Detractors target Spain’s first sport with hopes to get it banned

Story by Shandana Mufti // Photos by Maria Amasanti

El toro races into the sandy bullfighting ring, running wildly for a few seconds before three banderilleros, men carrying fuschia and golden capes, step in waving heavy cloths to catch the attention of the lumbering beast. He obliges, charging at the flapping capotes.

With that the game is on, a wildly popular sport that melds the unforgiving bloodthirstiness of gladiator games with the showmanship of professional wrestling. One thing’s for sure: The bull can flee, fight, even gore his opponent, but other than a few exceptions, he’s going to leave the ring without a pulse. That’s the rule. And this gruesome inevitability has led to a growing movement to ban bullfighting.

Enrique Ponce flashes the matador’s red cape at a bull in May. They are in front of a crowd of thousands in Valladolid, Spain, at Saint Peter de Regalado’s festival.

On this day, though, there are no protestors at the Plaza de Toros in Valladolid, just an arena packed with eager fans of the sport.

The action builds as two picadors, men riding blindfolded horses, emerge from a gate on the left, circling to approach the bull from each side. While the other waits, one lifts his arm to stab a pica, a long wooden pole with a sharpened metal tip, between the bull’s shoulders, aiming to sever a muscle mass that helps hold up his head. As the picador makes his move, the bull’s horn gets caught in the horse’s protective peto padding. There is a moment of struggle and the pica by mistake remains stuck in the bull’s flesh. The crowd boos because the longer the spear remains, the weaker the bull will get, and they came to see a good fight.

Bullfighting, or corrida de toros, is a violent spectacle that began before Columbus’s discovery of America. Its influence on Spanish culture is undeniable and almost mythical in its presence in literature, in art, in its draw for tourists and in a romanticized version of that age-old story of man battling savage prey. As a result, Spain has taken steps to secure bullfighting as a protected national treasure, granting it “cultural heritage status” by an act of Parliament, therefore funding it with public money from both local taxpayers and the European Union.

But that protection has not come without a different kind of fight, this one playing out on ballots, on social media platforms and in the streets with demonstrators angry that a “blood sport,” as they call it, has come to symbolize their country and its people. And their side is starting to gain momentum.

In 2010, Catalonia, an autonomous territory in the northeastern section of the country, voted to ban bullfighting. The movement, started by animal rights activists and driven by a nationalist lobby clamoring for independence, distances the community from the bullfights that have become an essential part of the Spanish experience.

Though bullfighting supporters throughout the country are confident that the legislation will protect a tradition that attracts 9 million spectators each year, animal rights activists are not ready to abandon efforts to ban the killing of bulls for entertainment.

“If you’re against a blood sport, if you’re against killing, I don’t know how you can accept it,” says Carrie Douglass, a University of Virginia anthropology professor who has written extensively about bullfighting and how it shapes a cohesive, national identity in a country composed of 17 autonomous regions.

Animal welfare laws exist in Spain, says Senator Alberto Gutiérrez Alberca of the ruling People’s Party, speaking through a translator. However, they do not apply to bullfights. “These laws are intended to protect animals from abuse,” he says, suggesting that the corridas do not constitute maltreatment, which is why he voted in favor of the legislation to protect it. “This is no different than an animal being slaughtered and then eaten,” he stresses.

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While the bull’s meat is sold outside the arenas following the fight, Gutiérrez Alberca’s comparison is lost on animal rights supporters. And even when the bulls “win” – as in a nationally-televised bullfight in Madrid in May during which three bullfighters were gored – the bull is killed. That event was only suspended because there were four more bulls left to fight, but no bullfighters left to fight them.

That isn’t the case at the festival on a warm, May Sunday at the Valladolid bullring. As the crowd cheered, the pica spear is finally yanked loose from the bull’s shoulders. Streaks of blood run down his sides and legs and glisten in the late afternoon sun. The banderilleros catapult into the ring, each carrying two sticks – banderillas – covered in the colors of the city of Valladolid. With arms outstretched, each banderillero runs at the bull to dig the spikes into either side of his shoulders, shouting “Hey hey hey!” to get his attention. The batons dangle for the remainder of the fight, held in by barbed tips. Exposed muscle in the middle of the bull’s shoulder blades moves loosely as he runs at the men.

