Animal Guardians: An Overview of Bullfighting
Introduction to Bullfighting
Bullfighting (Spanish: corrida de toros [koˈriða ðe ˈtoɾos] or toreo [toˈɾeo]; Portuguese: tourada [toˈɾaðɐ]), also known as tauromachia or tauromachy (Spanish: tauromaquia, Portuguese: tauromaquia; from Greek: ταυρομαχία “bull-fight”), is a traditional spectacle of Spain, Portugal, southern France, and some Latin American countries (Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru), in which one or more bulls are fought in a bullring. Although a blood sport, by definition, some followers of the spectacle prefer to view it as a ‘fine art’ and not a sport, as there are no elements of competition in the proceedings.
The pedestrian bullfighters of the early 18th century were the dregs of society, bands of street fighters, social outcasts, and unemployed soldiers, who confined a bull in the public square, and then fell upon him with capes, knives, swords, pikes, and clubs until the poor beast succumbed to their collective assault. A famous bullfighter of the 19th century, Jose Rodriguez, acknowledged that men of his trade were butchers at best, proclaiming, “What do you expect of us brought up in slaughterhouses? There’s no refinement there. Dragging guts and skins about, chopping off heads, and always up to the ankles in blood. It brings out the worst in a fellow.”
There are many historic fighting venues in the Iberian Peninsula, France, and Latin America. The largest venue of its kind is the Plaza México in central Mexico City, which seats 48,000 people, and the oldest is the La Maestranza in Seville, Spain, which was first used for bullfighting in 1765.
Forms of non-lethal bullfighting also appear outside the Iberian and Francophone world, including the Tamil Nadu practice of jallikattu; and the Portuguese-influenced mchezo wa ngombe (Kiswahili for “sport with bull”) is also practiced on the Tanzanian islands of Pemba and Zanzibar. Types of bullfighting which involve bulls fighting other bulls, rather than humans, are found in the Balkans, Turkey, the Persian Gulf, Bangladesh, Japan, Peru, and Korea. In many parts of the Western United States, various rodeo events like calf-roping and bull-riding were influenced by Spanish bullfighting.
The practice of bullbaiting (pitting bulls against dogs), as well as bull-running, a sport in which a mob of townspeople chased a bull until he is exhausted and then beat him to death with clubs, is also popular in Spain. These latter forms of sport have fallen somewhat into disfavor in modern times, but the more traditional style of bullfighting continues to be a socially accepted form of entertainment.
In 1725, bullfighting began to assume its present form when Francisco Romero invented the muleta, a relatively small red cloth suspended from a stick, and used it to mislead, torment, and ready a bull for the kill. The classical bullfighting maneuvers became defined during the 18th century and have not since changed.
Today, the matador’s manner is the embodiment of condescension and narcissism. Pride and conceit are humbled in his presence. Pathetically superstitious, matadors run from the ring at the sight of a snake, yet they arrogantly strut around the same arena as invulnerable and omnipotent. Whether one considers them heroes or lowly denizens of the slaughterhouse, they see themselves far larger than life.
The days of the roaming herds of wild bulls are forever over. The toros bravos in bullfights today are produced on registered bull ranches, called ganaderias. Selective breeding has enabled producers to create a bull who will die in a manner most satisfying to the public. Toros bravos must appear dangerous, ferocious, vicious, and wild, but all the cunning and reasoning must have been bred out of them. Their charge must appear vehement and powerful, but it must be smooth and predictable so the matador will not subject himself to undue risk.
The bull’s shoulder muscles are lacerated by spears and harpoons which weaken him prior to the matador’s assault. The spectacle of bullfighting would be compromised by a bull who could no longer endure the torment and desperately tried to retreat. He is, therefore, carefully bred to return again and again to the spear and harpoon, like a moth to a flame, regardless of the terror and agony he may endure.
He will never have the chance to learn from his mistakes. Federal law prohibits testing a fighting bull with a cape before he enters the arena. A fighting bull would quickly learn his tormentor is not a piece of cloth; it is the man who waves it. While matadors practice for years, they are afraid to enter the ring with a bull who has been tested by the cloth even once. The laws prohibiting ‘caping’ fighting bulls prior to the corrida are universal and exist for the protection of the matador alone and not for the protection of the bull.
An insecure herd animal who feels safe only when surrounded by his own kind, the fighting bull lives a relatively sheltered life in the company of his herd so his confusion and disorientation can be maximized the moment he is forced into the ring to die alone — alone, except for the cacophony of 50,000 people screaming for his death.
