The Delightful Truth About Bullfighting

People listen to speeches during a protest against bullfighting in Madrid on Saturday. The placard reads in Spanish: “Torture is neither art nor culture.”

Bullfighting (‘corrida de toros’ in Spanish) is alternatively a ‘blood sport’, ‘barbaric spectacle’, ‘fine art’ or ‘culturally important tradition’ which has existed since at least the 4th century and very possibly for many centuries previous to that. Its continuous existence was largely unopposed until recently, but in just the last 15 years polls have seen a dramatic spike in those opposing its continuing existence, primarily in Spain and Mexico. Approximately 100,000 bulls a year are killed in bullfighting, which is actually ‘bullkilling’ to many as by the time of the ritual, the bull is in a terribly-weakened and defenceless state. The bulls chosen to ‘fight’ are bred on ranches for one specific purpose, and while the more aggressive bulls might be considered better for the fight itself, many matadors request more placid ones to naturally lessen the chances of getting seriously injured themselves.

Bulls are generally peaceful animals, only getting aggressive when threatened and like most animals reacting largely on pure instinct rather than malice. In the 2 days before the fight, the bulls are fattened up to make them slow, wet newspaper is stuffed in their ears so they can’t hear anything, vaseline is rubbed on their eyes to blur their vision, cotton is put up their nostrils so they can’t breathe well, and a needle is stuck through their genitals and a caustic solution rubbed on their legs to hinder their balance and prevent them lying down. While in the truck being transported to the scene of their ritual slaughter, their horns are strapped to the ceiling to stop them moving and freaking out, and drugs are administered to them (either uppers or downers depending on how their handlers want them to behave). The bulls are then kept in a dark box for 2 days before suddenly seeing a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and naturally charging maniacally towards this light, suddenly finding themselves in a bullring with cheering crowds baying for blood and entertainment, and trumpets blaring to signal the start of combat. The circular ring stops the bull finding a corner to hide in, which is its natural instinct at this point.

In the first act of the ‘fight’, the ‘picador’ (a low-level ‘torero’ on horseback) lances the bull between the shoulder blades with a 2-inch-thick ‘pica’, hitting a gland which releases adrenalin and weakening its neck muscles to make its head hang so that the ‘matador’ (Spanish for ‘killer’), can get to its heart more easily to deliver the ‘coup de grace’ final blow. In the next stage, the ‘banderilleros’ arrive on foot with barbed, harpoon-like darts which are plunged into the bull’s body to weaken it while they also run it in circles to get it confused and disoriented, leaving not a great deal for the main torero (commonly known as the ‘matador’ in English-speaking countries), who is the ‘rock star’ of the bullfighting spectacle, to do to win the ‘fight’. The matador has 15 minutes to kill the bull and is given 3 ‘avisos’ (time warnings). If the bull isn’t dead by then, the matador is disgraced (don’t you just love the skewed idea of what is disgraceful?!). He arrives with his red cape, (the colour chosen to hide blood stains rather than to anger the bulls, which are in fact colour blind), his sword and his posturing, and the elaborate movement of the cape further disorientates the bull. The ‘death blow’ of the sword between the shoulder blades is supposed to instantly sever the aorta, the main trunk of the arterial system, if accurately delivered. However, this rarely happens with this first blow and the bull instead starts to bleed out profusely, its heart and lungs punctured and blood streaming through its nose and mouth. Further blows are administered quickly to ‘mercifully’ kill the bull (isn’t it touching that mercy is suddenly an issue?). After the contest is won, the bull is dragged out in chains (either dead or barely alive) and cheered for its bravery, (it has been known for some bulls to be spared from death and put out to stud for the rest of their days).

After the bull’s death, the crowd can petition for an exceptionally brave matador to be awarded one or both of the bull’s ears and sometimes even its tail. The bull is skinned, and its ‘fresh meat’ (consumers love fresh meat, don’t they?) sold in the aftermath of the contest. Up until 1930, the picadors’ horses, which are generally old and docile, also suffered horrendously from being gored (pierced with horns) by the trauma-crazed bulls, and they used to have their vocal cords severed in advance to avoid them screaming in pain and spoiling the crowd’s enjoyment and the nobility of the spectacle. If the horses are hurt, they were quickly patched up and sent back out, sometimes multiple times. Thankfully, this part has been modified, and now the horses wear a padded, protective covering called a ‘peto’.

The above of course is the case against bullfighting. But what is the case for it? As stated in the first paragraph, to some it is a fine art and a cultural tradition that shouldn’t be lost. But for those who are pro-bullfighting, ask yourself this? If bullfighting had never been invented and was somebody’s new idea in 2014, would you be for it? Rituals exist largely unchanged from times that we would consider barbaric. In true hypocritical or at least ignorant fashion, we talk with disgust of those primitive times when the public would routinely watch public executions as entertainment, parents would bring their children to the Colisseum to watch Christians being fed to lions in the Roman ‘bread and circuses’ days, and whites in the Southern states of the U.S.A. would write to family and friends of witnessing ‘a great barbecue’ after witnessing blacks being burned alive. Matadors are brave but that doesn’t necessarily make them heroes, and the evidence suggests that it is a relatively easy process to dispatch the hopelessly-disadvantaged bull and restore the ‘honour’ of the matador. It is true that modifications have been made, such as the protection given to the horses involved in the ritual, and I’m certainly open to hearing more arguments in favour of bullfighting but I’ve failed to find too many among the mind-bogglingly large amount of information on all topics available on the internet.

In 1991, the Canary Islands became the first Autonomous Community in Spain to ban bullfighting, and in 2006 Spain’s second city, Barcelona, banned it, followed by 38 other  municipalities in the province of Catalonia. Interestingly, and reflecting the tribal nature of humans, this has led to other parts of Spain, notably Barcelona’s great rival of Madrid, making a point of stating their great pride in the ritual and demonstrating particular resistance to a possible outlawing of it. In 2010, bullfighting was banned from being shown on some state-owned TV stations until after 10pm, so as to stop children watching what is presumably a noble spectacle only for adults. The number of bullfights in Spain fell dramatically from 2,500 in 2007 to just 500 in 2013, partly through genuine lack of demand but mainly owing to government cuts to small towns who now can’t afford to hold them. In 2010, the central government in Spain moved the jurisdiction on bullfighting from the interior ministry to the cultural ministry, making a complete ban less of a possibility. It is well-known that bullfighting is funded by public money, with the bull breeding industry receiving a high of almost 600 million euros in 2008, some coming from European funds to livestock. It is not alone among European cultural endeavours to be funded in this way of course, and the large revenues generated through tourism are often used as arguments to justify its existence.

As for the question of suffering, some will point to studies which have shown that experiencing physical pain is not automatically synonymous with suffering as they affect different centres of the brain; however, the bull’s distress is surely plain for all to see, and veterinarians have tested the bulls at various points of the contests and confirmed huge spikes in adrenalin. One ‘bandallero’ was quoted in an interview that the ‘magical’ bulls used in the contest have a special cell in their body that prevents them from feeling pain, but can this really be believed?

The use of animals for food is justifiable to some degree and certainly would be if their killing was found to be always done quickly and painlessly, but unlike food, entertainment is in no way essential, and bullfighting is a spectacle that originates back to an age which is incomparable to today. So, I refer back to an earlier question. Would bullfighting be invented now if it hadn’t been already??