We recently visited Madrid and Seville in Spain, and we quickly fell in love with the country. Both places were vibrant and beautiful, and we loved getting to learn more about Spanish culture.
Our time there also brought our attention to the Spanish tradition of bullfighting. When we were in Madrid, waiting in line for the Museo Reina Sofia, we found ourselves in the midst of a protest against bullfighting. We couldn’t understand what they were saying, of course, but we could sense the passion within the crowd.
Note: I have read from several sources that the word “bullfight” is an English expression used for corridas de toros, which literally translates to “running of the bulls.” From my understanding, the Spanish do not necessarily view it as a “fight” or “sport” as the intention is not for there to be equal odds. For the purpose of this article however, I’ll continue using the English expression “bullfighting.”
History of Bullfighting
Bullfighting has long been a part of the culture in Spain. It’s not completely certain where bullfighting originated, but has existed in some form for thousands of years. Different groups, such as the Visigoths and the Moors, refined the form over time, until the modern form began in 1726.
If you’re interested in reading more in depth, this Britannica article is very informative.
What happens in bullfighting?
Before going to Spain, I hadn’t really given much thought to what bullfighting was. I’d heard of it, as well as the running of the bulls, but I must confess that I wasn’t positive what happened during a bullfight. Truthfully, researching and writing about it has been upsetting.
While there are different styles of bullfighting around the world, this article is only about the Spanish style. Heavy with ritual and symbolism, each spectacle consists of three stages.
In stage one, picadores mounted on armored horses stab the mound of muscle on the bull’s neck. The resulting blood loss weakens the bull before the next stage. As the bull is stabbed, he attempts to lift the horse with his neck muscles. This further weakens the neck and causes the bull to hold his head and horns lower, making him less dangerous.
During the next stage, three pairs of banderillas – barbed sticks decorated with coloured paper – are planted in the bull’s shoulders. This exacerbates the loss of blood and angers the bull, causing him to make ferocious charges. After this the bull is weak and exhausted.
In the final stage, the matador de toros (literally “killer of bulls”) enters the ring. He uses his cape to taunt the bull in a series of passes, demonstrating control over the animal. The cape is traditionally red, although bulls are actually colorblind and simply attack moving objects. The red color makes the blood stains less noticeable.
Finally, the matador goes over the bull’s horns to thrust a sword between the shoulder blades into his heart. A matador is disgraced if this blow does not successfully kill the animal, and the bull’s spinal cord is cut to kill it instantly and spare the animal further pain.
What do supporters say?
The biggest support for the continuation of bullfighting is its cultural significance. Having been such a tradition for many years, it’s understandably difficult for people to view it as anything other than a historic art form.
Other supporters argue that bulls raised for bullfighting are treated better and live longer lives than meat cattle, and that killing them for entertainment in the ring is no worse than killing them for meat.
This article delves thoroughly into the ethical concerns, discussing the treatment of bulls throughout their lives and during the fight, contrasted with the ways animals are treated in slaughterhouses. Warning: there is graphic information and pictures which can be very upsetting.
What do opposers say?
There is growing opposition to the spectacle, especially among younger generations. Many people believe it to be a cruel violation of animal rights.
There was a protest happening in Madrid while we were there, which first brought our attention to the issue. We saw many signs with the expression “la tortura no es cultura” – torture is not culture. Catalonia voted to outlaw bullfighting in 2010, although it was later overturned by Spain’s constitutional court.
This article discusses the reasons bullfighting is ethically objectionable and counters some of the points made in support of it.
What did we decide?
We chose not to visit any bullrings during our time in Spain. We have no desire to see animals suffer. Just researching the subject has been really difficult for me to do; Joe had to help me write about the stages of the fight because I couldn’t handle it.
We hesitate to make a sweeping condemnation, however, as we also believe in respecting the cultures of places we visit. We understand that this is a long-standing tradition and many people simply want to preserve their cultural heritage. While we don’t want to pass judgement on those who still enjoy watching the spectacle, we simply cannot condone it.
Animal rights are a complex subject. There are many different viewpoints on what is ethical and what is not, and people draw the line in various places. Having both grown up consuming meat and dairy, we’re still trying to determine where we draw our lines.
What we are certain of is that we don’t want to contribute to mistreatment of animals. We are continually educating ourselves in order to make the right decisions during our travels and our lives.
And this is what we recommend to you.
Ultimately, we don’t want to angrily tell you that you shouldn’t visit the bullring. But we do encourage you to research the topic, and decide for yourself if it’s something you can support.
Maybe this cultural tradition belongs in the past.
Take a look at our Seville travel guide for other things you can do in Seville instead of visiting the bullring.