Now the matador de toros – translated as killer of bulls – enters, to thunderous cheering from a crowd with cameras held high in the air. He’s the last of the team of six men fighting the bull, and he’s the star. Hidden in his red muleta – cape – is an aluminum estoque, a sword used just for show. As the performance nears its end, he’ll trade it for a steel estoque, which he will pierce through the bull’s heart for the final kill.


Before the 19th century and the emergence of the three-step corrida acted out in bullrings today, there was less elaborate pageantry and more chaos as five traveling bullfighters put on hectic shows for locals with no other source of entertainment. One man would jump over the bull and another would try to flip him over using the horns as leverage as the other executed the kill. As the roles and tools of picador and banderillero developed, the event began to resemble today’s festivals, which feature a rotation of three matadors pitted against six bulls, with each matador killing two.

Bullfighting is woven intricately into the fabric of Spain’s national identity, with images of bulls ubiquitous on souvenirs, street-side murals, museum walls. The pastime has been immortalized in art, whether the opera Carmen, Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises or Pedro Almodovar’s acclaimed 2002 drama, Talk to Me, in which one of the central characters is a bullfighter who is gored. Artists and sculptors also helped preserve now classic images of matadors leading bulls through deep red capes, or of man and beast staring each other down in an arena surrounded by thousands.

But opposition to bullfighting also has a rich tradition.

In the late 1400s, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon made efforts to ban the sport. In 1567, the Catholic Church joined the discussion when Pope Pius V issued a papal charter forbidding bullfighting and denying Christian burial to men killed in the ring.

Bullfighting was among Spain’s exports in its colonial days, with variations brought to numerous countries in Latin America including Mexico and Peru. But some countries have since passed national measures to ban the sport. Today, it is prohibited in Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, according to the Humane Society International, or HSI, one of the groups calling for a ban in Spain. States within Mexico’s federation have also recently begun passing bans.

Bullfighting in Culture

From the 19th century opera Carmen, pictured left, and set in Seville, to Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, pictured center, bullfighting has been romanticized in arts and culture in and outside of Spain. Prints and paintings of bullfights by Spanish painter Francisco Goya hang in the world’s greatest museums. Images courtesy of Boston Lyric Opera, Simon and Schuster and the Prado Museum.

Of the Spanish provinces that remain committed to bullfighting as the country’s first national sport, Salamanca is unique because it is home to most of the farms that raise bulls for the ring. Images of the fight fill the city, which hosts a museum of the sport with heads of prized bulls, famous matador outfits, and an extensive collection of brands used by farms to mark their livestock.

Pablo del Castillo, director of the Museo Taurino de Salamanca, fielded questions about the history of the bullfight, and about his assertion that no one cares more for a bull than the man who slays it. Until the moment that the bullfight begins, he says, the animals live like royalty in vast fields and beautiful encina trees to seek shade under. He also notes that some bulls are “pardoned” – which means they are spared from slaughter and sent back to their farm. But that only happens when the bull behaves as the matador commands. Pardoned bulls make up a fraction of the more than 10,000 animals led into the ring every year.

His words ring hollow to bullfight opponents. For them, neither the slim chance that a bull could be pardoned nor the comfortable lives bulls enjoy before the fight are justifications for the drawn-out public slaughter they endure.

“People were going to bullfights because of tradition,” says Marta Esteban, president of Madrid-based La Tortura No Es Cultura, or Torture Is Not Culture. The group’s Facebook page has more than 120,000 likes. “But as we raise awareness and people learn about the torture, interest dies,” she says.

Just 29 percent of the population supports bullfighting, according to a Humane Society International-commissioned poll conducted last year by British market research company Ipsos MORI. Some have linked the country’s recession, not opposition to bullfighting, to the decrease in support and attendance.

Esteban’s group is among the supporters of Partido Animalista PACMA or Spanish Party for Animals, which is a fringe political party in Spain with animal rights as its only platform.

“For us it is essential to end bullfighting if we work for our society to extend consideration towards animals as sentient beings,” PACMA party President Silvia Barquero wrote in an email interview. “Bullfighting is an outdated practice, which no longer has the support of Spanish citizens who overwhelmingly reject animal abuse. It is an anachronism held by the lobby that benefits economically from the subsidies it receives.”

Yet, there is no question people are still heading to the ring in throngs. With a collective attendance of 40 million, bullfighting and various related activities that include bulls contribute about 2.5 billion euros, or $3.4 billion, annually to Spain, economist José Hernández García stated in an e-mail interview. It creates thousands of jobs from seamstresses to farm workers, and in spite of the recession, remains the second-most popular spectator sport in Spain after soccer. Still, statistics from the Humane Society International show that between 2007 and 2011, the number of bullfights declined from 3,650 a year to 2,290.

