The bull in the stands

Mark Ellis Journalist and Writer
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“She saw a bullfight in Maravatio, and was sickened by it, but got her sketches just the same.” — from Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose

Wallace Stegner’s fictional Susan Burling Ward is a late 1880s pioneer woman who has seen plenty of frontier butchering. But at a bullfight, while the artist in her remained on task, the woman in her turned away.

It is harder to say if Stegner himself, unlike Ernest Hemingway, also deplored bullfighting, but since a recurring theme in Stegner’s work is the destruction of wildness by humankind, we might extrapolate that he too felt empathy toward the bull.

So do I. But as I researched the recent story about a bull that had gotten into the stands at an event in Spain, I found myself challenged. Delving deeper, past the international videos, photos, and articles and into the comments sections, I was introduced to a community which equates bullfighting with everything from rodeos, circuses, and zoos, to eating meat and wearing leather.

I eat meat, wear leather, and have been to my share of rodeos, circuses and zoos, all guilt free. Was it hypocritical of me to castigate bullfighting enthusiasts? This question, at its core about the ethical treatment of animals, became: where to draw the line?

When an enraged bull jumped into the stands of a bullring in the northern Spanish town of Tafalla last August, I found myself rooting for the bull. It was a primal feeling, what comes around goes around, which I was able to quickly rationalize.

It wasn’t that I wanted to see people get the wrong end of karma at the bloody tip of a bull’s horn. It was that I found it hard to empathize with spectators who had paid to watch the ritualistic destruction of a living thing. Forty people were injured that day, three seriously, including one child.

Further research into the story revealed that this bull was not in a bullfight, but a recortadores, an event where professionals and aspiring youths taunt the bull and then acrobatically evade its charges. The bull survives this spectacle, although in the

Tafalla case the bull was put to death after its rampage. As I thought more about it I realized that though a recortadores is not as cruel as a bullfight, the overarching dynamic remains unchanged.

Another ethics buzzword: spectacle. The unfairness and cruelty of any act which makes a spectacle of the torment of animals.

But aren’t circuses, rodeos, and zoos spectacles? So challenge the committed animal rights proponents. Animals do suffer injuries, psychological difficulties, loss of freedom, and possibly indignity in such venues, despite reform efforts that have improved the lives of captive and performing animals. Societies the world over have reconciled to such presentations on the grounds that they provide meaningful and enriching experiences for people, that the trade-off is worth it.

Ethics check: degree.

Of the above examples, only the bullfight tradition — whatever its human-ascribed virtues, like valor, machismo, romanticism and art — centers on the intentional infliction of pain with the ultimate purpose of killing.

Another lesson learned by digging deeper into the story of the bull at Tafalla was that those who only called out the bullfight dwarfed the number of those who equated bullfighting with other types of animal exploitation. In consistent comments sampling, the line was drawn at bullfighting, ostensibly by many people who eat meat and go to see animals at exhibition.

Interestingly, there was a discernable subtext in the consensus which suggested unanimous contempt for less celebrated animal abuse spectacles like cock-fighting and dog-fighting. Only the imprimatur of history and culture elevated the bullfight from that inglorious realm.

Like some great-hearted beast under the final thrust of the matador, bullfighting is dying. State-run Spanish TV cancelled live coverage of bullfights in August 2007. In December 2009 the parliament of Catalonia approved the preparation of a law to ban bullfighting; in July 2010 it passed, making Catalonia the second of Spain’s seventeen autonomous communities — the first being the Canary Islands — to enact such a ban.

Public outcry within and without Spain and Latin America is sounding the death knell for this national blood sport.

Ethics check: intent, spectacle, degree.

Eating meat and wearing animal skins date back to humankind’s earliest origins. Such behavior fits the evolutionary model, and, for some, is part of a spiritual grand design that made humans omnivorous. For a majority, there is no cognitive dissonance between the abhorrence of bullfighting and ordering steaks, wearing leather jackets, carrying leather purses, or even enjoying bull riding contests.

It has been forty years since Stegner’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize. Those forty years have not been kind to the bulls, but they have also not been kind to bullfighting. Soon, images like the bull in the stands, and of the bullrings falling into disrepair across the old Hispanic Empire, will become lost to time.

The line, then, is ritual slaughter. Bullfighting is the manifestation of a collective bloodlust that sociologists diagnose as both prehistorically barbaric and historically decadent.

Mark Ellis is a Portland, Oregon, journalist and writer.