9 Days of Spain #6: Bullfighting (Part 4: Politics)

Warning: this series contains descriptions and images of graphic violence

So that is a bullfight. Most of the time, the bull is killed. Sometimes, a picador’s horse is injured. Occasionally, a torero dies, stabbed by the bull. Nothing that enters the arena is guaranteed life, but that fate is not doled out equally. The humans, even in death, are almost always victorious.

Bullfight Stages

There are two teams of surgeons waiting just inside the arena: one for injured humans, and one for injured animals. Including the bulls. I had assumed that a bull “wins” the fight by killing its matador. That is not the case. If a bull kills a human, even the matador, the fight goes on. The human is gurneyed inside for urgent medical care, and replaced on the field by another human. If it was a matador, a different matador takes his place. The bull is killed for show as usual, and then its entire bloodline is slaughtered (for food) to ensure that murderous bulls don’t make their way back into the arena.

But if a bull is very bravo (brave, strong, valiant) and fights well, it can be pardoned by the judges at the request of the audience. Note that a bull never “wins,” it can only be “pardoned.” This is often after much stabbing, so the bull is quickly ushered to the veterinarians in the back, who patch it up with what I assume to be the finest bovine healthcare in the world. The bull is then shipped off to the dehesa, the open Spanish hills shaded by oak trees, where it will live out the rest of its life in the most comfort ever offered to cattle on this earth: with endless grass and acorns to graze on and all the cows it could ever want. After all, they need to make more bulls somehow! This is very rare, and didn’t happen during our corrida. But it’s the only happy ending for a bull. Not just in the bull-fighting industry, but anywhere.

Which brings me to the politics of bullfighting. For the uninitiated, critics (1) point out the quite obvious animal cruelty. For some reason, I feel that this is also exacerbated by the sheer unfairness of the fight, as if most people think “Oh, well killing the bull for a crowd is ok as long as it’s one on one: matador vs. bull, without the extra humans ganging up on the create.” No, that doesn’t really make things better, but I hear it a lot. Proponents (2) of bullfighting, of course, cite its cultural heritage. Bullfighting was introduced to Iberia by the Romans over a thousand years ago (3), after all, and the revenue from tourism is what pays Spain’s exorbitant energy bills (4). There are other allegations of bullfighting (such as drugging the bulls) (5) that frankly don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The issue is on torturing the bull instead of butchering it, and the debate would continue blazing whether drugs are used or not.

I personally don’t find the “cultural heritage” argument convincing, because if we kept every tradition, the world would be far worse for it. That’s why we have progress. What I do find convincing is what happens to cattle that aren’t bred for the ring. A Spanish fighting bull is raised on that heavenly dehesa alongside the famous Iberian pig (4, 6, 8), pampered so that it’s in tip-top shape for the ring (4, 7). Ridiculous amounts of money is poured into caring for them, and they live longer, healthier, and better-tended lives than cattle raised for slaughter (4) (note: fighting bulls are also eaten after death, so the body isn’t wasted). The typical age of slaughter varies, but the earliest time a fighting bull leaves the dehesa (7, 8) (at three or four years old (7, 9), if it’s meant for young, inexperienced matadors (7, 10)) coincides with the maximum lifespan (11) of bulls and steers (12) meant for slaughter (13). In summary: the maximum age of a fighting bull is six years, twice the maximum age of slaughtered bulls. Additionally, fighting bulls lead higher-quality lives on the dehesa.

Here’s the thing: people don’t keep bulls as pets. If they’re not meant for fighting (and then food), they’re meant just for food. And without the bullfighting sport, no farmer would pay to care so well for a bull. If you’ve ever seen Food Incorporated (14), you know how badly we can treat farm animals. The real controversy, it seems to me, is over how the bull is killed: a long, drawn-out hour in front of a roaring crowd, slowly being stabbed time after time until the spirit is finally broken…versus a quick tranquilizer, electrocution, or bullet to the head. Of the four everyday Spaniards whose opinions I collected (15), only one was a critic of bullfighting. Those in favor sometimes cited the cultural importance. But what they really say is this: “I would rather live a good, long life with a cruel ending than live a cruel life with a swift ending.” (4, 15)

Does that make me a proponent of bullfighting? No. It makes me ambivalent. I have no idea which is crueler: raising bulls as cattle or raising them like pets until a bloody end. Personally, I wouldn’t mind if bullfighting was outlawed everywhere, but that’s also not the end of the discussion: there’s more nuance than do we/don’t we, because there are other forms of bullfighting:

There are a few countries (16) where the goal of the “bullfight” is to grab something off of the bull’s horns (17) as it charges about the arena. In Portugal, they have a normal bullfight without the final kill, and the bull is then ushered into the back to professionally butcher (even though the bull was still tortured for about an hour) (18). In others “bullfights” still, acrobats leap over the bull (19) again and again instead of fighting it (20). Could one of these other methods be introduced, and the ticket revenue would still go towards caring for young bulls to keep them in prime physical condition? Could the fastest, most athletic bulls still be sent to the dehesa to live out their life in virtual paradise, all without the stabbing part? Or is this still cruelty on par with a circus?