Bulls are not the only victims of the bullfight arena. The horses who die have a much less noble heritage, and die a much less glorified death. They are brought into the ring by lancers who take turns lacerating the bull’s neck and shoulder muscles when the bull charges the horses. Needless to say, the assault of an enraged 1,200-pound bull causes no small degree of terror to the average plow horse, just retired from a life of faithful service on the farm.
Tourists, who come to see a slice of tradition, find the sight of a horse’s blood and intestines spilling onto the sands of the arena a bit too unpleasant to stomach. Consequently, in order to preserve the tourist trade, horses in recent years have been covered with padding which greatly reduces the manifest gore the equestrian sympathizer must endure. Severe injuries frequently occur. Also, allegations persist that the horses usually have their vocal cords cut so that their cries will not distract the crowd.
In his book, Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway describes the role of the horse. “In the tragedy of the bullfight, the horse is the comic character … I have seen it, people running, horse emptying, one dignity after another being destroyed in the spattering, and trailing of its innermost values [viscera], in a complete burlesque of tragedy. I have seen these, call them disembowellings, that is the worst word. When due to their timing, they were very funny. This is the sort of thing you should not admit, but it is because such things have not been admitted that the bullfight has never been explained.”
The bullfight is so cloaked in festivity, splendor, and ceremony that the agony of the occasion is, at first glance, well-camouflaged, and this ritual of death is divided into three acts called tercios.
THE STRUCTURE OF A BULLFIGHT
The bullfight begins at the stroke of four in the afternoon with a signal from the plaza president, the heralding of trumpeters, and a colorful opening parade. Mounted riders lead the procession. Then the glorious matadors stride into the arena, each followed by his cordillera, a team of men consisting of two picadors on horseback who spear the bulls at least three times during the first act and three banderilleros who lance and weaken the bull with darts during the second act.
The cordillera is followed by a team of mules who will drag the bulls’ bodies from the ring once the bulls have been slaughtered.
The fighting bull charges from the darkened chamber in which he has been confined for the last four hours and into the strange and terrifying territory of the arena. Alone, for one of the first times in his life, the young bull charges about, seeking protection by attempting to establish a territory for himself, now that he has just been deprived of the security of his herd. Three banderilleros enter the ring with large, brightly-colored capes, and take turns enticing the bull to charge while the matador cautiously studies him from behind a wooden barrier, carefully measuring the moves of his victim. Soon, the matador comes in and “cites” the bull, inducing the confused animal to charge his cape.
The president of the bullfight signals for the entrance of the picadors, two traditionally-corpulent men, riding the now-blindfolded horses covered with added armor. The matadors and the banderilleros induce the bull to charge. As the bull rams and tries to gore the terrified horses, the picadors thrust their lances into the neck of the bull.
The lance is designed so that its five-inch tip lacerates the bull’s neck and shoulder muscles, severely crippling the bull and causing him a great loss of blood. Centuries of selective breeding have created a creature who keeps coming back for more, like a retriever bred to return, despite the agony each return causes.
The trumpets sound, the picadors retire, and the three banderilleros enter the ring. Each banderillero carries two shortened spears, called banderillas, which he thrusts between the bull’s shoulder blades. Each banderilla has a barbed shaft to keep it imbedded in the bull’s already shredded shoulder muscles. This aspect of the festivities is much less dangerous than it looks. One banderillero distracts the bull while another imbeds the banderillas. Men can turn in much smaller circles than the bulls can. There’s really no danger at all.
The trumpet sounds a final time; for the bull, it sounds his death knell. The tormented and crippled animal still circles the ring, seeking an escape which will come only in death. The matador enters, and with the crowd cheering, he salutes the president, dedicating the first bull’s death to him.
The matador then begins la fuena de la muleta, or the work of the cloth. Using a small red cloth, the muleta, which is extended with the sword used to kill the beleaguered bull, the matador executes a final sequence of passes designed to show off his skill, demonstrate his complete domination over the exhausted animal, and set him up for the kill.
When there is nothing left for the bull to do but die, the matador adds one final degradation to the bull in his agony. The matador displays his bravado in an act of supercilious derision called displante while stroking the bull’s horns or nose and arrogantly gesturing to the crowd his disdain for his victim and his own manifest superiority. “Displante,” explains a matador, “is my way of showing the crowd I have conquered the bull. Killing toros bravos is only part of the art. Domination is everything.”
