Defending The Brutality Of The Running Of The Bulls
It’s the least humane spectacle on Earth; here’s why you should go
Time To Read: 12 mins | July 15, 2017
If you could go back to ancient Rome and watch the gladiators fight, would you?
I’m pretty sure eight thousand and four people have previously written about their experience at the Running of the Bulls, so it doesn’t seem new or interesting for me to go blow-for-blow through my experience. Suffice to say it is terrifying and thrilling and unimaginably brutal.
For those unfamiliar with the details, the Fiesta de San Fermin is an annual 9-day festival in Pamplona, Spain. Every morning, 6-ish fighting bulls are released, followed by a herd of tame steer, to blast full speed down a walled path through the city’s streets. Thousands of bystanders watch from the sidelines and neighboring balconies while a few hundred idiotic daredevils actually sprint through those same streets at the same time as the 2,000 pound pointy horned animals.
The tradition was born of necessity. In yesteryear, going back to the 1300s, the bulls needed to be led from the pastures outside the city to the bullfighting ring so that they could serve as the evening’s entertainment. This required experienced local handlers to literally run with, lead, and coerce the animals in the right direction. That in turn led to jumped-up youngsters throwing themselves into the action to prove their bravado, which eventually evolved into tourists from around the world flying in for bragging rights.
I am obviously part of the latter group.
You quickly realize that it’s a heavily U.S. crowd. While thrill-seekers from the world over attend, the idea of putting your life on the line (that’s not an exaggeration) appeals to something in the American spirit. For my money, it’s half our lately-repressed sense of masculinity (I met two American women who ran, before someone says something abut my phrasing) and half a desire to escape all the coddling and hand-holding of modern life. You can also blame Hemmingway – his book The Sun Also Rises was what first brought the festival to prominence. And as the ultimate man’s-man of literature, who better to inspire new generations of daredevils to partake in the deadly affair.
Again, to stress, ‘deadly’ is not an exaggeration. If you look up the official statistics, 15 people have died during the Running since the 1920s — which frankly doesn’t sound all that risky. But the clever bit is, Spanish officials only tally the deaths that occur on the course. Which means that, if you still have a pulse when you’re limp body is dragged off the street, you didn’t technically die during the run. This is an open secret in Pamplona. The day I ran, not 50 yards from me, one man took a horn between his shoulder blades and was dragged, bleeding profusely, for a good thirty yards. I was in town for another 36 hours after that; not a single person could confirm how he’d fared.
Either way, he’ll never show up in the deaths column.
Friends and family who knew I was participating gave me very strict instructions not to die. So I was likely a bit more cautious than I could have been: after momentarily getting alongside the first bull that ran past, I threw myself against a restaurant wall instead of going for the glory of literally running “with” all of them. This turned out to be a good decision, as the horn that missed me by 18 inches caught and flipped a man just 5 feet past me.
The arena is a lesser known part of the event. When all the bulls and steers have finished the course, the doors to the ring/stadium are shut immediately behind them to keep the animals from escaping. If, however, a runner makes it into the ring before the last steer (offhand guess, maybe one-fifth of the batshit insane participants do), they are treated to 6 young bulls, not fully grown and with their horns corked, charging out of the gates and chasing down everyone in their way. Goring is unlikely, but each bull catches a dozen or so runners and flips them hard, and while I was in the ring at least one man was knocked unconscious, then headbutted repeatedly by the bull before being carried off by emergency personnel.
Now you’re thinking to yourself, “Why would anyone do this?” But you’re about to forget that human risk I just described when you remember all this action is happening in the last 12 hours of those bulls’ lives.
You know what bullfighting is, I’d wager. You just don’t think about it that often, nor regularly envision the details of what it entails. I’ll give it to you in a sentence: a healthy animal is teased by men in funny outfits holding sheets, then, once tired, is repeatedly stabbed with a variety of weapons until it’s too weak to attack, upon which a man shoves a sword into its spine; after it’s stopped moving, the bull is dragged out of the arena by a team of three horses (leaving a yard-wide trail of blood behind it) and the next one is brought in. Repeat.
I am very much a carnivore, and before you read into last paragraph’s tone, I don’t intend on changing that.
But to describe a bullfight as anything less barbaric would be disingenuous. And my first experience with it was, impossibly, even worse than what I just laid out.
