In the European Parliament this week, I chaired an open seminar on the future of bullfighting in the EU. Although its organisers originate from varying backgrounds – European animal welfare, veterinary science and economics – they all agree on one thing: bullfighting has to go.
Despite a considerable number of states having banned the practice of bullfighting by law – Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom among them – it still takes place in nine countries around the world. This is nine countries too many. Yet it is encouraging to find that even where bullfighting is legal, certain regions have begun to phase it out, such as the Canary Islands in Spain, and most of France.
Public appetite for this cruel blood sport has long been on the wane, but that doesn’t stop the Spanish government from heavily subsidising the declining industry. It has been estimated that over 550 million euros of taxpayer money is allocated to the pro-bullfighting industry per year, even though Spanish broadcaster RTVE stopped live coverage of bullfights in August 2007 and recent Gallup polls showed that the majority of Spaniards either disliked bullfighting or had no interest in it. Worse still, the EU subsidises it. According to recent reports, breeders of fighting bulls receive 220 Euros per bull per year from the EU, on top of national subsidies. Yet the EU is supposed to be a community of values – one of which is a high level of animal protection.
A cruel and unequal game
The pro bullfighting lobby puts forward a number of claims for the preservation of the ‘sport’, which need be addressed. First though, it is worth considering the reality of a typical Spanish-style bullfight. The ‘show’ begins when the bull enters the arena and is provoked into charging several times, before being approached by picadores, men on blindfolded horses, who drive lances into its back and neck muscles. The subsequent loss of blood impairs the bull's ability to lift its head, and when the banderilleros arrive on foot, the bull can expect further pain from the banderillas, spiked sticks in bright colours, being stabbed into its back.
Now weak and disorientated, the bull is encouraged by the banderilleros to run in dizzying circles before finally, the matador appears and, after a few forced charges, tries to kill the bull with his sword. If he misses, he stabs the submissive animal on the back of the neck until it is paralysed. The idea is to cut the animal’s spinal cord, but if the matador botches the job, the bull may be fully conscious while its ears or tail are removed as trophies. On many occasions, the bull remains alive until it is dragged out of the arena to be slaughtered
Thousands of bulls are maimed and killed in such a way every year. Spain puts the official number of bulls killed in official bullfights in permanent bullrings in 2006 at 11,458, but when you take into account the bullfights in mobile bullrings and the bulls killed during training and other bullfighting events, the figure is more likely to reach least 40,000 in Europe as a whole, and about 250,000 internationally.
Why do people defend it?
A continuation of the ‘sport’ has been justified on the grounds of national cultural heritage, some on ecological grounds, while others believe that it plays an important part in a country’s economy. Such claims have been effectively refuted by animal welfare organisations, as well as by politicians and economists from across the political spectrum. Even Queen Sofia of Spain has expressed her dislike for the ‘tradition’.
Some have defended bullfighting as a national tradition, seeking to preserve it as a piece of cultural heritage without which their country’s identity would suffer. Nevertheless, many others have opposed it, recognising bullfighting for what is really is – a cruel blood sport causing unnecessary suffering to the animal.
Even if you believe that bullfighting is a tradition or culture, the fact that it dates back to prehistoric times and that artists have revered it can never really justify serious cruelty to animals. Cruelty is cruelty no matter where in the world it happens. Human societies and cultures have changed over many thousands of years, as has what traditions are deemed acceptable. Our understanding of animals has improved a great deal in recent times. There is no place in the 21st century for a ‘sport’ which relies on animal cruelty for ‘entertainment’.
The ecological argument is also tenuous. The bullfighting industry points out that many fighting bulls are bred in semi-preserved areas of land called dehesas, home to several protected species and cared for as areas of outstanding natural beauty. The industry claims that these areas will disappear if bullfighting is abolished, because their business prevents the dehesas being developed for other purposes.
But the breeding of fighting bulls is not the sole purpose and function of this land, plus local authorities have never identified the bulls’ removal as a threat to populations of protected species. The owners of the dehesas can choose to use their land in a variety of ways regardless of whether or not they keep bulls, and those that do keep bulls should be compensated for loss of activity. It is the job of local authorities to ensure that such land and wildlife is protected, and the necessary laws are already in place. Furthermore, the Foro Encinal, an alliance of twenty organisations whose role is to protect the dehesas has never identified the breeding of fighting bulls as beneficial to the land’s ecological balance.
Economic concerns focus on bullfighting as a vital part of the tourist industry in Spain; as a generator of money and as an employer of people. Yet, tourists will visit Spain regardless of whether or not bullfighting exists, and as people become more ethically aware on their travels, tourist attendance at the shows looks set to fall even further. Indeed, a ComRes poll commissioned in April 2007 found that 89% of the British public would not visit a bullfight when on a holiday.
Like most industries, the profits from bullfighting end up in the hands of a very small number of people in a bullfighting elite. Even more importantly, the subsidies that prop up this declining industry take money away from serious social problems such as access to public health, education, infrastructures, the elderly, public safety, social housing and environmental policies.
An unpopular and unacceptable ‘entertainment’
In Spain, the country perhaps most associated with the bullfighting tradition, a 2006 Gallup poll showed that 72.10 per cent of Spaniards were not interested at all in bullfighting and just 7.40 per cent were very interested; in Catalonia more than 80 per cent showed no interest at all.
Such statistics show clearly that the opposition to bullfighting is growing throughout Europe, and that it is no longer deemed acceptable for the EU or for national governments to subsidise an activity which relies on animal abuse to make money. It seems undemocratic at best to use cash from the public coffers to prop up an unpopular blood sport, at the expense of crucial public services.
It is our responsibility to ensure that adequate protection is provided for animals in our care to prevent unnecessary suffering. I call on the European Parliament to reconsider the financial assistance given to the breeders of fighting bulls, so that the efforts to ban the ‘sport’ altogether can gather pace. The longer that bull fighting persists, the longer our standards of animal welfare will fall short of the mark.
For more information on anti-bullfighting campaigns, visit the website for the Spanish organisation Save Our Shame (SOS) or see the League Against Cruel Sports’ ‘Balls to Bullfighting’ campaign to sign a worldwide pledge to boycott the ‘sport’.