravos, dogs, “Four legs==good, two legs=bad”, cultural “messages” and understandings gendered behaviours (as differentiated from sexual characteristics), Christianity, Corridas, Pamplona and etc., etc. are all artifactual products (manifestations, if you will) of the workings of this grand and complex process . And the way in which the HUMAN species has evolved the ability to USE OTHER SPECIES (i.e. why you found D. Attenborough’s “Frozen Planet” relevent to Pamplona!!) in such stunningly ARTFUL ways (all art is metaphorical manifestation) to further augment its own “social brain” evolution is nothing short of awesome!!

  9. Barbara Ritchie says:

    Oops, that should read “Dawkinsian” (like “Darwinian”)–the temptation to coin words often results in one with a blob of too many syllables.

  10. Pingback: The Running Of The Bison | The Pamplona Post

  11. Pingback: The Running Of The Bison | The Pamplona Post

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