Bull and matador © CAS

Blood Sport: The Tragedy of Bullfighting

A large crowd cheers with great excitement as dust flies into the air in a massive arena. As the cloud of dust begins to clear, drops of blood can be seen sprinkled throughout the arena. A man wielding a sword and adorned in a flamboyant outfit gracefully dodges the attack of a powerful foe, swiftly puncturing his opponent as he moves out of the way. The crowd once again roars with sheer excitement as this dangerous battle continues. As the dust completely diminishes, the second fighter in this battle is revealed. Colorful harpoon-like objects hang from his back, with blood coursing from his many wounds. Nearly out of breath and losing consciousness, his once powerful body begins to fail him. Brutalized and dying, the gravely injured opponent of the sword-wielding man is an animal, a bull. Confused and in terrible pain, the bull can no longer process what is happening in this bloody event. All the mutilated creature sees now is his human opponent, ready for the bull’s next charge. The crowd of onlookers cannot contain their excitement as this incredible battle appears to near its conclusion. The bull, despite his anguish and growing weakness, manages to make one final dash at his human foe. With another swift dodge, the man moves out of the animal’s path, and drives the sword deep into the bull’s neck, delivering the final strike. The animal crashes onto the ground, unable to continue what was a long and excruciating battle for it. The audience bursts with enthusiasm for the victorious man as the bull remains motionless on the ground, experiencing the finale of his torture. A carriage drawn by two horses soon arrives to drag away the bull, leaving behind a long trail of blood as the crowd continues to cheer. As his senses begin to falter, the bloodied animal finally succumbs to his wounds and draws his final breath. Welcome to the cruel art of bullfighting.

Bullfighting is a controversial tradition of several European and Latin American countries which is renowned by some people and despised by others. Followers of the bullfighting tradition often consider it an admirable and highly developed form of art, while opponents of the practice (particularly animal rights advocates) see it as nothing more than a blood sport, a variety of sport which focuses on animal violence. Though the arguable tradition has been criticized in the past, it has met its greatest opposition in more recent years. In fact, more and more municipalities in bullfighting countries have declared themselves “Anti-bullfighting and Friend of the Animals.”[1] Nonetheless, the custom still exists due to the powerful lobbies which support it. The practice is maintained by these lobbies for profit and is supported by national and local governments. Financial enterprises are keen to promote the tradition as possessing a cultural flavor of sorts, despite the controversy caused by the ongoing violence present within it. The increasing public awareness in recent years has not managed to bring down this business, as the minority continues to succeed financially. Several attempts to expand the business into other countries and draw more attention to it are recognized. Among these attempts include charitable bullfights intended to raise money for starving children and fund research into serious diseases. Interestingly enough, even the Catholic Church has supported bullfighting, as several bullfights are carried out in honor of saints with the blessings of the clergy.[2]

Bullfighting is an abusive custom which involves the severe maltreatment and, essentially, torture of bulls and cows. © CAS/SHARK

Yet where did this practice originate from? Evidence suggests that bullfighting has existed in some form or another for nearly four millennia. This is known from the existence of a wall painting unearthed in Knossos in Crete dating from about 2000 BC. The ancient painting depicts a contest where male and female acrobats confront a bull, grabbing its horns as it charges and vaulting for the back of the animal. It is also known that bullfighting was a popular spectacle in ancient Rome, though the practice was fully developed in the Iberian Peninsula. The custom would experience another great change after AD 711, when the North African Moors overran Andalusia and conquered the Visigoths. The previously brutish and formless bullfighting style carried out by the Visigoths was greatly altered by the Moors, developing into a ritualistic occasion observed in connection with feast days, on which the Moors, mounted on highly trained horses, confronted and killed the bulls. Eventually, bullfighting would develop into another vastly different form. This time, men on foot would use capes to assist horsemen in positioning the bulls, all the while drawing excitement from the audience. This style would soon develop into the modern form of bullfighting witnessed today. Modern bullfights have remained unchanged since about 1726, when Francisco Romero of Ronda, Spain, introduced the sword (known as the estoque) and a smaller, more easily wielded worsted cape (known as the muleta) used in the final part of the bullfight.[3] Countries in which bullfighting takes place today include Spain, France, Portugal, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Ecuador.[4]

Although each of these countries possesses its own variety of bullfights to some extent or another, most forms of bullfighting are still considered abusive in their treatment of the animals which are forced to take part in the fights. Spanish bullfighting will be the focus of this article, but keep in mind that the maltreatment of bulls is present in each and every style of this custom.

Several forms of bullfighting are organized in Spain, with the tradition’s season running from February up until October. During this span of time, an average of 30,000 bulls is killed.[5] Though all of these forms involve the unnecessary mistreatment of animals, some are much more violent and abusive than others.

