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SPANISH TRADITIONS

Debate flares over Spain’s bull-running fiestas as ten revellers die

Spain's controversial bull-running festivals have once again hit the headlines after a deadly summer in which at least 10 people lost their lives, exacerbating divisions over the centuries-old tradition.

Debate flares over Spain's bull-running fiestas as ten revellers die
A bull strikes a participant during the traditional running of bulls "Bous a la mar" (Bull in the sea) at Denia's harbour near Alicante on July 14, 2022. (Photo by Jose Jordan / AFP)

Seven deaths occurred in the eastern Valencia region where the practice of releasing bulls into the streets for entertainment has sparked debate, with the other fatalities taking place in the regions of Madrid, Castilla y Leon and Navarra in the north.

This year’s toll raises to more than 30 the total number of people who have been killed in Valencia’s bull-running events since 2015.

This summer’s victims, who died from injuries sustained while racing through the streets alongside a group of hefty bulls — known as “bous al carrer” in Valencian — were between the ages of 18 and 73.

Six of them were men and one was a woman — a French woman who was the oldest victim.

They died after being gored or trampled by the bulls. Countless other people were injured, among them minors.

Bull-running events are a highlight of summer festivities across Spain, with the best known being the San Fermín festival in the northern city of Pamplona.

The idea is that a small group of bulls are let loose into a fenced-off area of the streets and hundreds of foolhardy thrill-seekers run alongside them for a few adrenaline-fuelled minutes, in a spectacle that draws thousands of spectators.

In Valencia and in southern parts of neighbouring Catalonia, such events are hugely popular and few are the villages that don’t put on some sort of entertainment involving bulls barrelling through the streets.

There are also “bous a la mar” – races to the seafront where at the end of the run, the participants vie to try and make the bulls fall into the water, most ending up there themselves.

Experts are divided about when the practice of running the bulls began but Cuéllar, a town some 150 kilometres (90 miles) north of Madrid, claims to have historical records dating back to the 13th century.

READ ALSO: Will bullfighting ever be banned in Spain?

And although the exact origin of the tradition is unclear, it is thought to emerged out of the need to bring bulls from the countryside into the towns on market day when they would be be coralled through the streets with sticks.

Irrespective of how it began, it has become a political hot potato for the local authorities, which often sparks heated debate and can win or lose an election.

When the Socialists and their hard-left ally Podemos managed to take over Valencia’s regional government in 2015, ousting the right-wing Popular Party, they were careful to steer well clear of the issue.

Podemos, which in Valencia is known as Compromís, is implacably opposed to any entertainment involving bulls.

“It’s not a simple issue, whether you’re debating or legislating… there are many sensitivities,” Valencia’s regional deputy leader Aitana Mas told reporters.

“At some point, it’s a debate which we have to have,” said Mas of the Compromís party, referring to a ban on all such activities.

“We’re talking about seven lives this summer alone,” she said, but adding it was also necessary to talk about “protecting animals”.

Bull-running events are a highlight of summer festivities across Spain, with the best known being the San Fermín festival in the northern city of Pamplona. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

But Germán Zaragoza, head of the region’s Federation of Bull-Fighting Clubs which promotes bull-running events as the Spain’s “most-traditional and authentic” fiestas, says any such move would face an uphill battle.

“They will have to take on Valencia’s love for the ‘bous al carrer’,” he said.

“The right to access culture — and all events featuring bulls are absolutely part of that — is sacred within the constitution,” he said in a statement.

“And neither the city councils nor the regions have the authority to ban or organise a referendum” on the fate of such events.

The right-wing Popular Party, which has a long history of supporting any bull-related festivities, pledged its support for such traditional events.

Those who question the validity of such fiestas “are attacking who we are and how we express our traditions and culture”, said Marta Barrachina, a local PP leader in Valencia.

But not all areas of Valencia feel the same, with towns like Sueca or Tavernes de la Valldigna refusing to issue permits for bull-running events this year.

And animal welfare associations have published a manifesto calling for a ban on change.org which describes bull-running events as “torture dressed up as culture and tradition” in which “abuse is more than evident”.

Such spectacles often involve “these noble animals” being beaten with sticks, kicked, jerked around, insulted, humiliated and subjected to stress, it states.

And the runners “are often drunk or under the influence of drugs, with many also injured”.

So far, the petition has garnered some 5,500 signatures.

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SPANISH TRADITIONS

Is this Spain’s most ‘grotesque’ bull festival?

Twisting and grunting, a terrified bull with burning balls of tar attached to its horns charges into the darkness in a small town in Spain. Organisers don't want the general public to see the footage as "they know it's not culture, it's animal abuse," say activists.

Is this Spain's most 'grotesque' bull festival?

Animal rights campaigners have called for a ban on a centuries-old festival in the medieval town of Medinaceli, calling it animal abuse.

The ironically named Toro de Júbilo – “Bull of Joy” – is an event which typically takes place on the second weekend in November.

Spanish anti-animal cruelty party PACMA has said it is mulling legal action against organisers of the event.

“This grotesque tradition continues to be celebrated even though we are no longer in the Stone Age,” it tweeted.

You can watch footage of the event in the YouTube video below. It is age-restricted given the graphic nature of the event.

Just before midnight on Saturday, a group of mostly men dressed in matching grey uniforms drag the bull into a makeshift bullring set up in the main square of the Castilla y León town.

They then tie the bull to a wooden post and attach balls of highly flammable tar to its horns as hundreds of people watch behind barriers. 

They cake mud to the animal’s back and face in an effort to protect it from the flames, before setting the tar balls alight.

Participants then release the bull into the square, covered in sand for the occasion, to cheers and applause from the crowd.

fire bull festival medinaceli

The bull is caged for several hours in a small box and covered in mud before the depraved spectacle begins. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

The bull frantically shakes its head to try to rid itself of the burning balls of tar as it races around the square.

Revellers then jump into the ring and attempt to dodge the bull in a purported test of courage. Some dangle a cape in front of it.

This continues for about 20 minutes until the flammable balls on its horns go out and the bull collapses. It is then dragged out of the ring.

‘Simply animal abuse’

The bull’s life is traditionally spared at the end of the event.

But in the 2022 edition the animal died after another young, castrated bull – which organisers sent into the bullring to guide him out of the arena – rammed him in the head, the festival said.

Jaime Posada, of the Spanish branch of animal rights group Anima Naturalis, which is also calling for a ban, said the bull is kept in a tight pen for hours before it is dragged into the square.

“It can’t move, it can hardly sit down, so it is stressed simply from that,” he told AFP.

Participants attach flammable balls to the bull’s horns before releasing it. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

Participants declined to be interviewed, and PACMA and other opponents of the fiesta said locals prevented them from filming the ritual.

“Why are they afraid? Basically because they know that this is not culture, it’s simply animal abuse and they enjoy doing it,” Posada said.

The festival, however, is one of the main events for Medinaceli, which is home to around 650 people.

The regional government of Castilla y León has even given the festival a special cultural status.

The Medinaceli town hall did not respond to a request to comment.

There is growing opposition among Spaniards to the hundreds of bull festivals which take place in Spain, but in rural communities in particular, many people still support these old traditions involving varying degrees of torture and distress for the bulls, and in many cases death.

Another controversial bull festival is El Toro de la Vega in Tordesillas near Valladolid, which sees one bull hunted to the death through the town’s streets by lancers on horseback and some on foot.

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