Bullfighting: How Romanticism Transforms Death Into Sport
The Steps Behind Removing the Fight From the Bull
"They can call it sport, they can call it tradition, they can write about its beauty, its poetry and its intricacy, they can invoke Hemingway and write about skill and ritual; for me that day the bullfight was a celebration of cruelty, of mob rule, of death, of picking on something weaker than you and amusing yourself at its expense."1 This is the perspective of Colm Tóibín, a journalist for the English newspaper The Guardian. While researching for a book on Barcelona, Tóibín elected to attend a bullfight to understand a component of Spanish culture. What was revealed to him was the grueling nature of a carefully constructed execution performed under the misnomers of sport and cultural tradition.
Bullfighting has a long history in numerous cultures, most notably in Spanish and French ones, which still continue the activity in contemporary times. Although the portrayal of bullfighting is one in which there is a fight between an aggressive bull and a fearless human waving a red cape, the match is actually orchestrated to ensure the almost guaranteed safety of all humans involved with the concurrent demise of the bull. "The bull is going to die," says Adam Barwick, author of The B/W Bulletpoint Bullfight. "Be prepared to witness various failed attempts at killing the animal before it lies down."2 For a further understanding of just how one-sided the fight is, one may quickly discover the truth through the statistics: an estimated 250,000 bulls are killed annually, while only fifty-two matadors have died in bullfights since 1700. In nearly two-and-a-half decades, over 6 million bulls have died in bullfights, while there has not been a single matador death during the same period.3
Discovering the reasons behind such imbalance in an alleged fight is not a daunting task once one learns the stages of a bullfight. Spanish bullfights are divided into five stages, during which the various participants weaken the bull so as to prepare for the eventual execution of an animal that has suffered to the roars of an audience cheering for his death. The first step, known as Toreo de Capa, involves the bullfighter’s assistants waving capes at the bull so that the bullfighter himself can observe the bull’s maneuvers, thus giving him an unfair advantage in watching how the bull performs, while the bull is not given an equal opportunity to observe the motions of his eventual murderer. Following Toreo de Capa, two men known as picadores ride into the ring on blindfolded horses in the step known as Tercio de Varas. While the picadores are protected by steel around their right leg, the horses are not, as the bull charges at them. While his horse is being attacked, each of the picadores stabs the bull repeatedly with a lance, thereby initiating the weakening of the bull for his "fight."
While the first two stages are attempts to put the bull at a disadvantage, these pale in comparison with the final three. During Tercio de Vanderillas, sharp sticks known as banderillas are placed into the bull’s shoulders to mark where the matador will place his sword. If one had any doubt about the legitimacy of questioning whether an actual fight were taking place, such doubts should be quelled during this stage, as the entire purpose is to mark the bull for execution. This stage is followed by the fourth, Tercio de Muleta, in which the bull is prepared for the kill. The importance of this stage is also the nearness of the bullfighter to the bull, which demonstrates his ability to establish complete domination over the bulll. A bullfight is completed with a step known as La Estocada, the point at which the matador stabs the bull to death with his sword.
The purported sport in bullfighting is absent in its practice. Any real opportunity for the bull to combat any of his oppressors is prevented by carefully calculated methods of ensuring his defeat and eventual execution. The very word "matador" translates literally to "killer," and, as has been noted, there are stages of the performance that are specifically intended to display man’s dominance over the bull. Wrapped in the cloak of "tradition" is the disturbing public execution of an animal that neither requested his presence in the fight nor makes any instinctive attempts at harming those who intentionally harm him. The alleged tradition is, as Tóibín suggests, an embracement of mob mentality, of man’s return to¬—or refusal to shift away from--primitive and barbaric cultural standards. Bullfighting is the sanctified public execution of an innocent animal, a tradition that has no place in any modern culture.
The Allegedly Brave Components of an Uneven Match
As has been noted above, the risk a matador faces is negligible when contrasted with that of his opponent. Such an uneven match can be attributed largely to the multistep process that involves weakening the bull in every stage so as to ensure his defeat. It should therefore strike one as odd that bullfighters have a reputation for toughness and courage. Journalist Edward Lewine notes that bullfighting was on the decline in popularity in the 1980s due to a belief that the events were rigged and thus the matadors faced no true danger.4 The death of a single matador yielded a shift in thought, leading to the belief that, as a result of his fatal fall, bullfighting had been solidified as a fair fight.5 In order to come to such a conclusion, one must necessarily neglect two significant details observed thus far: 1) the ratio of bull fatalities to those of bullfighters, and 2) the multistep process designed to prevent the bull from posing any legitimate threat. Moreover, to suggest that bullfighting involves combating a naturally aggressive animal, thereby requiring participation by only those who are brave, is to conveniently ignore the natural demeanor of a bull, so often misconstrued in bullfighting propaganda.