Recortades are a more nonviolent type of bullfighting which involves provoking bulls or cows into charging at the bullfighters (who, in this case, uses neither a cape nor a sword). The bullfighters then dodge the bull with swift moves or even spectacular leaps. Cows and novillos (younger bulls) are commonly used in these acrobatic bullfights, though adult bulls are known to be used as well. The bullfighters who take part in these fights are usually professionals and skilled acrobats (though they are not celebrated as “heroes” like bullfighters which actually battle and kill bulls). The bullfighters who are considered the most skilled are those who can stay put as long as possible after the cow or bull charges their way, leaving the animal’s path at the last second with minimum movement. Though the animals are never killed in these fights, abuse still takes place; in order to make them charge at the bullfighter, the bulls and cows are usually greatly stressed and exhausted. This makes them more violent, which is a natural response to these uncomfortable stimuli. Furthermore, recortades are organized in the same bullrings where much deadlier bullfights take place, and so these non-violent fights are used to finance the more abusive varieties.[6]

In recortades, bullfighters skillfully dodge the charges of bulls. These fights do not involve injuring or killing the bulls. © Plaza de Toros de Castellon

Capeas are another “light” form of bullfighting which does not involve the injury or death of the animal, yet still causes unnecessary stress and exhaustion for it. In capeas, bulls and cows are provoked into charging the bullfighters through the use of capotes (magenta capes). The animals used in this style of bullfighting are, once again, usually young bulls and cows. These public events allow amateur bullfighters to test their bravery and skills, possibly hoping for apoderados (bullfighting agents) to discover them. The events commonly take place during town fiestas as a less violent style of bullfighting intended for the younger generation, yet contrary to the typical use of bulls during town fiestas (where thousands of bulls, cows, and calves are tortured to death in chaotic events aimed to maximum public participation) the focus of capeas lie on the person and his/her skill with the animal, rather than a public mockery of the creatures.[7]

The capea is another nonviolent form of bullfighting which nonetheless produces great stress for the animals. © cetnotorolidia

However, the most common form of Spanish bullfighting is known as Corridas de Toros. In these bullfights, bulls of 4-6 years of age are killed by professional bullfighters (known as matadors or toreros), though assistants known as subalternos also take part. The events open with the bullfighters and horses making a “lap of honor” through the arena in order to introduce themselves to the public. They all greet the president, and then momentarily leave the ring. The bull is then released into the ring, where it is soon tested by the matador and several other bullfighters. The purpose of this is to observe how the animal moves and reacts to them, and after some time, the bull begins to become exhausted. The bullfighters lure the bull with their capes, making short passes which the bull follows but is not built for. These short passes overload his muscles and bones, causing the bull to weaken after this initial stage in the fight. Following this act, one or two horse riders known as picadores enter the arena wielding a long lance known as a pica. The task of these men is to use their lances to puncture and slice the neck muscles of the bull using their lances, restricting the bull’s ability to raise its head in self defense and causing it to bleed profusely. The horses these picadores ride on are blindfolded and armored. However, even these horses are sometimes injured during this act, leading many to consider this act the cruelest part of the bullfight (since both bulls and horses are injured as the fight goes on). The bull’s pain and stress are far from over, however. After the picadores are finished with their attack, they leave the arena and a new fighter takes their place, the banderillo. The banderillo (sometimes the matador himself) is a fighter equipped with banderillas (hence his name), or barbed spears. The banderillo thrusts the spears into the bull’s neck and back, causing the bull great pain with every movement and leading to even more blood loss. By this point, the bull is severely weakened by its terrible wounds, and the bullfight begins to draw to an end. Finally, it is the matador’s turn (assuming he did not act as a banderillo already). The role of the matador is to kill the bull with a sword while he performs a series of poses and passes with his cape, which the injured bull charges after. Eventually, the lack of energy and continuous blood loss debilitate the bull to the point where it can no longer charge at the matador. The matador must then use a sharper sword known as the estoque to kill the bull with one strike to the heart. Unfortunately, this often goes wrong, and the bull must suffer a series of puncture wounds as the matador attempts to stab the animal’s heart. The bull is sometimes stabbed in the lungs, causing it to cough up blood, suffocate, and collapse. Upon dropping to the ground, another man stabs a puntilla (dagger) into the back of the bull’s neck in order to kill the animal. If the bull actually manages to resist the damage done to it with the matador’s estoque, a long sword called “el verdugo” is used on it instead. On some occasions, the bull appears to be merely paralyzed by the strike from the sword, and it may experience the pain of having its ears and tail cut off as rewards to the matador. The bull is then dragged from the arena by a team of mules or horses, after which he is taken to the butcher.[8]

Banderillas are used to inflict terrible and painful wounds on bulls. © CAS/SHARK

