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Sangre Del Torro – The ethics of Spanish bullfighting

Sangre Del Torro – The ethics of Spanish bullfighting

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Bullfighting is one of the cultural earmarks of Spain.

Dating back to the times before Christ and rooted in the pagan mythology of sacrificing bulls to multiple gods, bullfighting is celebrated as a masculine display of bravado and human courage. The first formalised bullfight was staged in the eleventh century, almost a thousand years ago. More than a sport, bullfighting was seen as symbolic of the ongoing struggle between humanity and nature, or humanity and the underworld. Fans imbue it with an almost spiritual importance, and definitely as an artform.

Now social mores have changed, and general opinion has shifted. Even in Spain public consensus is very much against bullfighting. Only ten per cent of Spain's population are fans, with the remainder being either indifferent - dismissing bullfighting as a quaint remnant of a redundant past - or strongly opposed.

The arguments against it are hard to refute: Aside from the cerebral wrangles over an animal's consent to participate, there are more immediate and practical issues of cruelty. Bulls are not released into the ring in their best shape: they may spend an entire day weighted with sandbags to sap their energy, be fed laxatives to weaken and dehydrate them, be partially blinded with petroleum jelly or have their neck muscles cut to prevent full motion of their (shaved) horns. Like the bulls of Pamplona, many bulls are raised in dark confined spaces, released into the light only at the moment of entering the arena, to ensure that they are as disoriented and vulnerable as possible.

The Spanish government has responded to the shift in public opinion. Bullfights have been banned from being televised, following concerns raised by parents about the violent images being seen by children, and under-14s are no longer allowed to attend bullfights. These two moves effectively strangled the profit flow of bullfighting: TV advertising and family tickets to live matches were the two main market sectors.

Nevertheless, the ten per cent of Spaniards who do favour bullfighting are a vocal minority who put their money where there mouth is, paying increasingly higher prices for a spectator sport that has lost financial viability. They also have powerful friends. Although the Queen despises bullfighting and actively boycotts the sport, the Spanish King can often be found cheering the matadors, and makes no move to hide his support. While the Catalan authorities have severely curbed bullfighting, even proposing to expand animal cruelty laws to include bullfighting, and the Canary Islands have banned it altogether, the capital Madrid shows no signs of stopping.

For tourists, the decision to see a bullfight is a difficult ethical one. Although social fashion decries it, there are many who are drawn to the primal brutality, despite their uneasy consciences.

The practical experience of being present at a bullfight is somewhat different to the preconception. In much the same way that a soccer novice is bemused by the hysterical passion over a game that doesn't seem to involve much action, so too is a new bullfight spectator often left wondering what all the fuss is about. The bull is guaranteed to die and this, while tragic, effectively takes the suspense of true sport out of the equation. Why pay to see something that is no more gruesome than an average afternoon in an abattoir?

This begs the question: Why make such a big deal out of a few hundred cattle deaths for sport when the steak you ate for dinner tonight came from one of millions of such deaths – after slaughters that are almost always brutal, bloody and cruel? Steak knife or sword, is there really a difference?

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