Culture of Cruelty: Bullfighting in Spain

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Manu Fernandez / AP

Spanish bullfighter José Tomas makes a pass during a bullfight at the Monumental Bullring in Barcelona

Migrants must assume quickly the when-in-Rome rule. As a young journalist in Australia, I was often irked by new-arrival whinging Poms, as we lumped them, bemoaning our accents, Melbourne's then 6 O'clock (p.m.!) closing of pubs and our cultural cringe at being their Down Under former colony. Most adapted fast and became what in Australia is the ultimate status: good mates.

I thought of that acceptance process when I moved to Spain and began doing up an old house in Catalunya. These were my rules: no punditry in the village bar, avoidance of we-do-it-this-way-at-home statements and acceptance of laughter at my linguistic clangers.

Twenty years on, I live in the Extremadura region and feel sufficiently integrated to occasionally say, No, this is wrong. A case in point is the town band, in which I play flute. Outside processions and concerts, local bands are an integral part of bullfights. But while El Ligero, Domínguez, Antonio and 10-year-old Jesús — our trumpeters — and the rest of my 50 colleagues sweat over their instruments in the sun, I hunker in sadness in my house. When at the outset I told Blas, our conductor, that if I had to attend corridas I'd quit, he was fine, no pressure. I think the others put my absences down to another foible of the "lettuce eater," as they call me, a vegetarian in Spain's prime jamon region.

But in these past two decades the number of ham-worshipping Spaniards who nevertheless abhor bullfighting has soared. Last year 180,000 signed what's known as a people's legislative initiative, which asked the Catalan parliament to debate the abolition of bullfighting. The parliament recently finished a series of heated debates on the issue; its decision will probably come in July, the main parties allowing their deputies a free vote.

The debates inspired the opportunistic president of the Madrid regional government, Esperanza Aguirre, to declare bullfights a Bien de Interés Cultural, a protection order until now reserved for buildings or landscapes. But they also emboldened antifighting activists. Some veterinarians have finally drawn a line in the bloodied circle of sand. Two years ago they formed AVAT, an association that seeks the abolition of bullfighting. Representing its 70 vets before the Catalan parliament, José Enrique Zaldívar gave evidence at once forensically calm and horrifying in its detailed wound-by-wound explanation of what some 12,000 bulls a year endure in each of the stages of the corrida that lead to death. (That number, from 2009, is about 3,000 lower than usual thanks to the economic crisis.) As AVAT says on its website, "We can't understand how, in the name of a supposed tradition, in the 21st century customs such as these need to form part of our misnamed culture."

The opponents of a ban, as always, fell back on this tradition. It's the national fiesta, they argue. It's what the bulls are bred for, and they have a great life in the countryside before the corrida. And what about poor fish? Or battery hens? And, oh, the bravery of matadors like José Tomás, who came so close to death after being gored in Mexico on April 24?

While this was to be expected, I was surprised by the inability of various philosophers to take a stand. During the debates, Catalan Victor Gómez Pin and a colleague from the University of Paris, Francis Wolff, wrote a joint article in El País that was, while not protorture, tortuous. They seem to be against cruelty per se but declare, in relation to what they see as attempts to "liberate" animals from every type of pain and consequently all subordination to man, "This new cult is dangerous. Whenever the defense of Nature has been raised as an absolute imperative, the human being has been devalued. That man invents the animal when he has stopped believing in God isn't necessarily good news."

Another of Spain's best-known philosophers, Fernando Savater, is equally obtuse. Horrified that politicians might legislate on a moral question, he clings to the chestnut that no one is obliged to attend bullfights. In an article that charges off in all directions, Savater's argument against prohibition descends to the level that "the first European proto-ecologistic laws to protect Mother Earth and animals were dictated by the vegetarian Adolf Hitler."

Fortunately, while thin on stand-taking public thinkers, Spain is well-served by cartoonists. One of the most direct is El Roto, who works for the paper where Gómez Pin and Wolff wrote such bull's wool. Before the debates started, El Roto drew a bull with banderillas hanging from its bleeding back. His caption says in fewer than a dozen words more than certain philosophers, Hemingway or the probullfight lobby manage in hundreds of thousands: "Nobody is obliged to go to the bullfights ... except the bulls!"