Tradition vs. Ethics: The Controversy Behind Spain’s Bull Running Festival
My credentials: more than a decade of visiting this festival — first as an ignorant drunkard, then as an exploitative business-minded drunkard, and most recently, as amateur documentarian drunkard. Sangria, beer, wine and sometimes sangria have been the bolstering agents of each epoque.
Further: even in my ignorant phase, I was never too keen on animal violence. I’ve been known to remove a cockroach rather than squish it, but always slap down mosquitoes. I have been to two bullfights: one out of curiosity, and one professionally whilst being shown the best parts of a city, and have walked out before the first death on both occasions.
In my current job documenting Spain’s bizarre tradition of fiestas patronales, we have opted to leave out any bull-related events, of which there are hundreds, but have included San Fermin because, a) its week-long celebration is the biggest and most well-known Spanish festival, and thus attracts the most foreign visitors. This provides an interesting dynamic for us, and b) the people want to fucken see it, and being a nobody gnat of a production company, we’re in no position to be making moral stands.
Moreso: I’m an omnivore, because I acknowledge animal flesh’s role in the development of human beings, and furthermore see earthly existence as being little more than a murderous rampage from cradle to grave, by weeds and whales, of stealing the sun’s energy from one another. I grudgingly respect the vegetarian’s ability to supercede their genetic preprogramming and chose to morally override the entirety of their ancestry and evolution to date — it’s just not for me.
The impetus: the plethora of neither new nor well-considered “boycott the bulls” voices levelled at me either online, in person, or via implicit voodoo juju. Been-onces or never-beens, high-horse vegans and moral superiors. This is a very nuanced debate that has to take into account the cultural significance of not just the bull run, but the fiesta itself and the culture of fiesta in Spain in general. It also has to take into account how much fun I want to have, and also the meagre profits that I might make from the event.
The reality: overwhelmingly, the people we interviewed, especially the young Spaniards, Basques and Pamplonians, told us that they were there for the fiesta and the fiesta only, and that they were utterly opposed to the toros. They told us that the party was inextricably linked to Pamplona, and was a celebration of people and place, and, while excessive and tacky, it is totally fun because getting written off from time to time makes the rest of this pointless enterprise called life worth dragging our feet through.
Let’s not forget that this is a city of almost 200,000 people, and it swells with another 1.5 million or so over the course of the fiesta, from near and abroad, and that the stadium holds at full capacity a measly 20,000 people. It’s never at full capacity, which goes to show just how many are there to party, opposed to those there for death.
The people we spoke to also felt that the majority of tourists who arrive were willfully ignorant of everything, from the meaning behind the party to the general rules of decorum (loose, but there), to the moral and ethical implications of the bull run. There was a big feminist presence at San Fermin this year trying to counteract the implicit machismo that comes with these supposed feats of daring, and signs everywhere, officially sanctioned by the city, strove toward putting an end to masculinist violence.
The defining moment: on the morning of the bull run, or encierro in the local tongue, our plan was to walk through town interviewing those about to run, getting a shot of me lining up and preparing to run for my supposed life, before having a change of heart and getting out and being a conscientious objector, but willing documenter. I didn’t want to run; I have before, but it’s not a good idea for a couple of reasons. Reason one is obvious, and that’s that it’s fucken stupid; people get hurt all the time. Reason two is that there’s nothing overly brave or daring about doing something literally thousands of people are willing to do, including grandmas from Albuquerque.
Thing was, on the walk in there we took a wrong turn (amongst the thousands of revellers finishing up their nights and heading in the opposite direction to the bull run) and ended up at the pen, marking the start of the run, where the bulls were waiting for what they didn’t know. Now this sight rocked me to wavering voice and wet eyes.
There they were, these bulls, these objects and sources of so much fear and trepidation, and instead of them steaming from the nostrils and charging the fences and sharpening their horns, they were stood, serene, or sitting, complacent, staring into nothing or interacting with each other by gentle touching and in one case grooming from tongue to end-of-dick hair. They were gentle animals, in that moment before being provoked, just like any I had seen or owned or loved, not wild and malicious and aggressive beasts that needed to be conquered, whether by shoe or sword.
I instantly felt ill, I welled up, I addressed the camera and stated that the job was off. I was disgusted by the hordes of drunken ignoramuses, of which I was very recently one, who were there to leech some kind of puerile thrill off the fear reaction of these poor beasts. We walked through the crowd, I gave some heartfelt, Emmy Award-winning presenting, and then left, well before the cannon that signals the bull run, well before the idiots ran over each other’s backs in dumb fear, and well, well before the sequinned ponce and his dozen strong gang of skinny torturers ended these innocent bulls’ lives in a gaudy flash of blood lust masquerading as antiquated tradition.
The takeaway: this is one of the world’s greatest parties and will always remain that way. One cannot help but get caught up in its sangria-soaked excitement, to wander through its drunk-packed streets and impromptu parties and snail-eating families and feel a part of a living, vomiting historical artefact. The party will never go anywhere, and only an idiot would miss it on ethical grounds, and why draw the line at Pamplona?
The tradition of bull torture is a nationwide problem, the autonomous communities of the Basque Country and Catalunya notwithstanding, so if you’ve got such a beef with it all, then you will be morally obliged to boycott the Moorish delights of Alhambra, the wolf-and-bear prowled Pyrenees, the Celtic wonders of Galicia, the all-night pinger parties in Ibiza and the Martian surfers’ paradise that is the Canary Islands. Boycott it all if you’re really real about your activism (and at the same time, boycott Portugal, southern France, Mexico, etc).
Unlike in other parts of Spain, the fact that tourists come to this party has a moderating effect on the cruelty. In the south, free from both foreigners’ disproving eyes, and not reliant on their wallets, bull cruelty flourishes unimpeded — bull on bull fights, flaming bull horns, packs of horsemen running down and spearing bulls in the streets — the list is terrible and extensive. In a bid to attract more foreigners to future Sanfermines, the local tourism board has proposed not slaughtering the running bulls, keeping them alive and scrapping the pathetic bullfight altogether. While this approach wouldn’t appease PETA and their copy-and-paste slacktivists (we receive multiple messages and emails of almost equal outrage and syntax from well-meaning, but uninspiring nobodies with a cause), it pleases me and is a step towards a completely animal-cruelty free event.
Running with the bulls is dumb, animal cruelty is dumb, heck — maybe eating meat is dumb too if we’re conscious enough to override our biological impulses, but getting on some self-righteous high horse about it does nothing to further the cause, and in fact drives those who need to be convinced away from progress, while inviting plenty of back slaps for yourself.
Of course I’m being facetious when I claim that this is the definitive comment on this long-running, highly contentious festival, but fuck: my opinion on it all is based on actually being there and immersing myself in the party and participating in the bull run and watching bullfights and especially talking to people from there, not from my own little ill-thought-out herbivore-wearing-leather-loafers schtick. I went in with a blank slate and I came out soggy, but with a clearer idea of what’s going on — and it only took me a decade. Furthermore, and trust me on this, slip a drunk vegan a hamburger and 8/10 times they will eat 100%.
Cover by Pabley