Bullfighters battle to stay in ring as animal rights movement grows

As the anti-bullfighting movement gains ground in Spain, subsidies for young trainers in Madrid are being slashed and with it the number of aspiring matadors.

Bullfighters battle to stay in ring as animal rights movement grows
Photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP

Aspiring young matador Angel Tellez pays little mind to Spain's animal rights activists driving a move to abolish the country's legendary bullfights, lauded by aficionados as an “art” form loftier than sport.

The 17-year-old Tellez  is so passionate about his dream he makes a 70-kilometre (43 -mile) train journey most days from his home in Toledo to the oldest of Spain's 52 bullfighting  academies, the Marcial Lalanda in Madrid.    

“I grew up in the world of bullfighting. I have an uncle who was a 'banderillero' (an assistant who sticks the banderilla rods into the bull). He was the one who encouraged me to attend this school,” said Tellez.

He and 40-odd classmates, including two girls, are unfazed by the scorn animal rights advocates cast on what they call a blood sport that brutalises the beast and attracts only a minority of Spaniards.

“My role model is Jose Tomas,” Tellez told AFP confidently, naming one of Spain's top matadors, now 40, famous for his daring style particularly close to the bull.

The students all hope one day to make it into this rarefied, ritualised circle. Some come from as far as Mexico and Colombia, said teacher and retired matador Rafael de Julia, watching as students, wearing fake horns, charge classmates practicing moves with their capes.

They spend 20 hours a week at the school, which opened in 1976 in the Casa de Campo, the huge woods known as the “lungs” of the Spanish capital, on the site called “La Venta del Batan” where bulls destined for Madrid's main bullring used to be held in the past.

Along with the school, it includes holding pens for bulls and a small bullring.

WATCH: Video of aspiring bullfighters training:

'All want to be stars'

Their coursework includes the anatomy of bulls and the history of bullfighting along with the training – some with live bulls which they are taught to respect as brave and noble adversaries.    

The “live” exercises known as “tentaderos, also give the breeders a chance to test the courage of their bull calves,” said De Julia.    

The students “all want to be stars … but out of every 100, only one shines and even then they might not make it to the top,” said former matador Jose Luis Bote, one of three directors at the establishment that counted 200 students in its heyday in the 1990s.

The matador, the highest rank, is the one who actually deals the fatal blow to his opponent in the ring. In 2014, of 10,194 bullfighting professionals, only 801 were actually matadors, according to official figures.   

And even fewer become real stars in a sport that has faced increasing criticism in recent years.   

Aficionados retort that the animal called “toro bravo”– fighting bulls used in the arena — are bred strictly for use in the corridas.    

“The end of bullfighting would mean the extinction of a race of animal created by man for combat,” thanks to careful selection over generations, said matador Julian Lopez, better known as “El Juli”, a former student of the Madrid school.

El Juli is notably critical of the way he says bullfighting has been politicised, after several city halls and regions governed by the left have taken measures against the sport.

Madrid city hall, where a coalition of leftists and ecologists took over in May, decided to end a €60,000 ($66,000) subsidy for the Marcial Lalanda academy – sowing doubt over the school's future despite its huge support among Spain's bullfighting elite.

Bullfighting opponents

“We believe that municipal budgets must not be used to endorse such practices,” Celia Maier, the city's deputy chief of culture, told AFP.

Photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP

Similarly, the Catalonia region in northeastern Spain banned corridas in 2012, a leftist coalition running city hall in A Coruna in the northwestern Galicia region dropped the “feria” – an annual festival with bullfights and bull running – and the island of Mallorca in the Balearic Islands archipelago off Spain's east coast proclaimed itself as “opponents of bullfighting”.

Today, “only eight percent of Spaniards say they go to the arenas,” said Silvia Barquero, head of Pacma, a party opposed to mistreatment of animals that backs a total ban on bullfighting, bull runs and related activities.

The latest official figures show that 1,868 bull-related events were held in Spain in 2014. Combined, they attracted six million spectators in a country of 47 million residents, according to ANOET, the national organisation that arranges such events, which said the “bull business” brings in annually €3.5 billion.

Partisans of bullfighting argue that the low attendance figures are tied more to Spain's economic woes – in 2014 the country came out of five years of crushing recession or zero-growth though recovery is slow – than to any drop in public enthusiasm for the corridas.

