I worked on a cattle-breeding farm in central Virginia for one summer during college. My first week involved long hours of bush-hogging—hauling a sort of heavy-duty lawnmower though pastures of shoulder-high brown grass, so that the cows could access the sweeter green shoots beneath. The tractor was top of the line, with an air-conditioned cab and tape deck. I’d listen to audiobooks and entertain myself by beheading black snakes and watching their decapitated bodies spout blood and slither in circles through the rear-view mirror. In the mornings, I’d often rouse families of sleeping deer that had bedded down in the tall grass. Spotted does and spindly-legged fawns would bound towards the trees like Olympic hurdlers.
During the second week on the job, I drove past a fence post with the tractor’s cab open and broke the door off, which ended the climate-controlled quiet. That afternoon, my boss George decided I was better suited to a duty he called “burning the pile.”
The next morning, George showed me to a sprawling two-story mess of wood and metal, the remains of demolished homes, barns, and several miles of razed fencing. My employers were buying up all the surrounding family farms and amalgamating them into one mega cattle-breeding complex. The “pile” was a literal graveyard for cottage-industry family farming in the state.
George gave me a book of matches, a shovel, a length of green garden hose not connected to any water source, and two five-gallon buckets full of a sludgy diesel fuel that had somehow gotten dirty and been deemed unfit for tractor use. His specific instructions: “Stretch this hose out flat, light the pile on fire, stand beside it with this shovel in your hand, and if anybody comes by, act like you know what you’re doing.”
I did exactly as he said. It took a while to get the diesel lit, but soon enough I had a raging fire. I stood at attention with my shovel, so close that my face and hands grew covered in soot. At five o’clock, I dropped the shovel on the ground and drove home. I reported back at nine the next morning, picked the shovel back up, and continued watching. The fire burnt itself out by Friday.
After my success with the pile, George judged me fit for cattle work. He taught me the requisite set of moves. In a low, duck-footed stance, we’d hold our arms out at our sides and wiggle our open palms to coax the confused heifers into their paddock. If one of them made a break for it, we’d scramble sideways to head them off, wiggling our palms even more vigorously. To my surprise, jazz hands proved an effective way of stopping the thousand-pound animals.
During all this, I wondered where the bulls were. This was a breeding farm after all, and I’d not seen a single swinging pair of bovine testicles all summer. Were they so dangerous that they had to be kept in some secret paddock, out of sight from the seasonal help?
Finally, towards the end of my tenure, the breeding happened. George took me to a special barn. I expected to find a snorting, frothing mass of horns and hormones—nose rings and fore-hooves scraping the ground. Instead, there was a bald man in a white coat with a sort of minivan/laboratory. This man turned out to be the veterinarian, and the bulls turned out to live several states away. George ordered their semen through a catalog, then paid the vet to fertilize our cows with a turkey-baster-looking instrument.
Rather than fertilize the entire herd (which would waste too much bull sperm), George gave fertility drugs to the biggest and beefiest of our cows, so that she’d produce an abundance of eggs—a process he called “super-ovulation.” The super-ovulated cow would get the turkey baster, which might result in over a dozen fertilized eggs.
A few months later, the vet would return for a much longer procedure. George and I would corral all the cows into a series of tight chutes using jazz hands. We would then inch them forward by slapping their hindquarters and twisting their tails, until they arrived at a final chamber where their heads were locked into place. Wearing a shoulder-length latex glove, the vet took eggs from the super cow, and then placed one each in the wombs of the others. What we ended up with was a herd of pregnant cows, all carrying fraternal twins of the same biological parents. Once the calving season began, our cows would experience virgin birth, none of them having been penetrated by anything more than a vet’s arm. I was told this was all industry standard.
A Case Study in Lack of Conviction
I have family in Spain and have been lucky enough to visit, live, and study in different parts of the country, at different points in my life. My experiences with bullfighting constitute a case study in indecision and lack of conviction. I attended my first corrida in the Madrid ring at eleven, hoping for gore and pageantry. Looking back, I wonder if it wasn’t a novillada, or amateur fight. I recall several bulls refusing to charge, and being led out by steers. At the end, an unsatisfied crowd threw their seat cushions into the ring.
If there’s any archive of anti-bullfighting petitions from the late nineties, my name might be found on many of them. As a college student, following suit from Spanish friends or trying to impress girls, I’d happily sign those documents—which were often placed by the door of the hippest parties. I earnestly supported my Spanish peers who felt the need to end the corridas. It was their culture; who was I to judge? In fact, it’s with a heavy heart that I write about this subject at all. Young Spaniards often express frustration that bullfighting figures so prominently in foreign accounts of their country.
Over the course of my stays in Spain, I’ve mostly learned to keep quiet on the subject of bulls. It tends to bring out strong opinions, one way or the other. I’ve always felt the sport would end within my lifetime. The divide between supporters and critics seems to cut along generational lines. In my mind, it’s never been a question of if the bulls will be banned, but rather when.
