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The Shame of the Chase

August 5, 2011

Earlier I talked about the running of the bulls in the first morning after the opening ceremony of the San Fermín festival of Pamplona, Spain. The adrenaline and thrill of running down the street with the giant balls of horn-covered momentum must be one of the most intense things in the world.

The run, as I said, originally started simply as a way to get the bulls from one end of town to the other, to be ready for the bullfight that evening. So I would be wrong not to address what happens after that mad run which finishes in the Plaza del Toros.

Upon arriving in the arena, the stands are full of spectators cheering, and the ground is full of runners panting and celebrating. The bulls have been herded out to a holding pen on the far side, and the runners who came in before them have been booed and had things thrown at them, being forced to leave the central ground area as they did not, in fact, run with the bulls, having never been on the same part of the track as them once.

And so, all around, all you can see is white and red, and all you can hear is the roar of the crowd and the participants, sharing a communal joy in a job well done. When suddenly, there is an outcry, and panic suddenly ripples out from one part of the arena. It’s so hard to see anything through the forest of people, but then a gap opens up, and there is a bull, running through the crowd!

Personally, I’ve had enough, and don’t really know what’s going on, so I make my way to the edge of the arena and lift myself over the barrier, climbing up into the front of the spectator seats. From there I can look down and see one stray bull charging around the ground, with runners parting in front of it.

Only, after my initial rush, a second look and I realize that this bull is much smaller than the others. And what’s with its horns? They’re capped? I quickly see that this isn’t one of the bulls we ran with, rather a small baby bull, not possessed of much strength, and with what looks like some kind of wax or rubber balls over its horns to prevent it from doing any real damage. And it’s not attacking people at all, in fact, it looks like it’s just trying to find a way out.

As it trots around the arena, the people panic and part in front of it, and the bull generally pays them no mind. It’s just a fun, safe way for the runners to celebrate their victory by getting up close to the bull without the danger. Which looks like fun on the surface, and probably would be if people followed the rules, but soon people inevitably return to the dicks they are.

First, let me agree that I’m sure it is at least a little traumatic for the bull. It obviously doesn’t really know why it’s there or what it’s supposed to do, there are people and noise all around it, and it’s just looking for a place to be. If anyone disagrees with this, you only need to look at how they remove the bull from the arena: they bring in a full-grown steer to attract the bull’s attention. The bull then runs after the steer, which is led back out of the arena, the bull in tow.

Although the bull isn’t enjoying the festivities, it’s not really being hurt. People try to touch the bull for good luck, but that’s all. Adrenaline kicks in, though, and it wasn’t too long before we saw people trying to jump over it like it was some kind of pommel horse, and others trying to grab it by the horns or put it in headlocks. This kind of pissed me off, but the upside wasn’t far away – treating the bull like that is against the rules, as the locals all know. And when someone did pull of something idiotic like that, they were instantly booed by the crowd, and then set upon by a large group of the other participants, knocked to the ground, kicked and punched. Then the crowd cheered, and I felt a lot better.

Unfortunately, people didn’t realize or didn’t learn, and the same thing happened over and over again, largely from the type of dickhead Americans who would rip their shirt off and wave an American flag around before attacking the disarmed bull. Seriously, they had flags.

This whole activity did get quite a bit of sympathy for the bulls out of me, but mostly because of the monkeys who didn’t know how to do it right. If people actually followed the rules / had common sense / weren’t complete cocks, then it wouldn’t be too bad. The bull would get a bit of a fright, to be sure, but nothing it couldn’t handle. Unfortunately, the idiot tourists do kind of ruin it. As we tend to do to most cultural festivals. No wonder the locals hate us.

After the first run/arena play of the day, the town continued its festive atmosphere with drinking in the streets, everyone dressed in their whites for the rest of the day (and would do for the next week). Sangria-drenched pink whites were conspicuously absent amongst the locals, however, another reason the eyes of the locals began to weigh quite heavily on my Tourist-screaming outfit.

That evening was the bullfight. I donned my brand new white shirt and started talking to the scalpers out front of the arena to get a ticket. The locals will be smart and buy the tickets in advance, it’s just the tourists who have to try and get tickets for the sold-out event off these guys, paying 4-5 times the price for the privilege. I got tickets with my mate, which happened to be in different parts of the ground, so after entering, I went my separate way and took a seat in the packed stands looking down onto the arena. I was here to watch the final fight of the bulls against which I had run that morning. There was a kind of feeling that I was going to watch the last battle of an old nemesis, the feeling that after racing with these bulls we were somehow connected and it was almost with a sense of honour and respect that I came to watch their final, brave moments.

