Jul 13

Bullfighting: Death by Tradition

I have no objection to animals being killed for food, providing it is done as humanely as possible. Nor do I object to local people killing wild animals for medicine, pelts or for certain aspects of their culture. What I do object to are animals being killed for medicine that doesn’t actually work, or for entertainment and sport. In many cases, both of these boil down to tradition. The Chinese continue to kill animals and use parts of their bodies for traditional medicine, despite the overwhelming evidence from contemporary science that it has little or no medicinal value whatsoever. And then there is that ugly tradition that I loathe above all else: bullfighting.

Bullfighting is a long-established spectacle in Spain, Portugal and a few Hispanic American countries such as Mexico and Columbia. It is performed in an arena where a picador mounted on an armoured horse first tests the bull by stabbing it with a lance in the back of the neck, drawing blood. Next, three banderilleros enter the arena and attempt to plant sharp barbed sticks into the bull’s shoulder, further angering and weakening the animal. The matador then uses a cape – typically a red one – to make the bull charge repeatedly, showing off his skill and bravery by allowing the bull to approach before turning away at the last moment to avoid the animal’s horns.


Photo: MarcusObal

Bulls actually have no issue with the colour red, or any other colour for that matter. Although Spanish matadors have used red capes as part of their attire since the eighteenth century, it actually has nothing to do with antagonising the bull with the colour itself. In fact, bulls cannot even see red; their reaction is to the cape’s movement, which often greatly irritates it and causes the animal to charge. The iconic red cape of the matador is really just a mask to hide the blood of the tortured animal from the onlooking crowd.

A Load of Bull

Bullfighting has entered the news again recently thanks to the death of Victor Barrio, who on Saturday 9 July became the first bullfighter to be killed by a bull in the arena for 30 years. I do have some sympathy for the man. Although I did not agree with what he did, he was still a human being and I don’t believe he deserved to die. But I have much more sympathy for the bull, Lorenzo. People who engage in bullfighting know the inherent risks involved with their ‘art’, just as those people who climb Mount Everest or try to befriend wild bears know their risks.

The bulls, of course, do not know the risks. They are fated to die long before they even enter the arena. They are stabbed before the event to weaken and agitate them. Their eyes may be smeared with Vaseline so they cannot see where they are going and have less of a fighting chance. And, during the final stage of the show, the matador will usually use a long curved sword to stab the wounded bull between the shoulder blades and through the heart. In Portugal, it is now illegal to kill a bull within an arena, but it is nonetheless almost always killed by a professional butcher once it has been removed from the ring.

The fact that attendances at bullfights in Spain last year increased by 5 per cent to 6.1 million – making it the second most watched ‘sport’ in the country after football – indicates that it is still deeply embedded in Spanish tradition and culture. But just because it is culture does not mean it is right. It is an outdated custom that was around long before we had any understanding or concept of animal welfare and cruelty. But whereas most other blood sports, such as bear-baiting, cock fighting and, more recently, fox hunting, have largely or completely disappeared, bullfighting continues unabated.

And make no mistake, bullfighting is a blood sport. Even if the bull ‘wins’ and kills the matador, as in the case of Victor Barrio, the animal will not survive. Lorenzo has been slaughtered, and so too will its mother, in accordance with a custom that states the bloodline of any bull that kills in the ring must be ended. Yet another archaic and nonsensical tradition.

Spain is not united in its love for bullfighting, of course. In fact, most Spanish people now view it as part of a heritage they would rather forget, and many – including several of my own Spanish friends – view it as barbaric and call for its abolition. Victor Barrio’s death has sparked even more anti-bullfighting backlash, and rightly so. Is bullfighting really worth the slaughter of hundreds of bulls every year and, occasionally, the loss of human life too?

People struggle with the idea – or the need – to change. It’s easy to allow nostalgia and tradition to blinker your outlook so that you are unable to appreciate how things might be done differently. In the twenty-first century, an age of strict health and safety rules, bullfighting is a glaring anachronism. That people should be obliged to continue to do something simply because they always have, even when it is obvious that it is no longer morally compatible with the modern world, is a hard concept for me to understand.

I thought we had stopped the medieval spectacle of putting an animal to death for the gratification of a watching crowd. I was wrong. How much more blood will be spilled – animal and human – before we finally consign bullfighting to the history books?

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