So in the summer of 2010, it was with a sense of curious opportunism that I attended a couple of fights in Alicante’s Plaza de Toros. My wife and I were passing a sort of extended, belated, working honeymoon in Alicante, a small city in southern Valencia—a region Hemingway considers second only to Madrid for watching the bulls.
For those unfamiliar with the practice, I’ll summarize. The fight is divided into three parts. In the first, the bull enters intact and angry. After the matador performs a couple of cautious passes, two picadors ride into the ring, mounted on blindfolded horses wearing a mattress-like protective armor. The bull charges the horse’s protective covering, while the picador drives a lance into its withers, hoping to slow the bull and lower its head. In the second stage, the banderilleros—who may or may not include the matador himself—enter on foot and attempt to place barbed sticks along the bull’s shoulders, hoping to further open the picador’s wound and further lower the horns.
The final stage is the one we’re all familiar with, in which the lone matador fights the bull with sword and short cape. He performs a series of crowd-pleasing close passes, which allow him to tire the bull and read its charging tendencies. The fight ends when the matador plunges his sword between the bull’s shoulder blades and into its aorta. If done well, the bull dies instantly.
Every fight is presided over by some sort of official in a high box. Normally, this is the president of the local bullfighting association. In Madrid, it is sometimes the King of Spain. At the end of a match, if the matador has performed well, this official may award him one of the bull’s ears by placing a white handkerchief over the railing of his box. If he places two handkerchiefs, the matador receives both ears—and gets to leave the ring upon the shoulders of his entourage. If the matador is exceptional, he might also be granted the bull’s tail. Often, the crowd feels that the presiding official has been too conservative. They wave their own handkerchiefs and shout obscenities up at the well-dressed man in the box.
Generally I frown on acts of violence or stupidity committed in the name of tradition—whaling, genital mutilation, fraternity parties, and so forth. But the beauty of the bullfight is not lost on me. I don’t consider myself a defender or an apologist, but it’s a splendid way to spend an afternoon—sitting in the sun, sharing skins of wine and bottles of sherry with strangers, watching while danger and glory are weighed against each other a few yards away.
I’ve brought the bulls up many times when teaching fiction to students, and I’d challenge anyone interested in storytelling not to find some appeal in it. Hemingway said that bullfighting was not sport, but rather tragedy. Certainly, the corrida can’t be called a contest. The matador’s goal is not to kill the bull efficiently, nor to defeat the bull in any sense. His goal is to provide a compelling narrative. The matador is both author and protagonist of the drama: he must come as close as possible to failure, yet prevail. At its close, the quality of this tragedy is judged both by the public and by the critic high up in his box. As in the literary world, differences of opinion between the people and the aloof experts are left undecided, punctuated by smug expressions and rude words.
The Greatest Summer in Spanish Sport
Within a few short months in the middle of 2010, Spain won the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the Formula One World Championships, a major motocross event, and of course, the FIFA World Cup.
Here in the US, even we spanglophiles often forget that Spain as a singular country is a fairly recent concept. The Iberian Peninsula is home to a collage of ancient peoples—with their own lands, languages, and traditions. Living and governing together under a single flag is a daunting and ongoing challenge.
In the eyes of many European analysts, the World Cup win was a symbol of Spain’s fledgling national cohesion. Some of La Roja’s key starters were Catalan. Both Cataluña and the Basque Country—regions that had previously petitioned for their own World Cup teams—celebrated the victory and waved the Spanish flag. Some have dubbed this phenomenon “The Red Effect.”
Within the same month, however, another event in the Spanish sporting world reopened the regional divisions: Cataluña banned bullfighting.
The ban did not surprise me. For many, the corridas carry bad connotations as Franco’s “national fiesta.” Even Hemingway concedes that it’s not a part of Catalan culture and calls the fights that take place there “false.” I studied in the first region ever to ban the bulls—the Canary Islands—and I can say for certain that it’s not an activity easily forced upon an unenthusiastic public. Journalists have called the ban a victory both for animal rights activists and for Catalan identity.
I support the Catalan ban. It passed quite overwhelmingly. The corridas were not popular there; it will only affect a sparsely attended two-week season in Barcelona. The ban’s critics dismiss the action as merely symbolic, a statement of the region’s difference. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. The beauty of Spain, for me, has always resided in its regional identities. I wouldn’t be surprised if Galicia were to pass something similar in the near future.
A Brief History of Cruelty
Bullfighting has been criticized as a cruel practice for most of its long existence. However, it’s only in the last few decades that cruelty to the bulls has become a concern. In prior ages, other forms of cruelty stole the spotlight.
In the 16th century, faced with an outrageous number of bull-on-human deaths, the Pope forbid the practice, threatening excommunication and denying Christian burial. Spain continued the corridas. A compromise was reached in which bulls could only appear in the ring once. If we are to believe Hemingway, the Iberian fighting bull needs about one match to learn that charging the cape is fruitless, and thereafter will charge the cape-wielding human. Such a wise bull is nearly unstoppable in the ring. Before the late 1500’s, it was often a fair fight.
