A load of bull
JULY 10 — With Spain pausing to draw breath after the conclusion of the football season (don’t worry, it’ll be back soon — most leading European clubs have already started pre-season training), attention has turned to one of my adopted country’s more ancient sporting traditions. And this one involves not a ball, but a bull.
The annual San Fermin festival in Pamplona, northern Spain, got under way at the weekend with the famous “Running of the Bulls” serving as the exhilarating, if rather bizarre, centrepiece.
In case you’re not familiar with the concept, bull running is exactly as it sounds: half a dozen fighting bulls are released from captivity and ushered 800 metres towards the city’s bullring, accompanied by thousands of enthusiastic, probably drunk and possibly unhinged human revellers, whose sole objective is to get out of the way.
Not everybody can avoid a trampling: there have been 15 deaths in the last century, most recently in 2009, and three unlucky tourists (one American, two Britons) have already been gored in the current edition.
Call me a wimp, but I have to admit that I prefer sports where the worst possible outcome is losing, or maybe suffering the occasional light ankle sprain, rather than being gored by a raging bull. But San Fermin remains a wildly popular festival, assisted by the reservoirs of alcohol that are inevitably consumed as part of the event.
Bull running, of course, is closely related to another famous Spanish tradition, one that guarantees a less than happy ending for the bovine participant: bullfighting, one of the many forms of human cultural activity that can be found all over the planet with the apparent aim of demonstrating our immense superiority over beasts. Not only can we eat them and get them to work for us... we can also torture them for our amusement!
Unpleasant as it may appear to untrained eyes, bullfighting remains a popular pastime amongst locals and visitors alike across much of Spain, proudly defying squeamish liberal Western sensibilities and offering a slice of cultural life from times that are otherwise largely gone by.
But attitudes are changing and bullfighting, like many other forms of entertainment that involve animal torture, is rapidly becoming socially unacceptable, even in parts of Spain.
As with many other things, Barcelona is leading the charge is distancing itself from the rest of the country and bullfighting is now illegal in Catalunya. One of the city’s former bullrings has already been converted into a shiny new shopping complex, nicely demonstrative of the more commercial and sanitised approach that prevails in contemporary culture.
Elsewhere in the world, a similar picture is emerging. The British equivalent of bullfighting is fox hunting, which has been a touchy subject for many years with left-wing Labour politicians scrambling over themselves to make the sport illegal, while traditionalist Conservatives argue with passion to retain what they regard as an essential part of British countryside life.
In the United States, authorities are clamping down hard on illegal, underground, animal torturetainment activities. A particularly severe example was made of the superstar American football quarterback Michael Vick, who was given an unwanted career break in the form of a two-year prison sentence after being found guilty of organising dog-fighting.
So it may well be that, half a century or so from now, bull running, bullfighting, fox hunting and the many other breaches of animal rights will be outlawed all over the world. Whether they will be completely eradicated from the panoply of entertainment forms, though, is an entirely different matter.
Banning something (drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, gambling, taking drugs, prostitution, etc, etc) does not necessarily stop it from happening. Quite the opposite, in fact: prohibition often encourages the unwanted activity to blossom, allowing unscrupulous but enterprising suppliers to operate with abandon away from the moral constraints of open society.
And, like it or not, there seems to be something innate within the darker side of human nature that enjoys torturing animals. There’s nothing new in bullfighting. Indeed, one of the best documented elements of ancient Rome are the Coliseum’s gladiatorial contests, which formed an integral part of the Eternal City’s cultural life and generally involved the slaying of exotic animals.
Perhaps, then, animal rights activists would be better served if they sought to limit and contain activities such as Pamplona’s bull running, rather than attempting to ban abuses of animals outright and therefore sending them into the murky and uncontrollable underground.
Anyway, that’s enough pontificating. I’m hungry. Waitress... steak and chips please!
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.