When one comes to understand the bull in his natural state, the act of bullfighting becomes more heinous still. Ethologist Jordi Casamitjana notes that bulls are naturally peaceful herbivores who enjoy the companionship of fellow bulls and cows and the taste of grass in open fields.6 Despite these facts, young bulls are tested and ranked according to what becomes their determined level of bravery and willingness to fight.7 In fact, the stabbing of a young bull is often conceived of as a test of his bravery, for it supposedly determines his decision to engage in either fight or flight.8 It should go without saying that the bull has little interest in this "test for bravery." As an adult in an actual bullfight, he focuses on leaving for safety through acts of desperation such as attempting to leap the fence of the ring.9
The image of a supposedly daring bullfighter who steps into a ring to engage in combat with a bull weighing several hundred pounds and possessing the horns to deliver a fatal blow to his human opponent is tarnished not only by the multistep process that takes place over the duration of the event but by the pre-fight rituals as well. Prior to the fight, bulls are routinely beaten, tranquilized, and given laxatives to weaken them both mentally and physically.10 In order to further confuse the bull and disrupt his eyesight, petroleum jelly is rubbed into his eyes to blur his vision, and he is kept in darkness, so when he enters the ring his eyes are dazzled by the light.11
Romanticism Leads to Broken Hearts
Animal activist Steve Hindi provides a firsthand account of bullfighting on the website of his organization, SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness). Here he tells the story of Bright Eyes, a bull he encountered in Mexico City who was killed in a bullfight. Hindi first met the bull in his pen, noting his gentle nature and his nonaggressive stance toward those who were harassing him.12 In conjunction with the story of Bright Eyes, Hindi provides photographed documentation of the cruelties behind bullfighting and the Bright Eyes fight in particular. "Bullfights do not pit one brave man against one ferocious bull," says Hindi in a caption above a photo of Bright Eyes surrounded by his murderers. "Instead, a gang of thugs mob an animal who is wounded, crippled and debilitated before he ever enters the bullring."13 The website contains a chronological presentation of photographs following Hindi’s story that display the true level of barbarity behind bullfighting.
For those who may be skeptical of Hindi’s sympathies when reading his report on Bright Eyes, such individuals would be wise to review the perspective of ex-matador Álvaro Múnera. Múnera, incidentally best friends with the last matador to be gored to death, is lucky to be alive after he was gored by a bull in 1984. It was not his own injury that turned Múnera against the game in which he once participated but his discussion with others about bullfighting following his injury.14 Múnera has recounted in great detail some of his most disturbing stories from his days as a bullfighter, including one in which he had killed a pregnant cow during practice and saw the removal of the fetus. Another one of his stories entails the repeated stabbing of a bull who fought as hard as he could in vain to maintain his final breath.15 Though he often felt conflicted in his position on bullfighting, Múnera remained an elite bullfighter for several years because of the encouragement of his father and agent who promised him fame and glory.16
Múnera’s change of heart took place in the United States after he had been treated following a paralyzing attack by a bull. He tells the story of having to confront a friend’s relative at a dinner party one night. She called him a barbarian and expressed no sympathy for his injury. Múnera’s reaction was not contentious; instead, he came to the realization that "this is how people think in a society more civilized than ours."17 Múnera now questions the ludicrous arguments put forth by proponents of bullfighting, such as the idea that the fight is an equal one. Múnera notes that were the fight actually a fair one, the number of dead bullfighters would be comparable to the number of dead bulls.18 He also states that bullfighting should be seen as "a black page in the history of humanity," and that he has hope for the rapid decline of bullfighting as the result of an increase in the awareness of what bullfighting entails.19
The Other Victims
In a bizarre apology for what may be argued as the most unjustified component of bullfighting, Ernest Hemingway, the zealous aficionado novelist, refers to the death of horses in a bullfight as the "comic element," as if they were no longer horses, based on how ridiculous they looked while being gored to death by a bewildered bull.20 In reality, there is nothing comical about the death of the horses—given less of a chance than the bulls to survive—or any other part of a bullfight.21 With a guarantee to die at the horns of a tormented bull who lashes out in his response to perpetual harassment, the horse is as unlucky as the bull in terms of escaping the performance without harm.
