San Fermin Running with the Bulls
Image: Unsplash

Running of the Bulls: Sanctified tradition or animal torture?

The Festival of San Fermín, an eight-day long celebration honouring the city’s first bishop patron saint, Saint Fermín, began on Saturday the 6th of July. A wide range of festivities take place during the festival, however, to the world in general, it is famous for one thing: the Running of the Bulls.

The aim of the bull-running element of the festival is to move the bulls down to the bullfighting ring. It is a spectacle lasting only a matter of minutes, but it brings around 20,000 people to run with the six bulls each morning. The tradition originated in the means through which bulls were shepherded from Pamplona’s corral to its bullfighting ring. It snowballed from several people enticing the bulls through the streets to the international tourist event it has become today. Something that remains some seven centuries on, however, is that the six bulls which the runners accompany down the streets continue to be slaughtered in afternoon bullfights.

Unfortunately though, bull-running is merely the cruel opener to what is the crux of the animal rights issue: bullfighting

Animal rights protesters are a regular fixture at the festival. On Saturday, activists ran into the ring before being hauled away by officials. Problems lie with the bull-running element of the festival, with the cheering masses and narrow streets of Pamplona, making it a deeply distressing ordeal for the animals. Bull-running is not limited to this festival, and other practices are potentially even more disturbing, with Bous a la Mar, or Bulls in the Sea, featuring bulls being forced to jump into the sea at the end of the run. Other bull-running festivals also include ropes, fire and water. Unfortunately, though, bull-running is merely the cruel opener to what is the crux of the animal rights issue: bullfighting.

It is easy to overlook the extreme levels of cruelty involved in bullfighting. Many assume the bloodless, French style of bullfighting is the general way the tradition occurs, where the matadors simply perform with the bulls. However, the League Against Cruel Sports still opposes bloodless bullfighting, as often the bulls involved are just killed privately rather than in the ring. Regardless, this style is actually being overtaken, even in France, by the more brutal, traditional Spanish style.

The 2016 Ipsos Mori polling showed that only 20% of the Spanish public actually support bullfighting

Within this style, after a brief performance with the matador, the bull is stabbed with a barbed harpoon or a sword. If the bull is not immediately killed, it is further stabbed with a dagger and horrendously, may still be alive when its ears or tail are cut off to serve as a trophy for the bullfighter. On the eve of this year’s festival, 54 protesters laid, semi-naked, within a “crime-zone”, to represent the 54 bulls that would be butchered over the course of the festival. This is a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of bulls that are tortured and killed each year in the nine countries where the custom remains legal.

The ritual is almost sanctified and untouchable due to its status as a piece of “cultural heritage”, yet 2016 Ipsos Mori polling showed that only 20% of the Spanish public actually support bullfighting. Likewise, public opinion in every country where bullfighting is legal opposes the activity. Its prohibition would not be a loss for the people to whose culture it is supposedly crucial, further shown in that 56% of participants in the Running of the Bulls are foreigners. At the Festival of San Fermín, the opening fireworks and traditional song, as well as the Procession of Saint Fermín, are the more faithful and authentic elements of the festival’s cultural history. However, neither of these hold the same international appeal of the commercialised Running of the Bulls.

Protesters call the run “sick satisfaction for a rowdy mob” 

Protesters call the run “sick satisfaction for a rowdy mob” and when watching videos of the jeering crowd, an honouring of Saint Fermín is distinctly lacking. The bull-running and bullfighting components exist to serve a perpetuated image of Spanish culture. This image harks back to glorified perceptions of Spanish adventure like those Ernest Hemingway presented in his novel The Sun Also Rises. Many Americans are believed to swarm to the event to relive the journey from Paris to the festival told in the legendary novel. Indeed, just this week medics describe it as “beyond miraculous” that an American tourist survived after being gored in the neck whilst trying to take a selfie with a bull.

Issues around bullfighting call into question whether the term “culture” should be able to act as a shield for any activity, no matter how cruel or contrary to modern moral standards. It is confusing that dogfighting has been illegal for over 100 years in most of the world, yet bullfighting continues legally, and the explanation for this is the immunity granted by the word “culture”. Overall, with modernisation, blood sports are generally condemned as brutal and outdated, yet several customs hold humanity in the past as they are defended as cultural. Another such activity is the Faroe Islands’ pilot whale drive, in which entire pods of whales, including mothers and calves, are driven ashore and butchered with hooks and knives. It must not be forgotten that there were many blood-sports once considered part of culture, such as bear-whipping. Should its history in 17th Century England mean this savage tradition continue today?

With so many alternatives, make sure to support events through which culture can be experienced without continuing cruel practices further into the 21st Century

With 67 people being tended by medics just this week, people seem to enjoy the high-adrenaline nature of the Running of the Bulls. Animal rights protesters are not prohibiting such risky excitement but asking that it not involve mistreated animals with no choice in the matter. There are many alternatives, the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling competition for one, where partakers tumble down a nearly vertical hill. This competition holds a similarly international appeal, with a history of winners from the US, New Zealand and Australia. If it is the infamous Spanish fiesta atmosphere that is sought, there are the options of Las Fallas, flour fights and the “World’s Biggest Food Fight” of La Tomatina to attend.

Bullfighting events are able to continue in large part due to money generated by tourism. Travel operators often promote bull-running festivals. However, organisations such as KAYAK, EasyJet and TripAdvisor have ceased to promote the festivals on the grounds of animal cruelty. With so many alternatives, make sure to support events through which culture can be experienced without continuing cruel practices further into the 21st Century.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.