“Some arenas are better attended, some less,” said De Julia looking at his students, “but it is bound to pick up.”

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How the pandemic has put the careers of Spain’s trainee bullfighters on hold

Cries of "Toro, toro!" echo round the empty stands at Madrid's world-famous bullring where two young apprentice bullfighters have seen their promising careers abruptly halted by the pandemic.

How the pandemic has put the careers of Spain's trainee bullfighters on hold

Wearing a tracksuit, trainers and an FFP2 mask, 22-year-old Alvaro Burdiel holds out his vibrant fuchsia-and-mustard cape in front of him. With his arms rigid and shoulders proud, he has the gesture down to a tee.

A bullfighting hopeful, he already experienced one triumphal entry through the main gate at Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring, borne on the shoulders of his supporters in October 2019 — a matador’s greatest honour.

Right now, he doesn’t know when he’ll be back in the ring again, but he hasn’t missed one of his daily classes on the ochre-coloured sand inside this historic venue in the heart of the Spanish capital.

“We all have ups and downs. But that’s where the passion shows through – in persevering,” he says. “In those moments, that’s what makes you stand out from the rest: not giving up.”

‘Decisive years’

A little further away is 19-year-old Guillermo Garcia who was lucky enough to be chosen to fight on May 2nd in the first bullfight to be put on at Las Ventas in 18 months.

Wearing a sage green t-shirt, he twitches his cape slightly, catching the sand in a bid to provoke the beast in front of him.

But there is no bull today – only a fellow student gripping a pair of horns. His back hunched and breathing heavily, he lunges forward with everything he’s got.

On this April afternoon, there are about 20 young students tirelessly running through the choreography of the bullfight.

Trainee bullfighters at Madrid’s Las Ventas. Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

At one side stands a “carreton”, a bulls head mounted on a wheelbarrow-like contraption that can also be used to simulate the charge.

The teachers try to keep their students’ enthusiasm up, despite the uncertainties hanging over the season, which normally runs from March to October but was cancelled last year because of the pandemic.

In the southern city of Seville, which is also known for its love of bullfighting, all the events planned for mid-April had to be cancelled due to virus restrictions.

At Las Ventas, the school is run by famed former matador José Pedro Prados, popularly known as El Fundi.

“Slowly! Don’t lift your heel until the last moment, move from the waist – that’s it!” he calls. “We take them to ranches to keep their spirits up and maintain their enthusiasm,” he says.

“Bullfighting schools are having a really hard time” because of the restrictions put in place due to the virus, he adds.

“There were youngsters who were at their peak when everything shut down. And this could end up halting them in their tracks because these are decisive years for many people’s careers.”

Teen in the arena

The stands are deserted except for a handful of workers repainting the barriers ahead of Sunday’s reopening.

Closed since October 2019, Las Ventas managed to get the authorisation to hold a bullfight on Sunday with just 6,000 spectators in an arena that normally holds 44,000.

On the bill are stars like El Juli and Enrique Ponce alongside the young Guillermo Garcia, who is listed as a novillero, or novice matador. Still a teenager, Garcia has got this far thanks to his sheer dedication, says El Fundi.

Trainee bullfighter in Madrid. Photo: Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

“Since the beginning… there’s always been something different about him, he is serious, he has a lot of strength and enthusiasm and he’s always been very committed to training.”

But Garcia admits he’s had moments of doubt over the past year. “It’s been very hard because you didn’t know if you’d ever get the chance to prove yourself after all this training. But I told myself that sooner or later they were going to reopen the bullrings and that one day I’d get my chance to perform.”

And Sunday won’t be easy, admits the youngster who is studying business management.

“It’s going to be difficult when I go out to fight and see people wearing masks, seated apart and with the stands half empty.”

There also won’t be any triumphal entry through the main gate with the victorious matador carried on the shoulders of his supporters because of restrictions on gatherings.

“That’s just the way it is,” he sighs. “But the bull doesn’t care about the pandemic, it’s all the same to him.”

Even if the health crisis drags on longer than expected, there is no shortage of eager students keen to show off their skill.

One is six-year-old Nico. It’s “practice bullfighting,” he explains very seriously as he dances around the sand in a cape, wielding his miniature sword.