In the summer of 2016, a torero named Victor Barrio faced a 530kg bull in what was to become his last fight. A gust of wind turned Barrio’s cape against him, leading the bull to scoop him up and throw him down. Its horns pierced Barrio’s chest, killing him almost instantly. The death of the young matador was the first such accident in 30 years, bringing the tradition back into the public’s attention and scrutiny.
Bullfighting remains very popular in the Hispanic world, and parts of Portugal and France. It’s said to be perfected by the Moors, who held control over large swaths of Spain from the 8th to the 15th Century A.D.. Yet the practice has long been subject to critique, both from Spanish traditionalists who believe the Moorish roots mean bullfighting is ‘non-european’, and from animal rights activists, who lament the painful fate of the bulls.
We won’t dig into the traditionalist argument here, because we find it hard to agree with anyone who sees culture as a rigid, exclusive phenomenon; instead, we’ll focus on the argument that bullfighting amounts to animal cruelty, and should thus be banned.
Note: If you have a weak stomach, skip to the next note
Firstly, let’s go over what happens at a bullfight; in this case a Spanish bullfight, a.k.a. toreo or fiesta.
During a single event, usually three matadors take on two bulls each. A matador has a team (cuadrilla) of two picadors on horseback, and three banderilleros. A fight happens in three stages. The first is known as the Tercio de Vacas. In this stage, the matador learns the movements of the bull, while the picadors aim their lances into the bull’s back, making it harder for the bull to lift its head, and causing severe bleeding. In the second stage, the Tercio de Banderillas, the three banderilleros take turns stabbing the bull in the neck with their signature colourful sticks. When the bull is weak enough, the third stage – Tercio de Muerte – sees the matador waving the well known red cape to lure the bull, narrowly dodging its horns. The fight ends when the matador stabs a sword into the bull’s heart or aorta. This stabbing is called an estocada.
That’s the theory.
Apart from the gruesome act of weakening an animal by stabbing short spears into its muscles, what angers most animal rights activists is the fact that a perfect estocada is very hard to pull off. The matador often ends up piercing the bull’s lungs, or other organs. When the struggle takes too long, alternative killing methods are applied, one less humane than the other.
Note: It’s a little less grim from here on
tradition in itself has historically proven a weak argument to keep something going
So during a bullfight – which isn’t really a fight, a bull is weakened and finally ceremoniously killed over the course of about 20 minutes. There is much to hold against this practice. The European Union even theoretically banned bullfighting in their Regulation (EC) No 1099/2009, saying “Animals must be spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering during their killing.” But the abolishment of bullfighting might not be for anytime soon. Spain’s new King Felipe appears to be in favour of the sport. And there are in fact plenty of arguments to keep the tradition going. Www.stopbullfighting.org states one of the most common arguments: “It’s part of Spanish tradition”. That is of course very right, but tradition in itself has historically proven a weak argument to keep something going – think child marriage, or genital mutilation. And that argument has not stopped other countries from banning bullfighting.
A better life?
A stronger argument could be the fact that the bulls lead a better life than their cousins on the farm. Where beef cattle rarely makes it past two years, the toro bravo, bred for the fights, spends up to six years on wide pastures. It rarely encounters men on foot, instead being ranched from horseback. This makes the living conditions almost wildlife-like, necessary for the bull to develop the muscles which make it so fearsome in the arena.
After the bull is killed in the arena, it enters the food chain as desired carne de lidia (fighting bull beef). The reason why its meat is so desired? It is “the most ecological bovine meat produced anywhere in the world,” a veterinary surgeon tells The Guardian. Meat from a fighting bull apparently tastes much better than regular beef, which tends to come from cows that have lived short, stressful lives, with a limited and forced diet.
It’s the most ecological bovine meat produced anywhere in the world
This is not an argument for animal cruelty. In a perfect world, no animal should suffer for the pleasure of having an unnecessary addition to our diet. However, with cattle suffering horrible deaths in regular slaughterhouses, maybe our instinctive disgust for bullfighting comes from it being so visible. And maybe a tradition which provides entertainment for people around the world should not have to end, just so we can go back to the comfort of mistreating animals behind closed doors.