Coronavirus Pandemic Revitalizing Dispute Over Spanish Bullfighting

Public support for the bullfighting industry has been dwindling for years. The coronavirus pandemic is creating a novel opportunity for Spain to abolish the "sport" once and for all.

Perspective Policy Sport

The coronavirus outbreak has led to the cancellations of over 50 bullfighting events in Spain, for now saving the lives of 300 bulls. Spain’s most prominent animal rights group, AnimaNaturalis, is taking advantage of the postponement of bullfighting violence to bring more attention to this cruel and bloody sport. Spain’s bullfighting industry is expected to be hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, with attendance already dwindling and all bullfighting events for March and April cancelled. Toro Foundation of Lidia, Spain’s national bullfighting union, is requesting financial aid from the federal government and individual donors to help keep the industry afloat. José Manuel Rodríguez Uribe, Spain’s Minister of Culture, is attempting to establish a contingency plan to support the bullfighting industry. Animal rights activists, led by AnimaNaturalis, are fighting back.

Spain’s age-old argument that bullfighting is an “indispensable” part of its cultural heritage is crumbling. Years of protests by animal rights organizations have helped to influence the current generation to question the bullfighting ideology. A 2016 poll by World Animal Protection revealed that 84 percent of Spaniards ages 16-24 years are “not very” or “not at all” proud to be living in a country where bullfighting is a cultural tradition. Two-thirds of Spaniards ages 16-65 years also indicated that they are not proud of the bullfighting spectacle. “Bullfighting is considered by most young people as an outdated tradition or spectacle that has no place in our society,” says Guillem Rubio, a Barcelona native and Ph.D. student focused on animal advocacy. “There is an increasingly generalised ‘commonsensical’ opinion which claims that animals might be [eaten] but must never be tortured for entertainment.” The majority of Spanish people object to both the cruelty and archaicness of bullfighting and its disproportionate use of public funds; only eight percent of the Spanish population still attends bullfighting tournaments.

Toro Foundation of Lidia blames the continuous decline of bullfights on a society that is now “unfamiliar” with the world of bullfighting and its deep cultural roots. Its own website champions the organization as “the great union movement that supports the world of bulls.” Toro Foundation of Lidia takes the position that Spain’s cultural heritage is under attack by politicians, activists, and ordinary citizens who, according to its website, “appear to lead an ideology of empathy and moral superiority.”

“Torture is neither art nor culture” has become a trending chant in both street protests and online. “Bulls feel and they suffer,” demonstrator Chelo Martin Pozo told The Guardian, during a rally that targeted Madrid’s conservative government and its historic support for bullfighting. Martin Pozo added, “Bullfights are a national shame, and if they represent me, then I am not Spanish.”

Millennials are leading the fight against bullfighting by organizing protests of increasing frequency and intensity. In May of 2018, in Madrid—Spain’s most prominent bullfighting city—approximately 40,000 people, representing as many as 17 animal rights groups, publicly demonstrated against bullfighting. The protest was organized by Laura Gonzalo under the trending Twitter hashtag #TauromaquiaEsViolencia, which translates to “bullfighting is violence.” The ultimate goal of the protesters, which has not yet been realized, is to push Spain to ban bullfighting entirely.

Individual Spanish provinces are already beginning to lay the groundwork for a national bullfighting ban. The Canary Islands were the first autonomous region to ban the sport in 1991. Catalonia, which includes Barcelona, was the second province to ban bullfighting in 2012. Bullfighting has also been banned in at least 100 Spanish towns. These regional bans have stirred up immense nationwide controversy, resulting in strong opposition from Spanish conservatives. The bullfighting debate is occurring along strongly partisan lines, deeply dividing the left and right. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, Madrid’s conservative mayor, joined with Spain’s far-right officials in declaring autonomous bullfighting bans to be unconstitutional; Diaz Ayuso praises bullfighting as an “expression of freedom.” She even goes so far as to deem the widespread bullfighting protests as just a “fad.” Members of the far-right present themselves as guarantors of a unified Spanish nation through the defense of bullfighting as a cultural symbol; such members of the Spanish electorate seek to protect the tradition of bullfighting by national law.

Not all the bullfighting bans within provinces and towns have been successful. Four years after Catalonia passed its bullfighting ban, the Spanish federal court overturned the ruling, asserting that Catalonia exceeded its provincial authority by banning a “common cultural heritage.” The court ruled that Catalonia retained its right to regulate bullfighting in the region, but could not ban it outright. Neus Munté, spokeswoman for the Catalan government, furiously declared that her government would ensure that the federal court’s ruling would have no practical effect on Catalonia’s bullfighting ban. Many citizens have accused the Spanish government of singling out Catalonia while ignoring the bullfighting bans still in effect in other areas of Spain. Catalonia’s ongoing fight for political autonomy is in part fueling the ongoing power struggle over the province’s bullfighting ban. According to Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, “Barcelona has been an anti-bullfighting city since 2004. Whatever the [federal] court says, the Catalan capital will not allow animals to be mistreated.”