An equally abusive type of corrida de toros is the rejoneo, which is carried out entirely on horseback. Instead of teasing the bull with a cape, the matador uses his own horse, which is specially trained to avoid the bull’s charges (accidents do occasionally occur, though). Instead of using the pica, or lance, on the bull, a special banderilla known as rejón de castigo (“dagger of punishment”) is stabbed into the bull’s back with the intention of causing the creature great pain, cutting its muscles, and producing blood loss. The horse rider then begins to stab several normal banderillas into the bull’s back, much like in the corrida de toros. After the bull begins to succumb to exhaustion, agony, and blood loss, another weapon called the rejón de muerte (also known as the “death sword”) is used to kill the bull. This “death sword” is stabbed deep into the bull’s back by the horse rider in an attempt to pierce its heart. If the bull survives this painful attack, then it must be killed through the use of the “verdugo” sword or a dagger. In this bullfight, the bull is not the only creature to suffer. Since the horses in rejoneos must react very quickly to the rider’s instructions, they suffer through the continuous and heavy use of the rider’s spurs throughout the fight. This often results in the horses bearing visible bloody marks on their sides after bullfights.[9]

Spurs are used by the riders of these horses in order to force the horses to react as quickly as possible. © 2000 Jeunes pour l'Abolition de la Corrida en France

Possibly the most disturbing bullfighting customs in Spain, however, are the fiestas known as “El toro de la Vega”, “El toro de Coria,” and the “Toros de Fuego” festivals. In the Vega fiesta, a bull is chased all over a village as the pursuers puncture the bull’s body with spears. This continues until the bull dies. Disturbingly enough, the bull’s testicles are sometimes cut off while the animal is clearly still alive. The Coria fiesta is just as appalling, as it consists of releasing a bull into the streets while people throw darts at it. By the time the animal begins to near death, it is covered in darts and almost completely stained in its own blood. Once the bull finally collapses from blood loss, it is killed with a gun. The “Toros de Fuego” event (meaning “bulls of fire”) consists of placing a ball of pitch on both of the bull’s horns and setting each ball on fire. The bull is released to the streets, where it suffers for hours as the fire burns its horns, body, and eyes. The bulls used in this custom often cause further injury to themselves as they ram themselves into walls in confusion and panic.[10] There are other fiestas which involve a similarly savage treatment of these animals, as these are merely a few examples of the abuse carried out on these animals in Spain.

An unfortunate bull suffers as he is attacked with countless darts in the "Toro de Coria" fiesta. © FAACE

There is no doubt that the animals used in these tragic traditions are suffering. Suffering and pain are biological traits shared by countless creatures in the animal kingdom. These traits which inform creatures concerning what they should avoid. For this purpose, animals possess pain receptors and memory, allowing them to remember what caused them pain in the past and, thus, providing them with the information they require to avoid those same sources of pain in the future. While pain informs an animal which particular stimuli it needs to avoid, suffering informs it about a situation to avoid. Therefore, in order to experience suffering, an animal needs to possess an awareness of its environment, the ability to develop moods which allow for a behavioral response, and the capacity to alter unfavorable conditions or avoid them entirely. The existence of these characteristics is especially clear in mammals, due to their relatively large brains and complex behavior.[11]

