A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Do bulls really wear rings in their noses?

June 26, 1998

Dear Cecil:

In cartoons bulls are always depicted with rings through their noses. Being a city kid whose idea of farm life mostly comes from watching "Green Acres," I have never had the opportunity to inspect a bull up close. Do they really have nose rings? If so, why? I have a hard time believing it's all due to teenage rebellion.

Cecil replies:

Well, I guess I better not try that line of humorous development then. How about this: The ring represents, not rebellion, but … discipline! It does, too. You've heard the expression, "led around by the nose"? You were thinking maybe this was just a figure of speech? Uh-uh. Even if you're a mighty hunk of rock 'em, sock 'em bullflesh, if some little slip of a farm girl comes along and hooks a rope to your nose ring, you're going to go where she wants you to go. Male humans understand this concept too, even if what you're being led around by is not necessarily the nose.

Now, your animal rights type of person might think putting a ring in a bull's nose is cruel. I'm not saying it's a day at the racetrack. Usually it's done when the critter is six to eight months old. You put the bull in a restraining device called a head gate, then you get a long pointed steel rod and possibly some local anesthetic. The anesthetic is for the bull, of course, but I think if I were about to pound a nail through some bull's schnozz I'd want a little stiffener for myself, too. The ring, which is brass, can be as big as six ounces and three inches in diameter for larger bulls. (There's a hinge in it, in case you were wondering how they got it on.) So we're definitely talking a major fashion statement.

The question is whether it bugs the bulls. My personal feeling is no, because not every bull gets a ring. It's reserved for animals that are going to be handled a lot, typically those shown in livestock exhibitions or else used for breeding. So a ring, to a bull, means: (1) I'm a stud, (2) I'm dangerous, and (3) I look good. You think he's going to be ticked?

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