Death in the afternoon never comes quickly for toros bravos. After having endured twenty minutes of terror, frustration, and agony, after complete exhaustion and utter confusion, the beaten bull stands with his feet together, his eyes fixed on the bright cloth he mistakes as his tormentor.
Now comes what is called the “supreme moment” or the “moment of truth.” With his muleta in his left hand and aiming with his three-foot sword in the other, the matador lunges at the bull and rams the sword between the bull’s shoulder blades, endeavoring to sever the bull’s aorta in order to quickly kill him. Rarely does this happen. Usually a number of thrusts — and sometimes a number of swords — are needed until the bull is mortally wounded.
Banderillas and imperfectly aimed swords protrude from the shoulders of the fighting bull. Now the matador’s assistants attempt to induce a kind of suicide by torment. They harass the wounded beast, hoping that his own pathetic attempts to defend himself will shift a sword within him and puncture a vital organ.
Eventually a lung is punctured, the bull staggers. With blood pouring from his nose and mouth, the helpless animal lurches about, but maintains his footing, sometimes for several minutes. The crowd, which has come for the excitement of the quick kill, finds the protracted death throes of the fighting bull anti-climactic. For this reason, the descabello was invented. By thrusting this 25-inch sword into the base of the bull’s neck, the spinal cord is severed and the bull immediately falls to the ground. The final thrust is always given with a dagger called a puntilla. The blood from the blade is cleaned by wiping it off on the body of the fallen bull.
The team of mules then drag the bull’s body from the ring to the butchering area within a chamber of the arena. The matador bows to the cheering crowd. One bull is dead. Five more have yet to be fought. And the day’s sport has just begun.SPANISH-STYLE BULLFIGHTING
Spanish-style bullfighting is called a corrida de toros (literally a “running of bulls”), tauromaquia or fiesta and is practiced in Spain, where it originates, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, and Portugal, as well as in parts of Southern France. In traditional corrida, three toreros, also called matadores or, in French, toréadors, each fight two out of a total of six fighting bulls, each of which is at least four years old and weighs up to about 600 kg or 1,300 lb (with a minimum weight limit of 460 kg or 1,010 lb for the bullrings of the first degree). Bullfighting season in Spain runs from March to October.
- Exceptions should be noted, such as the area of Pamplona in northern Navarre and Bilbao in the Basque Country, with major bullfighting.
- In 1991, the Canary Islands became the first Spanish Autonomous Community to ban bullfighting, and Catalonia became the second in January 2012.
Each matador has six assistants — two picadores (“lancers”) mounted on horseback, three banderilleros (“flagmen”), and a mozo de espada (“sword servant”). Collectively they comprise a cuadrilla or team of bullfighters. The crew also includes an ayuda (aide to sword servant) and subalternos (subordinates), including at least two peones (singular peón).PORTUGUESE-STYLE BULLFIGHTING
Portuguese-style bullfighting differs in many aspects from Spanish-style bullfighting. The cavaleiros and the forcados are unique as well as the horsewomen (cavaleiras).
Most Portuguese bullfights (corridas de touros) are held in two phases: the spectacle of the cavaleiro, followed by the pega. In Portugal, the main stars of bullfighting are the cavaleiros, as opposed to Spain, where the matadores are the most prominent bullfighters. Nevertheless, bullfights with matadores are frequent, notably with Portuguese matadores who practice their trade in Spain and who, when in Portugal, replace the sword in their final strike with a bandarilha.
During the cavaleiro, a horseman on a Portuguese Lusitano horse (specially trained for the fights) fights the bull from horseback. The purpose of this fight is to stab three or four bandeirilhas (small javelins) in the back of the bull.
In the second stage, called the pega, the forcados, a group of eight men, challenge the bull directly without any protection or weapon of defense. The front man provokes the bull into a charge to perform a pega de cara or pega de caras (face catch). The front man secures the animal’s head and is quickly aided by his fellows who surround and secure the animal until he is subdued. Many people who watch Portuguese-style bullfights in the United States use the term, “suicide squad”, to refer to this group of eight men.
Take Action on Behalf of Bulls Killed for Entertainment
News and Noteworthy About Bullfighting Throughout the World
Facts About Bullfighting
Articles and Commentary About Bullfighting
Resources in the Struggle to End Bullfighting
Younger Spaniards are showing little interest in the ‘sport’ while the downturn in the Spanish economy has made many once loyal fans turn their backs on the bullring.RTE Radio 1’s World Report Programme June 23, 2013