What I’m really interested in is this: what is animal cruelty? Is it the living conditions they face, is it how they end their life, or is it how much emotional trauma they experience? If we ban bullfighting, the emotional trauma is evaded, but the living conditions plummet. If we butcher the bull backstage under a tranquilizer so it doesn’t feel a thing, it still went through the emotional trauma. To avoid all three of these, we could not raise cattle at all—in which case, they would not exist except in the wild, their habitat slowly dwindling in the face of human expansion. The only way to take away all kinds of cruelty against these animals would be to keep them as pets, perhaps rehab animals. But that would be several drastic cultural shifts away.

Maybe you’re not concerned for the bull at all, but rather for the humans watching in the crowd. Even if the bull suffers less than the cattle producing our steaks, aren’t you concerned for the people who enjoy watching the suffering? Why do we enjoy blood sport so much? Why bullfighting? Why cock fighting? Why gladiators? Why even movies where the protagonists are subjected to so much gore and violence? Why do humans love such things? The answer lies in the movie example: our natural empathy causes us to feel a rush when we see our protagonists in danger, but since it’s just a movie, we know they’re really fine.

That’s why: because we feel just enough empathy for the animal that we feel the adrenaline rush of danger…but not quite enough empathy to feel sorry for its suffering.

References (in order of appearance)

  1. “Animal Welfare Activists to Protest Bullfighting in Spain.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Aug. 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/08/21/world/europe/21iht-spain.html.
  2. “Identity Debate at Heart of Spanish Bullfighting Vote.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 July 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/07/26/world/europe/26bullfighting.html. 
  3. Bierner, Mark. “Artificial Selevtion.” BIO370. University of Seville, Seville. 6 June 2017. Lecture.
  4. Villar, Arsenio. Contemporary Spain. University of Seville, Seville. 2017. Lecture.
  5. “Bullfighting.” PETA, www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/cruel-sports/bullfighting/. 
  6. Frayer, Lauren. “This Spanish Pig-Slaughtering Tradition Is Rooted In Sustainability.” NPR, NPR, 18 Mar. 2015, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/03/18/392177526/this-spanish-pig-slaughtering-tradition-is-rooted-in-sustainability. 
  7. “Real Decreto 145/1996, De 2 De Febrero, Por El Que Se Modifica y Da Nueva Redaccin Al Reglamento De Espectculos Taurinos.” Noticias Jurídicas, BOE, noticias.juridicas.com/base_datos/Admin/rd145-1996.html. 
  8. “Las Edades Del Toro.” Unión De Criadores De Toros De Lidia, www.toroslidia.com/toro-de-lidia/las-edades-del-toro/. 
  9. “Las Edades Del Toro.” Cultoro.com, www.cultoro.com/cultorizate/el-toro/2013/11/27/edades-toro-5674.html. 
  10. “Spanish Fighting Bull.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 July 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Fighting_Bull. 
  11. “Slaughter Cattle Grades and Standards.” USDA, USDA, www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/slaughter-cattle-grades-and-standards. 
  12. “At What Age Are the Animals Slaughtered?” What Makes McDonald’s, 1 Jan. 1970, www.mcdonalds.co.uk/ukhome/whatmakesmcdonalds/questions/food/animal-welfare/at-what-age-are-the-animals-slaughtered.html. 
  13. “Age of Animals Slaughtered.” AussieAbattoirs.com, Aussie Abattoirs, www.aussieabattoirs.com/facts/age-slaughtered. 
  14. Kenner, Robert, director. Food, Inc. PBS, 2008.
  15. Three separate host mothers and Arsenio Villar.
  16. Beardsley, Eleanor. “In France’s Camargue, Bulls Are A Passion And A Way Of Life.” NPR, NPR, 14 Sept. 2013, www.npr.org/2013/09/14/220784963/in-frances-camargue-bulls-are-a-passion-and-a-way-of-life. 
  17. Natarajan, Swaminathan. “Jallikattu: Why India Bullfighting Ban ‘Threatens Native Breeds’.”BBC News, BBC, 19 July 2016, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-36798500. 
  18. “In Catalonia, a Last Day of Bullfighting.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Sept. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/09/24/world/europe/adeu-to-catalonias-matadors.html. 
  19. “Fédération Française De Courses Landaise.” Fédération Française De Courses Landaise, www.courselandaise.org/.
  20. “Course Landaise.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 July 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Course_landaise. 
  21. Lead Image: “This Banner Says: ‘Torture, Neither Art, nor Culture.’” BBC.com, BBC, Madrid, 10 Sept. 2016, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37329315.

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