Due to this, we should be able to observe signs of pain and stress in bulls and cows used for bullfighting and similar customs, and this we do. In a type of bullfighting known as Course Landside bullfighting, a cow is tied in the bullring by a rope and is continuously pulled and teased to charge. The cow’s natural response in this situation offers a clear indication that the animal is in stress; the cow not only pulls its head away from the direction of the bullfighters, but even attempts to run towards the door from which it entered the bullring in order to escape this situation. At the end of the rope, the cow will experience teasing by the bullfighters as well as repeated stabs from a pointed stick. This makes up the stressful situation that the animal desires to escape from, an event it may have experienced in the past. The ability these animals possess to recall past events is precisely why this style of bullfighting could not be carried out properly without the rope, as cows which have experienced this stress in the past and remember the pain it caused them would simply try to escape the bullfighters. Stress caused from exhaustion is also observed, as tired bulls in bullfighting events soon expose their tongues and lift up their heads less and less due to their lack of stamina. Calls and vocalizations can also be observed in these stressful and painful situations. This is important in social creatures such as bulls, as it allows the suffering of one individual to be communicated to others, allowing them to learn which situation to avoid without having to experience it themselves. Therefore, these vocalizations are an important instinct for bovines, an instinct which comes into play not only in the wild, but also in the situations bulls are forced into in bullfights. Bulls vocalizing in bullfights are not doing so without reason; they are reacting by expressing their distress or pain in an attempt to notify any nearby bulls about the danger. It should be noted, however, that despite the suffering that these animals experience in the bullring, many of them are already stressed by the time they arrive. Sometimes, a bull that is to be transported over a long distance to a bullring is tied to the ceiling of the lorry with its horns, severely restricting its movement. This, along with possible high temperatures experienced by the animal as it is transported during daytime, soon begins to trouble the animal greatly. Once the bulls arrive to the bullring, they are placed in temporary cells before entering the arena. Their behavior in these cells is similar to that of a herd that has been alerted to danger. If they are still together (they are ultimately separated from each other), the bulls get together and cover their backs with one another, looking in all directions as they attempt to locate their threat. They experience further stress due to the pain inflicted on them by sharp, pointed spears whenever they do not respond to verbal instructions. Upon finally entering the arena, these bulls are subjected to the immense torture detailed earlier, bringing the animals to their absolute limits. Due to the circular design of bullrings, which deny bulls any possible corners from which to properly fend off their attackers, many bulls would prefer to escape. Once again, the circular design of the arena comes into play in order to diminish this behavior, as after a couple of rounds, the bull can no longer identify the door from which it entered the arena. Some bulls will still attempt to escape in desperation, though, as they try to jump the fence, sometimes with success. This behavior points to the fact that the bulls recognize the arena as nothing more than a source of stress or a dangerous area, and thus do everything within their power to escape from it. It is also incredibly difficult to “convince” the bulls to return to the arena, and they only do so when forced to via painful means. In the end, a bull’s only option is to charge at its attacker, a decision which usually ends in a long and torturous death for the animal anyway. Furthermore, since the charge of the bull is clearly a last resort defense mechanism, it cannot truly be considered an “attack.” More accurately, it is an endeavor at pushing away the true attacker in an effort to rid itself of the adverse situation. The bull’s final moments of pain as it suffers the strikes of the matador’s sword offer a strong indication of the animal’s suffering, as the facial expressions of the bull during this time can be interpreted by anyone, not just scientists, as suffering. Some bulls, shortly before their deaths, will walk towards the edge of the ring, where the exit is bound to be. This may be their last attempt to escape, or an effort to cover its back in vain defense. Some bulls even approach bullfighters which do not appear to be hostile at the moment, such as a bullfighter sitting quietly on the base of the fence. This may be interpreted as the bull seeking help or, perhaps, even mercy.[12]

Bullfighting bulls suffer an incredible amount of stress and abuse before finally being killed. © Miguel Noronha

There are other indicators that lead to the conclusion that these creatures experience pain and suffering, both in the wild and (especially) in the brutal battles they are forced into in the violent and cruel custom that is bullfighting. However, by now it should be clear that this bloody tradition is in no way humane or worthy of approval. Bullfighting has, for good reasons, been criticized more and more over the years. The torture inflicted on these creatures is inexcusable and entirely immoral, no matter how we look at this custom. Fortunately, as more become aware of the brutality present in this tradition, more rise up against it. Nonetheless, bullfighting remains a popular attraction for many people. As long as the custom remains, so will the unnecessary suffering of countless animals every year.

[1] “Bullfighting.” www.cas-international.org. http://www.cas-international.org/en/home/suffering-of-bulls-and-horses/bullfighting/ (accessed November 12, 2011).

[2] “Intro.” www.iwab.org. http://www.iwab.org/intro.html (accessed November 12, 2011).

[3] “History of Bullfighting in Spain.” www.spanish-fiestas.com. http://www.spanish-fiestas.com/bullfighting/history.htm (accessed November 12, 2011).

[4] “Bullfighting.” www.cas-international.org. http://www.cas-international.org/en/home/suffering-of-bulls-and-horses/bullfighting/ (accessed November 12, 2011).

[5] “Bullfighting in Spain.” www.cas-international.org. http://www.cas-international.org/en/home/suffering-of-bulls-and-horses/bullfighting/spain/ (accessed November 12, 2011).

[6] “Recortadores.” www.cas-international.org. http://www.cas-international.org/en/home/suffering-of-bulls-and-horses/bullfighting/recortes/ (accessed November 12, 2011).

[7] “Capeas.” www.cas-international.org. http://www.cas-international.org/en/home/suffering-of-bulls-and-horses/bullfighting/capeas/ (accessed November 12, 2011).

[8] “Corridas de Toros.” www.cas-international.org. http://www.cas-international.org/en/home/suffering-of-bulls-and-horses/bullfighting/corridas-de-toros/ (accessed November 12, 2011).

[9] “Rejoneos.” www.cas-international.org. http://www.cas-international.org/en/home/suffering-of-bulls-and-horses/bullfighting/rejoneos/ (accessed November 12, 2011).

[10] “Bullfights in Spain.” www.iwab.org. http://www.iwab.org/spaineng.html (accessed November 12, 2011).

[11] Casamitjana, Jordi. “The suffering of ‘bullfighting’ bulls.” www.cas-international.org. http://www.cas-international.org/en/home/suffering-of-bulls-and-horses/the-suffering-of-bulls/ (accessed November 12, 2011).

[12] Ibid