Now, I had certain expectations about the bullfight. I’ve seen the images of the gallant matador in his ambiguously gay tight, sparkly suit, as he goes toe-to-toe with the ferocious bull, putting his own life on the line with nothing but a small red cloth, his reflexes and bravery to keep him alive until he can slay the beast. Who would do such a reckless, life-threatening thing? Running with the bulls as part of a crowd is scary enough, who would go out there on his own?

Well, no one, as it turns out. After a short demonstration of parade and pomp to get the crowd going, the fight started with the entry of three sparkly men holding large pink cloths. These sub-matadors stand in different parts of the ring, and wave their cloth to attract the attention of the bull. The bull will run in that direction, so the man will hide big wooden shield (several are set up around the ring), causing the bull to either stop and look confused, or, usually after goading from the man behind the shield, attempt to stab the shield with its horns. The man stays safely behind the shield until one of the other men distracts the bull with his own cloth, running behind his own shield when the bull gets near.

Even at this point, it seemed there was something up with the bull. This was not the ferocious animal which had come charging down the street this morning. The bull down there now looked confused and docile. It just stood and looked at the men in the ring, not attacking anyone until a cloth was waved at it, and even then not really attacking with much heart. Combined with the men’s dash behind shelter every time the bull came close, I couldn’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed.

But this was just the beginning. To a cheer, a fourth fighter entered the arena. This man, the “picador”, came in riding a horse, brandishing a long spear. He came in proudly, guiding his horse slowly to a point in the arena while the bull, completely oblivious, continued to focus on the fluttering cloths.

At some point, the bull noticed the picador. He made his way to the horse, then attacked it. Luckily for the horse, it was wearing some kind of padded armour, meaning that although the bull was obviously trying to stick its horns in, the horse was (presumably) unharmed. Well-trained, it just stood there, leaning into the bull to counter the force the bull was pushing into it. The man on top, while being completely ignored by the bull, gestured proudly to the audience, before thrusting his spear into the bull’s back. Blood gushed from the wound as the bull, confused, continued to try to attack what was in front of it, as the man on top continued to stab the bull from his safe spot. The bull’s attacks became less forceful as it lost blood, and the sub-matadors took this moment to return, fluttering their cloths in the peripheral vision of the bull, causing it to turn and look at those as the picador marched proudly out, never having been in any danger, on a possibly-injured horse, to loud applause.

The sub-matadors resumed their game of hide-behind-the-shield as the bull, now hurt and probably angry, continued to attempt, in vain, to chase the cloths. All the while, blood poured from its back, and its movements began to slow. After being run around for while, the next player made his entry. A man carrying two small spears, the “banderillo”. As the bull stands, confused, looking at the cloths around it and breathing heavily, the banderillo sneaks up from a blind spot. When he saw a chance, he attacked. The banderillo ran towards the bull and with one movement stabbed both spears down into the bull’s back, then quickly dashed to the side of the arena and threw himself over the side to safety as the sub-matadors distracted the bull with their cloths. The bull wasn’t really so concerned with the banderillo, though, as with the two heavy spears now sticking out of his back. The bull started bucking, trying to dislodge them, but they were stuck in good, with weighted shafts on joints meaning they would bob and jump around as the bull moved, causing extra damage.

This happened twice more. Two more banderillos came on, one at a time, waited for their chance, stabbed and ran. Each time, the bull was becoming progressively slower and more confused as blood continued to pour from each new wound, and it still continued to run after the cloths, the only thing it seemed to be able to see. Its sides were heaving rapidly as it struggled to breathe, hyperventilating to try and make up for the extreme loss of blood it was suffering from. The crowd was cheering and hollering.

The sub-matadors continue their game once again, although there is not really any need to hide behind the shields anymore. The bull can hardly move, let alone attack. It just stands, gasping and bleeding, making half-hearted movements towards the cloths, which stop as soon as the cloth stops moving. And now, finally, when the bull is in a position where it can hardly stand, the gallant matador makes his entrance.