I’d met a few Americans after the morning run and we’d bought tickets to the fights that night. After having our one fluent Spanish speaker haggle for fifteen minutes for good seats, we still somehow ended up three rows from the top. Not that this affected the view – the ancient stadium’s seating was so steep, every spot was front row. The height simply shrunk the combatants involved and increased our risk of death by falling.
We arrived in the knick of time. We had our beers and were sitting down and the cute Dutch girls next to us were eagerly explaining how this was their third time and it was oh so much fun. Not moments later, the first bull was released.
Important detail: the matador isn’t the only bullfighter in the ring. There’s actually a team of them at different locations to help distract the bull, to keep him running in circles early on so as to wear him out. Each of these assistant bullfighters (definitely not the term) has a five-foot wide partition just inside the edge of the ring, a sort of small wall they can duck behind when the bull gets close.
As the first bull stormed out, it headed straight across the ring for the ass. bullfighter. And when it got close, the fighter jumped behind his wall. As we’d witness the rest of the evening, the bull usually slows up, turns away, and goes to chase someone else.
The first bull didn’t. It stormed right into the partition at full speed, smashed its left horn into the wall and snapped it off.
To the bloodlusting crowd’s credit, everyone fell into a shocked silence. The bull suffered a concussion times ten: it kept trying to get up, then falling back down again. Standing, walking three steps and tumbling. Bleeding massively out of the hole where its horn used to be. This went on for just a minute or so but completely took the wind out of the event. Eventually they brought a steer in to lead the animal out of the arena, where… well I don’t precisely know what they did, but I’d assume the bull was put out of its misery.
I can’t paint it anymore honestly than that.
Your question is the probably same as earlier: “Why would anyone do this?” But the implication is no longer, “Why are people idiots?” but now, “Why are people so cruel?”
It took me a few days to sort out an answer for myself (coincidentally, that’s also about how long it took for my heart rate to slow down). And while I want to provide an emphatic ethical defense of the Running from its billions of detractors, I’m not sure there is one. It’s sport killing taken to the extreme – this isn’t the same as a deer shot in the woods. It’s a captured animal being systematically weakened and, instead of being put down quickly, only killed after its entertainment value’s run out on account of a dozen stab wounds.
What I will defend, however, is why people watch. Why they take part in the event.
I led off with a question — if you could go back in time to ancient Rome and watch gladiators in the Colosseum, would you? I’m sure the social justice warriors are already thinking “absolutely not you monster, by the way where is my kale smoothie?” But it’s a piece of world history, something we all learn about in school, and was once the primary source of entertainment for the most succesful Empire the planet had yet seen (apologies to Alexander the Great). To be in the great arena, watching alongside thousands of screaming fans that smell like olive oil as two men literally fought for their lives. Which brings us to the crux: the actual risk of death in sport has all but been eliminated from the modern, safety-paranoid world.
Part of the appeal of the UFC, and to a lesser degree football and ice hockey, is that there’s still danger involved. No one roots for someone to get injured, but you’re lying to yourself if you believe part of the excitement isn’t derived from the fact that someone, at any moment, could get seriously hurt. Multiply that factor by a hundred, and you get gladiators. Multiply it by twenty, and you get matadors. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t think these men are putting themselves at risk — two world-renowned fighters have died in 2017 alone. if you want nightmares for a week, Google ‘Ivan Fandino Death’.
‘Tribal’ is the word that comes to mind. Events like killing fighting bulls and watching men swing lethal weapons at each other is tribal. But humans have created a society that’s evolved beyond such primitive and brutal practices. There are only a handful of such experiences like these still on Earth, and they’re being banned at a record pace thanks to the PC movement of the past century or two. A gladiator brawl in full armor to the death will obviously never be seen again in the civilized world – but even if it offends all your sensibilities, be honest: would you not want to see one?
There’s huge pressure on bullfighting, and by consequence the Running, to be made illegal. Many towns in Spain that once hosted matadors have already stopped doing so. But Pamplona’s given no indication that it will stop its centuries-old tradition — and as brutal as the event is, I hope they don’t.
Is it enlightened? Absolutely not. Will it last another hundred years? I doubt it. But as we develop as a species and a global society – for the better — there is something still tribal in all of us, and these quickly disappearing vestiges of the old ways appeal for that reason. If this is the last outlet for the primal uncivilized animal in all of us, I say let it run as long as possible.
photo: this one’s not mine — sue me. there was far too much sangria involved during the festival for me to waste time taking pictures, so this shot of the 20m-long statue celebrating the running in pamplona, spain is completely ripped off.