If you’ve been following the Spanish news over the summer – wherever you may have spent the last couple of months – or indeed if you’ve been reading the international press, you may have noticed a glut of stories on injuries and deaths from bull-related events here in Spain.
A total of 12 people died during July and August at corridas (bullfights) and encierros (bull-runnings, when bulls are let loose in the street and “run” to a bullring, by far the most famous and well-attended of which is San Fermin in Pamplona, with 15 deaths in its 90-year history), mostly at smaller pueblo fiestas in the provinces of Valladolid, Toledo, Navarra, Valencia, Murcia, Castellon, Madrid and Alicante.
In addition, two bullfighters sustained serious injuries caused by cornadas (goring by a bull’s horn – yes, there’s a word for it in Spanish) – Saul Jimenez Fortes, in Salamanca, received a horn upwards through the chin (the photos are horrific but also horribly fascinating, especially if your sympathies lie with the four-legged beast), while the other was gored in the guts. Fran Rivera Ordoñez, ex-son-in-law of the late Duquesa de Alba and joint investor in the new Lonja del Barranco gourmet market in Seville, darling of the prensa rosa (gossip magazines and TV shows), sustained a cornada which was so serious that the horn went right through his body as far as his spinal column, without – incredibly – damaging his internal organs. He was given immediate treatment in the small emergency room at the Huesca bullring, before being operated on in hospital by a surgeon.
Fran’s father, the bullfighter Paquirri (Fran shares his nickname), died of a similar injury in 1984, before such onsite life-saving facilities were available; his grandfather Antonio Ordoñez was also a famous matador, and good friend of Orson Welles. Such injuries are not uncommon, but what was interesting was the reaction on Social Media – far from sympathetic to the young Paquirri. Many questioned the relative news-worthiness of a wealthy man risking his life voluntarily to kill a dangerous 500-kilo animal, and getting hurt in the process, against a general backdrop of continuing poverty, unemployment and hardship suffered by so many Spanish families. Most Tweeters were unconcerned, and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
Then the Washington Post ran a story asking if the end was nigh for these (blood)sports. And last week, El Pais in English joined in the debate, asking “Is Spain turning its back on bullfighting?” The English-language news website quoted the number of bullfights being held in Spain as having dropped by nearly 60 per cent between 2007 and 2014. The article also said that showing bullfights on state broadcaster TVE has not been a success, with viewers falling below one million in August for the first time ever.
Bullfights are banned in Catalonia and the Canary Islands, but in the rest of the country they still take place from March to October, with numbers varying depending on what you read: from around 400 to 2,000 corridas are held every year, with 7,200 bulls being killed. Small pueblo events seem to be growing – with 16,000 this year, up by 2,000 on 2014, according to the Culture Ministry – but major bullfights are on the wane.
According to figures quoted on the BBC provided by a professor of Extremadura University, bullfighting produces 280 million euros per year, generating 59 million euros in tax. Another figure quoted, in El Pais, was 3.5bn euros, with 350m euros in sales tax, along with 200,000 jobs. Who is to say which one is accurate – it was pointed out that some such figures may include total hotel occupation in the town during an event, assuming all visitors are there to attend the taurine event.
I personally have noticed a huge shift in public opinion since arriving in Andalucia in 2003. Then, the anti-taurino movement was so small as to be barely noticeable; most people seemed to be either actively pro, or indifferent, with very few strongly opposed. Now the idea to ban bullfighting is very much on the public consciousness; many groups have appeared, with active Social Media presence – for example on Facebook – denouncing the cruelty of the sport, and garnering tens of thousands of supporting comments.
There is even a political party with a bullfighting ban on its agenda – PACMA, the Partido Animalista, which is against cruelty to animals; it garnered nearly 500,000 votes at the last general election. Spanish celebrities are supporting PACMA’s campaign against the brutal Torre de la Vega fiesta in Tordesillas – where a bull is chased through the streets and then in fields, speared by hundreds of people on horseback carrying long wooden lances – with the theme “Rompo una lanza” (I break a spear). A demonstration to protest about the event is planned in Madrid later this month. Some major Spanish singing stars offered to stage a free music festival in Tordesillas, if the mayor agreed to cancel the Toro de la Vega fiesta.
On the one side, the defenders talk of age-old traditions, their right to carry out their local fiestas as they have done for generations – in some case centuries – without interference, and bulls living a charmed life in the campo as they prepare for their final appearance. On the other, the attackers talk of unjustifiable cruelty, of causing intense suffering and pain, both physical and mental, to an animal. Recently, a female protestor jumped into the ring to comfort a dying bull – you would never have seen such an action ten, perhaps even five, years ago.
For me personally, the attitude of the Spanish corrida aficionado mentality is summed up by a vehemently pro-bullfighting man I heard interviewed on Spanish radio. He stated unequivocally that animals don’t feel pain, so what does it matter if the bull dies a slow death, bleeding copiously from any numbers of wounds? There’s no meeting point between those who love it and those who hate it, no common ground. Here’s a thought – why not have bullfighting where the animal isn’t actually killed, as in Portugal and France, or the alternative version where men (casually dressed, so without the same aesthetic impact of the traje de luces) jump over the bull? Such activities also involve a high amount of skill, speed, physical prowess, and above all raw courage and sang-froid. Well, would you put yourself in an enclosed space watched by thousands with a half-ton snorting, angry beast? Exactly.