The crowd goes crazy. The matador heads towards the centre of the arena and the others fall away, leaving just the man and the beast. It’s similar to the famous image, except for the fact that the bull is just quite simply no threat at all. It just stands there, looking at the matador dumbly, clueless as to what to do and probably unable to do it anyway. It has six spears sticking out its back, is covered in blood, and spits some out along with its labored breathing. The matador walks around it, making cocky gestures, striking cocky poses, while all the while, the bull just puts all its energy into staying upright.

The matador holds two things: a small red cloth, and a small sword. Placing the sword behind the cloth to make it stick out, he holds it at arms length and flicks it. The bull lurches towards the cloth, missing the man standing in front of him. The matador moves the cloth, flicks it again. The bull again goes for the cloth. The matador hides the cloth. The bull stops. The matador turns his back on the bull and walks away from it, completely safe in the knowledge that the bull won’t do a damn thing. He looks up at the crowd and strikes a pose. The crowd goes crazy. The bull bleeds.

And this continues for a few minutes. The matador continues to walk circles around the bull, waving the cloth at it and making cocky gestures to it while the bull continues to all but ignore him. Eventually, the matador flourishes his sword. He levels it at the bull, aimed right at it. The bull doesn’t move. The matador flicks the cloth at a low position, so the bull bends down low to get it, and the matador sticks the sword straight through its neck, up to the hilt. The bull stumbles, collapses, and starts coughing up blood all over the sand, twitching. The matador raises his arms to the crowd, which erupt into a roaring cheer as horsemen bring three horses to the bull, tie a rope around the bull’s horns, and drag its corpse around the arena to the crowd’s jubilation as the music plays and everyone parties.

I was sitting with my mouth open amongst the standing, dancing crowds, shocked at what I had just seen, as my whole prior image of the “bullfight” just exploded out the back of my head. There was no danger, there was no honour, no gallantry, no beauty, no fight. There was just a bull getting tortured to death for twenty minutes. It never stood a chance. The odds were stacked so highly in favour of the humans, I couldn’t believe it. The Australian woman who had been sitting behind me said she couldn’t watch any more of this, got up and left. I saw several other people around the stands also just get up and leave. The rest looked like their team had just won some kind of Olympic event, cheering and dancing and drinking and laughing as the dripping bloody corpse of the bull got dragged around the sand below, and attendants came in with brooms and shovels to take away the blood-stained sand in preparation for the next fight.

Because there was more. Six bulls had run that morning, and all six were to meet their end in the same pathetic way. I was very close to leaving myself, but knowing I’d never find my friend, and also hoping I might get a chance to see a bull actually inflict some damage, hopefully to that smug matador, I stayed. My whole loyalty had changed. I didn’t want to see my enemy from this morning taken down. I sympathized with the poor things. I wished there had been more gorings during the run. I hoped there would be some here tonight. The bulls needed to get some kind of payback for the horrible way in which they were being dispatched. I had always known they would be killed, but not like this.

Unfortunately, the remaining five bulls came and went with equally safe performances. But I did find out some more sick twists. If the banderillos or the matador ever do seem to be in trouble (e.g. the banderillo falls over, or the matador has the cloth ripped out of his hand), the sub-matadors who are always lingering at the edge, come running in, fluttering their cloths to distract the bull until the man in question has had a chance to run away or collect himself. A couple of times, the bull didn’t die from the matador’s final blow. It collapsed, but tried to get up, or lay there looking around with a sword hilt sticking out of its neck. In these cases, someone else (not the matador) emerges with a short knife, which he then uses to stab the bull in the head over and over, until it stops moving. The head.

I left completely silenced. I couldn’t believe the frivolity of the crowd. And I couldn’t believe, and still can’t believe, that this sells out every night, every year, the vast majority being locals who must come back time and time again to enjoy the spectacle. It’s absolutely shocking. I know, cultural differences and all that, but this was animal torture, plain and simple, put on as a show for the masses. If there had have been even a little sport or danger involved, it could have salvaged it to some degree, and perhaps in the past, before all the safety catches came in to play, there was some. But as it stands today, it’s a tradition I don’t think can be abolished soon enough. If anyone is thinking of going to see one of these, I seriously couldn’t recommend it.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. catlady permalink
    August 5, 2011 12:23 pm

    reading this made me sick to my stomach…it is a well written description of a disgusting ritual torture perpetuated year after year on defenceless animals , I do celebrate on the odd occasion something goes “wrong ” and one of the barbaric torturers gets his just desserts , sadly doesnt happen often enough-I hope this article is widely read by reasonable people , and that before too long it is outlawed and the annual drunken spectacle ceases..

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