The 19th century writer Charles Dudley Warner described the fate of horses in bullfights as having "four feet… in the grave before they entered the ring."22 Such a description is all too accurate, as the horses serve as targets for the bull to protect the supposedly brave picadores who cower for shelter as the bull begins to lash, leaving their horses as the target for a bull who has been repeatedly provoked.23 Horses are tossed into the air by bulls who gore them repeatedly in an attempt to release their frustration and retaliate against the picadores, their actual enemy.24 It is during this time that innocent horses are attacked without knowledge of what is taking place, as they are blindfolded and often have their ears stuffed to further ensure their oblivion.25 If it is not a fair fight for the bull, it is even less fair for the horse who has no horns, no opportunity to engage in defense, and no awareness of the events transpiring. Dudley Warner notes the truly barbaric nature of the death of the horse, who must remain in the presence of an angered bull until he or she can no longer stand and the crowd cheers and laughs at the brutal death of a horse in confusion.26
Bullfighting itself is not the lone activity tied to the business of torturing bulls and cows and disguised as cultural tradition. The same people making a profit from such activities make a great deal of money through other brutal customs, such as the running of the bulls and Toro de Fuego.27, 28 Each of these activities violates basic ethical standards in its own manner, by virtue of the fact that it places vulnerable animals in positions of immeasurable torture and mutilation for the entertainment of humans. Neither bullfighting nor any sport of its derivation has any place in a culture that considers itself either modern or moral.
As noted by both the journalist Colm Tóibín and former matador Álvaro Múnera, Hemingway's endorsement of bullfighting and the cultural defenses for such activity provide no merit for arguments in its favor. Cultural standards can be inherently flawed, and it is without a doubt dangerous to allow for continuous pushing of the boundaries of humane standards in the name of cultural preservation. True animal advocacy must be concerned with the abolition of bloodsport, regardless of whether or not it is cloaked in the name of longstanding tradition. An individual cannot be expected to develop a level of respect for animals while considering their torture and execution in the name of sport to be anything short of morally reprehensible. The time to end bullfighting is long overdue, in the name of ethics, sportsmanship, and indeed in the name of cultural advancement itself.
3 "The End of Bullfighting?," The Week, 6 August 2010, http://theweek.com/article/index/205728/the-end-of-bullfighting. In fact, more bullfighters have been killed outside of the bullfighting ring than inside of it since the last death in 1985. See: Lewine, Death and the Sun, 14 (referenced later in this factsheet).
6 Jordi Casamitjana, "'Suffering' in Bullfighting Bulls; an Ethologist's Perspective," Speech Delivered at the CAS Anti-Bullfighting Seminar, Galicia, Spain, 9-20 June 2009, http://www.cas-international.org/fileadmin/protestacties/Documenten/The_suffering_of_bulls_CAS_Jordi_Casamitjana.pdf, 4.
9 Casamitjana, 3. For video footage of this, one may refer to the recent incidents in Northern Spain and Mexico City, respectively captured in the following videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWAIjYs9Lws & http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWdCRdnmopg.
10 Verity Murphy, "Spain’s Battle Between Man and Beast," BBC News, 6 April 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3605773.stm.
12 Steve Hindi, "The True Story of Bright Eyes," Shark Online, http://www.sharkonline.org/?P=0000000993.
13 Hindi, http://www.sharkonline.org/?P=0000000997.
14 "The Vegetarian Bullfighter," The State We’re In: Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 1 November 2010, http://www.rnw.nl/english/article/vegetarian-bullfighter.
18 "Interview with Álvaro Múnera, Former Colombian Matador" (Spanish), 29 June 2008, http://www.blogveterinario.com/2008/06/entrevista-alvaro-mnera-ex-torero.html.
21 For a thorough refutation of Hemingway's romanticized portrayal of bullfighting, refer to Peter Messent’s "’The Real Thing’? Representing the Bullfight and Spain in Death in the Afternoon," in Miriam Mandel, ed., A Companion to Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004).
25 Maria Lopes, "Horses — the Forgotten Victims of Bullfighting," http://www.sharkonline.org/?P=0000000482, initially published at http://www.horsetalk.co.nz/features/bullfighting.shtml, 25 June 2006.
27 "Blood Fiestas Frequently Asked Questions," Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe, http://www.faace.co.uk/bfaqs.htm
28 John Ingham, "Blazing Cruelty — Villagers Laugh As Bull Endures Flame Torture In Firework Fiesta," Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe, 10 January 1999, http://www.faace.co.uk/express.htm .