“I think the fact that bullfighting was and is institutional is one of the reasons that Spain is one of the worst at animal rights in the EU,” Esteban says. “If the government supports killing an animal for entertainment, what else can be done with an animal?”

Animals rights activists say the fight that ends here was never fair. The bull has been stabbed many times in his shoulders and back before matador Enrique Ponce stands to face him, pictured here, before the final, fatal plunge of the sword.

Although bullfighting remains banned in Catalonia and the Canary Islands, where it was voted out of existence in 1991, no other autonomies can pursue similar restrictions because of the national heritage designation. In fact, the Spanish Parliament’s move to declare bullfighting a cultural heritage was a reaction to the Catalan legislation, says Pau Mari-Klose, a sociology professor at the University of Zaragoza in northwest Spain.

For leaders such as Esteban and Barquero, however, efforts to ban the use of bulls for entertainment are not over. PACMA ran in the European Union elections as part of the Euro Animal 7, a group of seven parties from across the EU running on platforms that advocate animal rights. Barquero’s party quadrupled its votes since the last EU elections in 2009. Dutch and German partners from the Euro Animal 7 won seats in the EU parliament, and will represent PACMA’s interests.

Furthermore, La Tortura No Es Cultura’s last campaign, #LoveSpainHateBullfights, was directed against the move to declare bullfighting a national heritage. The group’s website included a pre-written letter to be sent to Spanish embassies around the world, decrying the legislation. It culminated in September 2013 with representatives from more than 100 international animal welfare groups submitting a letter signed by 140 scientists expressing concern about links between animal abuse and violence and the potential desensitizing of child spectators. The group is now working on a new initiative to ban all forms of entertainment that involve bulls including the encierros – the famous and beloved “running of the bulls” – still legal in Catalonia and all over Spain.


Back at the ring in Valladolid, it’s the final tercio, or third act of the fight, and the matador has 10 minutes to slay the bull. The event is as much about entertainment as it is about dominance of man over beast, and first, the matador has a show to perform.

He moves fluidly, twisting and turning his cape to lead the bull through a series of dizzying circles. Blood stains slowly spread across the cape as the bull charges through it. There is a moment of quiet confrontation as animal and matador stand facing each other. The crowd is silent until the matador moves his cape again, dancing the bull through it.

The live music played by a band tucked away on the upper level of the arena starts to play louder as the matador puts away his show blade, trading it for a glinting steel one – his estoque. A ringing cellphone is angrily shushed. Blood oozes from the bull’s wounds and he seems to be losing control of his legs. In the quiet arena, every “Hey!” of the matador reverberates as he demands the weakening bull’s attention.

Again and again, he draws the bull close to him with his cape before stepping aside or leaning out of the way at the last second. Each move is deliberate, designed to exhaust the bull before the fatal strike.

Famed matador el Fandi celebrates as the bull dies (caption to be changed by Carlene.)

Famed matador David el Fandi, in red on the right, celebrates as the bull dies.

The first stab is a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, in and out of the bull’s left side. It’s aimed at the heart, and though the crowd cheers and the band starts up again, the bull is still standing because vital blood vessels were not touched. Killing the bull with the first stab is a show of skill, but this toro is very much alive. The muscle flapping from the initial wound is more pronounced, and now, a gleam of white bone is visible.

The matador makes his next move, but again, the knife doesn’t cut through the heart. As the bull struggles to stay alive, he faces the matador with his tail twitching. The bull’s movements are slower, clumsier, and the matador easily plunges the long blade into his left shoulder a third time. The bull staggers forward a few feet before collapsing onto the sandy ground. Cheers fill the arena as the bull’s spinal cord is severed with a small dagger, finally killing him.

Three mules attached to a harness that lags behind them are marched in by men in white outfits with red belts and scarves. They stop by the bull’s body, bending to attach its horns to the harness with chains. The bull is dragged out through the door from which he entered just 20 minutes earlier. Men with rakes quickly smooth over the sand.

The doors swing open again, and the next toro races in.

  1. Bonnie Hempel

    I really don’t know what to say… It’s difficult to understand the attraction of this spectacle, tradition or not. Great writing job, however!

  1. Pingback: Spanish bullfights: the tradition and its uncertain future | NU Journalism Abroad 2014

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