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It’s time to put down the Hemingway and accept that the Running of the Bulls is horrifying

It’s a grotesque celebration of cruelty to animals.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

On Friday, July 6, the festival of San Fermin begins in Pamplona, Spain, and the next day the festival's most famous attraction will start: the running of the bulls, where every day six bulls are released to dash 930 yards (a little more than half a mile) through the city’s streets to its bullring, while humans try to outrun them and avoid injury, and thousands of spectators look on.

The event is typically enjoyed as a kind of extreme sport, where runners risk being gored for the adrenaline high the danger provokes. It’s quick, typically lasting between two and three minutes. When it gets covered in English press, it’s usually in the context of the injuries that dumb American and British tourists, eager to relive Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, occasionally suffer.

But let’s not lose sight of the fundamental purpose of the exercise: transporting bulls from outside the city to the bullring, where they will later be killed in a prolonged, ritualistic fashion.

Yes, the running of the bulls is about bullfighting, and bullfighting, for all its romanticization in Western culture, is a fundamentally cruel, indefensible practice. The mainstream of Spanish society is coming around to this view (Catalonia banned bullfighting in 2010), and it’s high time foreigners enthused by the running of the bulls come around too.

What a bullfight is like for the bull

Spanish matador Curro Diaz tortures a profusely bleeding bull.
Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images

The leading organization resisting bullfighting in Spain is AVATMA, an group of veterinarians pushing for the practice’s abolition. An excellent paper from the organization’s José Zaldívar and colleagues details the ordinary sequences of fights and all the points at which bulls suffer.

Bullfighting is traditionally split into three segments. In the first, tercio de varas (the third of lancing), a man on horseback or picador stabs the bull repeatedly in the neck with a spear.

"This puncture opens up to 7 different wounds of an average length of 20 cm," Zaldívar and company write (20 cm is a little under 8 inches). "The puya [spear] produces serious damage in muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, nerves (dorsal to the spinal and brachial plexus), spinous and transverse processes of dorsal vertebrae, ribs and their cartilages, and scapulas and their cartilage. It is also able to cause pneumothorax. The bull can lose between the 8 and 18 percent (3 to 6.7l) of its blood volume."

The point of this portion of the ceremony is to injure the neck muscles of the bull such that it can't lift its head, and to weaken it through loss of blood.

The second part of the fight is known as the tercio de banderillas, where six harpoons (the titular banderillas) are stabbed into the bull's shoulders. The harpoons "dig into the injured areas, increasing the pain already inflicted by the puya with every movement the bull makes."

A dead bull after it was killed during a bullfight on the eighth day of the San Fermin Running Of The Bulls festival on July 13, 2015 in Pamplona, Spain.
The corpse of a bull killed in Pamplona last summer.
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

In the third segment, the tercio de muerte, the bull is killed by the matador, who plunges an 80- to 88-centimeter-long sword (about 2.5 feet) into the bull's chest, puncturing the bronchi, lungs, and large blood vessels along the way. "This causes profuse bleeding in the thoracic cavity and, therefore, a slow asphyxia," Zaldívar et al. write. "The bull suffocates, it coughs lots of blood, and finally collapses."

Only sometimes that’s not enough to kill the bull. In that event, the matador uses another sword to try to sever the bull's spinal cord or brain stem, causing quadriplegia. Then the bullfighter's assistant slices the medulla oblongata to slowly halt respiratory and cardiac functions. "This method was banned in EU slaughterhouses due to its cruelty," Zaldívar et al. write.

The authors also look into less immediately evident damage caused by the fights. About 60 percent of bulls have fractured or fissured skulls due to the picador's horse stirrup hitting against them. The blood of bulls after death shows dramatically more lactate, a sign that they could not cope with the exercise they were forced to endure and suffered severe muscle injuries. Hormones related to stress, trauma, injury, and pain are all found in greater numbers.

Veterinarians Susan Krebsbach and Mark Jones also tried to scientifically evaluate the suffering endured by bulls by showing video recordings of 28 bullfights to three independent veterinarians, who then graded the animals' distress. They found that animals were typically wounded more than 10 times every fight, and that signs of distress like tail swishing, slowing down due to exhaustion, reluctance to move, and labored breathing were all common.

