Stop bullfighting but carry on bullrunning, really?
“The only place where you could see life and death, i. e., violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it” wrote Ernest Hemingway. These days he couldn’t go to Catalunya to find some inspiration because bullfighting is banned. The decision was very controversial and it came as a result of a petition signed by 180.000 people who think that torturing animals just for the sake of fun is morally outrageous.
Bullfighting supporters adduced several reasons for maintaining the “spectacle”. Firstly, they gave what we can call a conservative argument. They said that bullfighting is a rooted tradition, like flamenco or paella, and there is value in keeping meaningful traditions alive. Secondly, they put forward an aesthetic argument. There is beauty in a corrida (a bullfight): the outfit, the risk of death, the bravery of the matador. The work of great artists like Hemingway, Almodovar or Garcia Lorca has been inspired by the ritual. A third and more twisted reason was the animalist argument. It was claimed that bullfighting is a good means to preserve the animals. The kind of bulls that are used in bullfighting are of a particular kind (toros de lidia). They are raised only for the ritual and they have a very good life until “their day arrives”– they enjoy better conditions than farmed animals so they can be brave enough. Finally, bullfighting supporters denounced that the interest behind the abolitionist campaign was not moral but political. For them, the popular initiative was not the result of a genuine concern for the animals but of the separatists’ strategy to dissociate Catalunya from anything considered as quintessentially Spanish. We can call this reasoning the political argument.
None of these reasons was considered sound enough and the Catalan Parliament finally banned the ritual. Several Catalan cities declared themselves officially “anti-taurine”. The decision was broadly reported and Catalunya is now perceived by other countries as animal friendly and progressive compared to the other regions of Spain. Unfortunately, that judgment might be too hasty. Foreign media missed the second episode of this story, which doesn’t go in the same direction. Shortly after banning bullfighting, the Catalan Parliament passed another law allowing bullruning (translation from Catalan correbous), a very popular practice in some villages in the South of Catalunya that involves animal abuse. Sometimes the bull is immobilized in order to put one torch in each of its horns and released on the streets after setting fire on him. Other times, the horns are tied up with several ropes and the bull is pulled and dragged by several people. In this case the debate was short and less controversial, partly because animal defenders were not present. Is it possible to find coherence between the two decisions?
The immediate answer given by policy-makers has to do with animal suffering. In bullfighting the bull is killed and in bullruning it is not. But this is a bad argument. In this provincial practice the animal suffers a lot of emotional stress and injuries – bulls are beaten with sticks, they get burned, and in some places people give them electroshocks in order to make them move. The bulls that participate in these practices don’t die but they suffer abuses regularly and for several years until they become “useless”. They might live longer than the bulls that are used in bullfighting but they certainly have a worse life. Besides that, if we consider the aggregate animal suffering bullrunning can be worse. Each year, there are more than 200 bullrunning events in Catalunya and its popularity is increasing. By contrast, the number of corridas diminished drastically during the last decades. In the 70’s there were 80 corridas per year but before the banning there were less than 15. It seems that if we are worried about animal suffering we have equal or superior reason to ban bullrunning as well.
Moreover, one could say that bullrunning is in one aspect worse. In bullfighting only the matador is actively inflicting pain on the animal whereas in bullrunning a huge amount of people are involved. In villages were bullrunning is popular many citizens participate in these events provoking, beating, confusing and torturing an animal. One could say that this active role potentiates savage and violent attitudes, particularly towards animals. That might also happen to those who watch corridas but in a lesser degree due to the fact that they sit passively somewhere in the bullring -or in their house-; there is no interaction between them and the animal. Some people pointed out that there is another sense in which bullrunning is worse. It could never be considered an art. There is no beauty in seeing a bunch of people running in front of a bull shouting and usually badly dressed. It is a barbaric scene that only shows our lower instincts.
There is another reason that might explain the difference between the two decisions of the Catalan legislator. Bullrunning is a tradition in Catalunya – at least in some parts of it- whereas bullfighting is not. The numbers given before support this hypothesis. Most of the bullfight rings in Catalunya were already closed before the ban. Bullrunning, on the contrary, is deeply rooted in Southern Catalan villages. The question is, obviously, whether tradition can legitimize such practice. I don’t think it can. Clearly, the mere fact that some practice has been going on for decades or centuries, by itself, doesn’t make it a good practice. There has to be room for moral progress. History is full of examples; perhaps the most obvious of all is slavery.
However, I want to draw attention to a kind of reasoning that seems clearly wrong to me. Some people agree that tradition cannot justify animal suffering but they change their mind when it comes to religion. For instance, certain practices like Shechita and Dhabiha, the kind of animal slaughtering practiced by Jewish and Muslims respectively, are legal in Spain and the majority of European countries. These techniques cause unnecessary suffering to animals but they are allowed in the name of “freedom of religion”. Shouldn’t “freedom of tradition” be equally protected? The British don’t think so. Recently they banned the horrible tradition of “fox haunting” but they allow Jewish and Muslim slaughtering despite several reports by experts against both practices. In what way can we say that religion has a superior legitimizing force? Often people answer this question by saying that religion defines personal identity and expresses very important values. So does tradition. This is not a case in favour of bullrunning. I just want you to consider that the reasons we have to stop animal suffering caused by traditions should also apply to cases in which suffering is mandated by religion.