by Niall Doherty

The third bull had just been dragged out of the arena. Three more would be tortured and killed before the night was out. But first it was time for a sandwich.

By now my friend Elena must have been fully regretting ever inviting me along. She’d noticed early on that I wasn’t clapping or cheering like the other thousand people in attendance, and she’d given up on the idea of posing for a photo with me when I told her I’d have trouble forcing a smile for the camera. And now here she was handing my vegan self a sandwich which she assured me was vegetarian.

You know, except for the bull blood.

I declined politely, much to her disappointment, and began tucking into my carrots and hummus. I glanced again at the flyer I’d received on entering the arena; A smiling, cartoon bull with his arm around a man in uniform, standing above the words “Fantastic Day.”

I thought to myself, no estoy de acuerdo.

What happens at a bullfight?

I shot some video while at the bullfight here in Burgos last Friday, and pieced together the following. Should give you a fair idea of how the whole thing transpires…

Can’t see the video? Click here.

The cliff notes:

  1. A bull is released into the arena. He usually weights about 500kg.
  2. There are at least a half-dozen toreros (bullfighters) out there with him. If the bull gets too close, they can take cover behind the wooden barriers at the edge of the arena.
  3. Each torero takes a turn with the bull, getting him to charge at their pink capes as they step to the side and avoid getting hit.
  4. They bring out a guy on a padded and blindfolded horse. He has a big spear, which he sticks into the back of the bull, making sure to draw blood.
  5. Once that dude on horseback is done, the toreros take turns running at the bull and sticking blades in his back. They usually get about 6-8 stuck in there.
  6. Now that the bull is significantly weakened and bleeding profusely, a torero in especially fancy pants comes out with a red cape and does more of the ¡Ole! thing.
  7. After a few minutes of that, it’s time to end the fight. The torero takes out his sword and positions himself in front of the bull. He gets the animal looking down at his cape, then rushes towards him, jumps to one side and thrusts the full length of the blade down through the bull’s shoulders. The crowd cheers.
  8. A few other toreros rush out and surround the bull, wearing him down that last bit until he collapses from the pain.
  9. Main torero dude gets out a dagger and stabs the bull in the back of the head once or twice, until he keels over, finally dead. Then they cut off his ears.
  10. Horses are brought out to drag away the dead bull. There’s a big red streak left behind in the sand, but they have several guys on hand to rake it back all nice like.
  11. The main torero then walks a victory lap of the arena. The crowd gives him a standing ovation and lots of applause as he picks out some cute kids in the stands and tosses them a bloody ear.
  12. And then they do it all again, five more times.

Why go?

Several people have asked how I can be vegan and go to a bullfight. Well, the answer is pretty simple: I went because I wanted to go.

I knew I wasn’t going to like what I saw there and I by no means support the torture and killing of any animal. But just because I disagree with something doesn’t mean I don’t want to experience it. I was interested to see first-hand what a bullfight was like, even if it made me feel uncomfortable. I figured I might be able to learn something from the experience, for better or worse.

I’ll probably go see the slums while I’m in India next year, too. I’m not going to avoid extreme poverty simply because I’d rather it didn’t exist in the world. I want to see the ugly as well as the beautiful, and note whatever feelings arise inside of me. I want to test my assumptions first-hand and find out who I really am.

Loose labels

I call myself vegan because it helps people get a quick idea of who I am and what I’m about. But I refuse to let that or any other label define me. It certainly won’t keep me from attending a bullfight if that’s what I feel like doing.

I’d ask that you don’t live your life according to some vegan guidebook, or any other book for that matter. Call yourself whatever you want, but don’t do so at the expense of your own free-thinking.

I have the utmost respect for some meat eaters I know, and that’s because they’ve thought long and hard about their choices. I’ve met plenty of veg-heads who haven’t. Sticking to a plant-based diet often becomes just another set of rules for them to follow, somewhat consciously, but somewhat not. For example, they’ll never consider eating oysters because oysters aren’t vegan, even though eating them might actually be cool from an ethical standpoint.

I ask you, what’s more important: Staying true to a label, or staying true to yourself?


Lessons from the slaughter

I did learn a few things at the bullfight. Such as: We need to be wary of the approval of others. Those toreros are treated like heroes, are paid handsomely for what they do, and are unlikely to be sitting home lonely on a Saturday night. I guess in their minds that makes it okay to torture and kill severely over-matched and less intelligent animals. I expect they’d reconsider if the spoils were absent.

I also learned that bullfights are actually quite boring. Each fight is entirely predictable, following the exact same sequence as I laid out above. This leads me to believe that most people in attendance don’t come to cheer on the animal abuse, but for the social aspect of it all. They meet their friends, they have a few drinks, they eat their blood sandwiches, just like their parents and grandparents before them. I imagine that if bullfighting were suddenly made illegal here in Spain, some other social event would spring up to take its place.

From that aforementioned flyer I was reminded of how easy it can be to influence kids. I saw the cutest little girl riding on her dad’s shoulders on the way out of the arena, a huge smile on her face. I thought of the lessons she’d just learned, about what constitutes as courage and heroism and the acceptable treatment of animals. I spoke to another friend of mine yesterday, and she assured me that bullfighting is not as cruel as it seems. Apparently my understanding is lacking. You see, according to her, bulls are strong animals that don’t feel much pain. A knife in the back to them is like a slap on the wrist to you or me. I suspect she learned this when she was young and it’s been her convenient truth ever since. I sincerely doubt that anything I ever say or write will convince her otherwise.

But I can’t claim superiority. I was there for one evening and even I felt myself growing less compassionate. The death of that sixth bull didn’t hit me as hard as the first. I became somewhat numb to it. I can only imagine if I’d been attending bullfights since childhood, never knowing any different, nobody ever encouraging me to question the ethics of it all.

Fifty years from now

I now find myself much less satisfied to be living in Spain, a place where such a thing as bullfighting is considered normal and lawful. Inflicting that much pain and torture on an animal in the name of what? Fun? Culture? Tradition? I still can’t wrap my head around it.

Slavery was once normal and lawful, too. Doesn’t mean it was all fine and dandy. We tend to look back nowadays and think Wow, how did slavery ever happen? And how come women weren’t allowed to vote? And why did gay people suffer so much discrimination?

All of these things seem so ridiculous today, but they were very normal way back when. Makes me wonder what our children and grandchildren will one day think of our current definition of normalcy. I like to believe that future Spanish generations will look back on bullfighting and shake their heads in disbelief, wondering how something so barbaric could ever have been considered acceptable.