"The frequency with which bulls during bullfights exhibit behaviors identified as indicators of distress, suggest that fighting bulls experience distress — they suffer in the bull ring," Krebsbach and Jones conclude.

None of the defenses of bullfighting hold up

Bullfighting, in detail
How bulls are ultimately killed.

It should not be particularly surprising that bullfighting inflicts massive amounts of pain on the roughly 250,000 bulls it kills annually worldwide. There’s plenty of evidence in the literature on dairy cows suggesting that cattle are capable of feeling pain. For instance, experiments have shown that giving painkillers to dairy cattle improves their gait — suggesting that they were feeling pain, and that alleviating that pain made walking easier. Cows’ behavior suggests an ability to feel emotion, as they warm to people who pet them and produce less milk among people who frighten them.

They’re also remarkably intelligent. "Cows can not only solve simple problems but they become excited when a solution is found," researchers F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk write in Compassion by the Pound. "Cows can be trained to perform simple feats, such as pushing a lever for food, and they can read certain signs. Cows are especially adept at remembering directions and geographic locations, and at recognizing their peers."

This is the animal that’s being tormented in a bullfight, that’s being stabbed repeatedly and having its organs pierced and ruptured.

Defenders of the practice typically invoke its role as a cultural tradition in Spain, arguing that this alone makes it worthy of preservation. The implicit notion that any longstanding practice, regardless of cruelty, should endure for the sake of cultural memory is rather perverse. Humane countries don’t sustain traditions that inflict needless suffering; they end them.

Even apart from that, it’s worth remembering what kind of tradition bullfighting is. The practice’s main political champion in the 20th century was dictator Francisco Franco, and it’s still deeply associated with his memory. Left-wing parties in Spain tend to be critical of bullfighting, and its association with Franco is part of why Catalan separatists, whose cause was brutally repressed under the Franco regime, have become some of bullfighting’s most vocal opponents. The tradition of which bullfighting is a part is deeply reactionary, and associated with some of the most shameful moments in Spanish history.

Factory farming is the bigger problem, but that doesn’t excuse bullfighting

Cows at a farm, being cute
A cow in Bethel, Vermont. Cows actually live pretty good lives!
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

The main argument offered in defense of bullfighting on animal welfare terms is that it isn’t as bad as agricultural practices involving beef. "I came to understand that the fighting bulls’ lot of five years on free-release followed by 25 minutes in the arena is equal if not better than the meat cow’s 18 months corralled in prison followed by a ‘humane’ death," Alexander Fiske-Harrison, a British journalist who trained as a bullfighter, writes.

This argument betrays an ignorance of what is actually involved in modern beef production. As Norwood and Lusk note, cattle are treated far, far better than chickens and hogs, which live fairly abysmal lives. That’s because the most economically efficient way to raise cattle is to let them graze naturally, albeit with predator protection, food security, and health care.

"The animals are usually housed in pastures large enough that space, crowding, and fighting are not a problem," Norwood and Lusk write. "Most of the literature that we have looked at about factory farming written by animal rights activists contains very little about beef production. That is because there are very few animal welfare problems that exist with beef production."

Slaughter practices are also reasonably, albeit not perfectly, humane. Typically, slaughterhouses use cap-bolt guns to render cows brain-dead before killing them, minimizing any pain they might endure. Widespread changes inaugurated by animal welfare expert Temple Grandin have further minimized the stress of the process through devices like curved chutes (which obscure the view of the slaughter for cattle coming down the line, calming them) and center-track restrainers (which holds cows steady to make sure they're stunned correctly and don't feel pain).

Compare that with bullfighting bulls, which are mutilated and feel tremendous pain before the point of death.

Fiske-Harrison has a bit of a point in that the animal suffering caused by factory farming of pigs and particularly chickens vastly outweighs that caused by bullfighting. As priorities go, those come first. But there’s no need to make good causes the enemy of each other. Chickens should be raised humanely, and bullfighting should end. Both of these are necessary steps in moving toward a world that takes animal suffering seriously.

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