29 July 2010

Recent Catalonia bullfighting ban brings glimmer of hope

I spent a year living and working in Spain, and I can’t say I left there deeply in love with the country. Maybe its shoe stores, but definitely not its cuisine—and most definitely not its apparent love of bull torture.

Despite what even well-educated people think, torture is not an overblown, animal-rights way of putting it. What few realize is that the bullfight consists of…no fight at all.

It’s a highly orchestrated spectacle that begins with the breeding of bulls in preserved areas known as dehesas, home to protected species such as the lynx and the imperial eagle. They are raised by their mothers for the first year, then taken away, branded, and kept in single-sex groups. At around two years of age, bulls are tested for aggression toward horses, and are not allowed to encounter humans until they enter the bullring. During their stay, they are encouraged to use their horns in tests of strength and dominance over other bulls, which often ends in severe injuries and even death.

Bulls that make it to the “fight” find themselves surrounded by matadors dressed in fruity 18th century Andalusian costumes, along with their gang of “picadores,” that is, stabbers on horseback. Luckily, horses today are protected by the peto, which keeps them from being gored. Before 1930, horses were ceremoniously disemboweled at this stage of the game. In fact, the number of horses killed during that era was higher than the number of bulls. This is sounding awfully irresistible, isn’t it?

From here, the stabbers-on-horseback spear the bull in the shoulders with sharp barbed sticks. They go in, but they don’t come out. Bullfighting propaganda likes to think of this as “angering the bull.” I would call it “fighting for its life.” The bull does, in fact, fight for its life—struggling to defend itself as it loses more and more blood. After a half hour or so of this, the matador delivers the death blow, stabbing the bull deep between the shoulder blades and into the heart.

A matador who puts on a really killer show, excuse the pun, gets to take the ears home as a souvenir. On weekends, around Sevilla and other Spanish towns, I’d see huge crowds entering the arenas, mostly families, dressed to the nines, kids as young as four and five in tow. If my Spanish were better I would have engaged them in conversation, if only to ask why.

A Glimmer of Hope

In July 2010, the northern region of Catalonia voted to ban bullfighting effective 2012, following the Canary Islands, where it ended in 1991. And once again, another form of animal cruelty falls by the wayside thanks to regular citizens who fought tirelessly, not only against its supporters, but against all-mighty “tradition,” one of those sacred notions that so many people follow aimlessly, more perturbed by the idea of change than of gross atrocities occurring before their eyes. Spanish activists ran ads, wrote articles, collected signatures, appeared in debates, talked to politicians, and protested until they succeeded. After a brief celebration, they were onto the next objective—banning it countrywide.

All-out change takes time, of course, and even the royal household is split, the King in support of it, Queen Sofia quoted as saying, “Making a bull suffer in the plaza for the public’s enjoyment while a few people do business? Let them do what they want, but I won’t share it.”

So if you’re out protesting fur or foie gras, trying to unchain a dog, or boycotting Sea World, this is yet another lesson in never give up. For more inspiration, visit HSUS’s amazing tally of animal victories. This movement has more than steam. It’s got kick-ass people who won’t take no for an answer.

Strolling the streets of Spain I was always disturbed by its restaurants, overflowing with dead animal parts, legs and shoulders hanging from hooks, clamped in vices, being shaved down as the day went on. But amidst the apparent indifference, was something invisible to me at the time (2005). A fearless, unstoppable group of people who took on their own country—and its longstanding traditions—and said ENOUGH.

One thing that’s hard to miss in Spain is the physical beauty of its people, especially the women. So fashionable, so fit, so utterly put together. I was in awe of how they moved through the cobblestone streets, effortless in sky-high heels and finely tailored clothes. Who knew that underneath beat so many hearts of gold.

Kristine Kieswer is the author of Ankle-Biting Terrier, the animal-centric, baby-free, 30-something blog.  Follow Kristine on Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo Credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/cruccone