The fierce political and social opposition to bullfighting bans may imply that bullfighting is still high in demand by Spanish people. The numbers prove otherwise. Spain has been holding fewer bullfights every year, due to dwindling funding and interest. Spain held 1,521 bullfighting events in 2018—a record low. The number of bulls killed annually in Spain’s bullrings dropped by 56 percent between 2008 and 2018, yet bullfighting still kills more than 7,000 bulls each year. Bullfighting continues to generate substantial revenue for the Spanish economy, via both ticket sales and indirect tourist spending. A report by the National Association of Bullfighting Organizers estimates that Spain would lose an average of €3.6 billion annually if it bans bullfighting.

Although Spanish support for bullfighting has dropped, unrealizing travelers still eagerly fill the seats in the bullring (this season notwithstanding). Tourists typically flock every year to view what they believe to be a spectacular historical tradition and to participate in Pamplona’s yearly running of the bulls. Most tourists don’t know that the dozens of bulls who are forced to run in the streets of Pamplona are later killed in the bullring. During Pamplona’s bull run, terrified animals run along narrow and slippery cobblestone streets, whilst being hit with sticks and other objects. The bulls often lose their footing and crash into walls, breaking bones and incurring other potentially serious injuries.

Tourism websites play a role in denormalizing the spectacle of bullfighting. Airbnb, GetYourGuide, KAYAK, and TripAdvisor have all ceased to promote bullfighting events. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and its international affiliates have launched awareness campaigns in countries like Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, where most Spanish bullfighting tourists live. These campaigns have proven remarkably successful. A 2008 study of Brits revealed that 89 percent would not choose to attend a bullfight whilst on holiday. PETA collaborates with AnimaNaturalis to stage annual protests in Pamplona in defense of the 54 bulls that are killed each year in the city’s bull run; activists typically travel from many countries, including Britain and Australia, to take part in these demonstrations. The highly publicized 2019 protest in Pamplona featured 54 protesters imitating a crime scene, laying on the ground with bullfighting “spears” sticking out of their backs. So long as blood profits from obstinate tourism continue to fund the sport, the appalling “tradition” of bullfighting continues. The victims—bulls—cannot every year rely on an infectious virus as their savior.

Worldwide, bullfighting is increasingly viewed as an unacceptable cultural tradition. The Mexican states of Coahuila, Guerrero, and Sonora have implemented bullfighting bans, joining Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Denmark, Italy, and the U.K. Brazil in 2016 famously outlawed its historic bullfighting tradition, known as vaquejada, in which a pair of mounted cowboys try to pull a bull down by his or her tail. The sport in Brazil dates back to the 17th century, but Brazil’s high court determined that vaquejada inflicts needless cruelty on animals and is in violation of the nation’s Constitution.

Constitutional bans of bullfighting can only work in nations that have historically acknowledged obligations to protect animal welfare. Spain’s Constitution contains no such legal statute. Spain until 2015 was the only country in Europe with no animal cruelty laws. The one Spanish animal cruelty law, which only applies to companion animals, has come under fire recently. In the “sport” of bullfighting, bullfighters cruelly attempt to sever the bulls’ aortas or spinal cords before cutting off the animals’ tails or ears as “trophies.” Bulls with only partially severed spinal cords may still be conscious, albeit paralyzed, when their tails or ears are cut off. Activists point out the hypocrisy of a year-long jail sentence for canine abuse while the murder of bulls is met with applause.

Spanish bullfighting dates back eight centuries, during which time, bullfighters have devised infinitely cruel ways to fix the fight. Bulls are often starved, dehydrated, or weakened with drugs. Their horns are shaved to disrupt their senses of balance and petroleum jelly is rubbed into their eyes to impair their vision. Before the bullfighters enter the ring, the bulls are attacked by picadors (men on horses) and banderilleros (men on foot). The picadors and banderilleros drive lances into the bulls’ backs and necks to cause significant blood loss and diminish the bulls’ abilities to defend themselves. The bulls are not the only victims in the ring; picadors’ horses are sometimes seriously gored during the attacks.

Spain may be immune to Constitutional pressure, but it is not immune to societal pressure. By implementing animal rights awareness campaigns, including those that target tourist origin countries, and leveraging a generational shift in attitude, many regions of Spain are effectively pushing back against this “indispensable” cultural tradition. The gradual but continual turn of public opinion puts unrelenting pressure on the Spanish national government to comply with the wishes of its people; the coronavirus creates a novel opportunity for Spain to end bullfighting once and for all. Spain’s culture can and should be celebrated through art, architecture, food, and dance—not bloodshed and cruelty. Torture and mutilation are not acceptable forms of entertainment in this enlightened age; it’s time to relegate bullfighting to history.

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