Bullfighting isn’t barbaric: What I found in a year on breeding estates

Spain's most controversial sport has been in strife lately. But anthropologist Robin Irvine explains why a year working on a bull-breeding estate made him optimistic for its future.

Bullfighting isn't barbaric: What I found in a year on breeding estates
Photo: Robin Irvine

Bullfighting appears to be facing tough times once more. As many as 76 percent of the Spanish public may oppose it receiving public funding.

What’s more, the conservative Partido Popular has just lost its absolute majority in the Spanish parliament, which it had been using to support bullfighting. This follows the loss of key city councils to allies of Podemos, which recently resulted in Madrid scrapping its longstanding subsidy to the oldest of the country’s 52 bullfighting academies.

The European parliament also recently voted to prevent Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies going to breeders of fighting bulls – potentially affecting bull-breeding estates in France and Spain, where bulls die in the arena.

Opponents see bullfighting as a barbarous and medieval relic which has no place in modern Europe. But who are these 21st-century “barbarians” who breed fighting bulls? And what do we know about the lives of the animals themselves, beyond their deaths on the torero’s sword? Probably not very much, in most cases. But as an anthropologist who worked for 15 months on a bull-breeding estate in Andalusia, I can offer some insight into the people who care for and know these animals.

“Care” and “know” are the right words here, incidentally. The job of the foreman on bull-breeding estates is to care for (cuidar) the herd. To care for fighting bulls means to know (conocer) them, so the foreman is often referred to as the “conocedor”: the one who knows. The conocedor is in charge of the everyday well-being of the bulls, with a particular focus on feeding up and exercising animals which will bear the colours of the estate at bullfights.

I worked closely with Joaquín, the conocedor of the Partido de Resina bull-breeding estate. He was an animal lover. His little dogs, Mona and Mono, were sleek working animals. They got more cuts of cured ham than I did. And while Joaquín was aware that raising bulls was a commercial endeavour, caring and good animal husbandry were central aspects of his job.

Joaquin returning a calf to its mother on the Partido de Resina estate. Photo: Robin Irvine

Bull welfare

The bulls' psychological and physical well-being is part of what determines whether they perform to their potential. This encourages breeders to raise them as “naturally” as possible: in herds, with varied grazing, space, shade, dust baths, water and hidden spots to which they can retreat. These formidable creatures are incredibly sensitive to change. To ensure proper care and minimise disruptions, the foreman works with a team of cowhands, working horses, the estate owner/manager, secretaries, grounds staff, vets, ethologists and even nutritionists.

As with any industry, standards can vary. I cannot speak for all bull breeders, but I certainly saw how seriously people took correct care and a modern approach in Andalusia. The world of the bulls is often labelled “traditional”, but breeders don’t oppose modernity.

These “barbarians” have their own vision of the future, which actually complements the CAP in some respects. Aside from food production – and let’s not forget fighting bulls are high-quality beef animals – CAP subsidies are intended to support the sustainable management of natural resources and rural economies. Partido de Resina is an island of biodiversity: around 500 hectares of open woods and marshland surrounded by a sea of monotonous orange, olive and peach plantations.

You could of course argue that commercial horticulture employs more locals, or that there are other ways of protecting biodiversity which do not involve bullfighting. You might be right. Right now though, outside Seville – and across Spain, France, Portugal and Latin America – there are vast stretches of bull breeding land that are already spaces of biodiversity. The Common Agricultural Policy is modern: progressive, science-based, future-oriented and bureaucratic. So are many estates in the world of breeding fighting bulls.

Two mature bulls on the Partido de Resina estate. Photo: Robin Irvine

Reality check

Whatever your view, the European parliament’s decision to ban subsidies for bull breeders will be diffiult to enact. It would require legistlative change to the CAP, which is a sticky area of EU politics. After the vote, the European Commission informed the parliament that there was no legal basis upon which to enact the amendment. Every such challenge pushes the scattered bullfighting lobby to unite and strengthen its legal position. That could be important in future battles, but for now the victory for the European Greens who tabled the budget amendment is purely symbolic.

As for the the state of bullfighting more generally, things are more complicated than they might appear. Recent attendance figures from the Spanish ministry of culture don’t support a simple narrative of decline. Though there was a clear dip during Spain’s economic crisis, attendance in the year 2014/2015 overtook pre-crisis figures. The industry was also placed under government protection in Spain after the government voted in 2013 to give bullfighting intangible cultural heritage status. We are certainly not talking about a one-way losing battle.

The fight begins… Joaquín looks on as a bull he has spent four years caring for meets its fate Photo: Robin Irvine

So we should take care when it comes to derogative rhetoric, particularly about poorly understood traditions. It’s worth noting that attacks on bullfighting, while often out of genuine concern for the suffering of animals, also come from a tradition of northern moral supremacy. Not surprisingly, the European parliament vote on the anti-bullfighting amendment largely divided along a north-south axis, with 57 precent of Spanish MEPs voting against.

There is still a large public out there who appreciate bulls and bullfighting: 9.5 percent of Spaniards attended events involving fighting bulls in 2014-15. These people live in the same modern Europe as the rest of us. Anyone who condemns bullfighting as barbaric should not judge until they have looked beyond the arena to the wider world of the bulls.

Robin Irvine, Pre-doctoral Researcher in Social Anthropology , University of St Andrews


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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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.