Until 1930—when the mattress-like horn-proof armor was instituted—many more horses were killed in the ring than bulls. Death in the Afternoon was published in 1932, but Hemingway mostly writes about the pre-armor days. Apparently, the picadors’ mounts were gored right out from under them. Often, they were quite horribly disemboweled. Removing horse entrails from the ring was somebody’s full-time job. There are accounts of unscrupulous vets stuffing equine abdomens full of sawdust and sewing them back up for one more fight. The detractors that Hemingway addresses are focused not on the bulls but on the horses.
Though Papa might’ve labeled me “queer” (as he does most who can’t stomach the sport, as well as other writers and artists he disapproves of), I’m not sure I could’ve watched or enjoyed a corrida under those circumstances. I find the picador’s portion—even with the armor—to be the least artful aspect of the fight. I can’t imagine it without. Considering all the pageantry and gravitas associated with the bull’s death, it’s hard to imagine a dozen dead horses taken so lightly. In fact, I’m surprised the sport survived this stage in its development. It wouldn’t last long in Spain’s current cultural and political climate.
It’s only in the last half-century or so, with minimal horse and human deaths, that cruelty to bulls has been considered. I mention this only for context. It reminds me of the last time I went to Yosemite. A friend and longtime employee there told me about some of the park’s old practices. During full moons, the staff used to dump loads of burning logs off the side of a mountain, so that visitors in the valley could see a waterfall on one side and a “firefall” on the other. They built a network of scaffolding above the valley’s trash dump, so tourists could watch bears feed upon their garbage.
“It makes you wonder,” my friend said, “what we’re doing here now that will seem completely insane in fifty years.”
Fighting Bull: It’s What’s for Dinner
I recall being told at eleven, in the Madrid ring, that the bull meat went to orphanages. I’ve heard this fact repeated by corrida enthusiasts, but never fully confirmed. After the slain bull is led out of the ring by a team of mules, it is hung, skinned, and cleaned on the premises. In the Alicante ring, one can watch this happen in a chamber off the main portico. Also in Alicante, during the season, one can buy the meat of the fighting bull at a stall in the central market.
My wife—who happens to be an amazing chef—bought several cuts over the course of the summer. She prepared short ribs, oxtails, and beef tartare, all from bulls that had died in the ring. We purchased the meat partly as a culinary experiment and partly as a way of justifying our attendance. But we were amazed at the quality. It lacked the intramuscular fat that gives American steaks their marbling, but that’s true of any pasture-raised beef. Leaner and more intensely flavored, the bull meat was delicious.
When considering cruelty to the Spanish bulls, I’m forced to think back upon the calves that were born via less-than-immaculate conception on that farm in central Virginia. According to Michael Pollan’s 2002 New York Times account, such a calf would stay alongside his virgin mother and twin siblings for about six months, eating grass and farting in the sunny fields. After six months, he would be branded and castrated, separated from his mothers and brothers, and shipped off to a feedlot. He would never taste grass or open space again. At the feedlot, his diet would consist mostly of corn, and antibiotics that keep the corn-diet from killing him. If born in the United States before 1997, he might have been fed the ground-up pieces of his fellow cows; he might have gone mad. After the FDA ban on industrialized cannibalism, he’ll be fed a protein supplement that might include feather-meal, chicken manure, and “blood products.” He will be given a shot of estrogen, which will make him gain an extra fifty pounds (such hormone treatments are illegal in Spain, incidentally). In sixteen months, he will reach the weight that it takes a grass-fed cow five years to reach, and be ready for the slaughter.
Journalists—Pollan included—are prohibited from the killing floor, so it’s hard to say what the end looks like for the American cow. We do know that slaughterhouses go to great lengths to keep their victims from suspecting death. Excited cattle let out a surge of adrenaline that gives the meat an unsightly dark hue.
In Spain, all fighting bulls are grass-fed and pasture raised. After a brief bull/steer separation ritual in their youth, their contact with people is kept to a minimum. Some will never see a dismounted human until their day in the ring. No college students doing jazz hands could ever stop them, nor will any ever try. They are sometimes given grain as a last resort during late summer droughts, when grass is hard to find. Hemingway considered this the worst time to attend corridas, because a grain-fed bull will perform like a boxer who’s been living off “potatoes and ale.”
For the five or six years of their pre-fight lives, such bulls roam and feed upon thousands of acres of pasture, farting in the sun—often charging and fighting with each other—on the sort of family farms that were demolished during my summer in Central Virginia. One could argue that their lives resemble those of pre-domestic cattle more closely than any other bovine left on earth.
Nobody suggests that these bulls don’t have a fine existence before they enter the Plaza de Toros. Many say that the confusion and anxiety they experience in the ring constitute a form of mental abuse. This is not untrue, though in this aspect bullfighting resembles other animal sports like rodeo, dog racing, or steeplechase. Many argue that the bulls are tortured in the ring. As a spectator, I’m split on this. The corridas I’ve attended most recently have been hand picked by Spanish friends for the quality and reputation of the matadors. When I see a bull killed well, its death does not resemble torture. But I have caught snippets of poorly executed corridas on Spanish television, and have often had to turn my head, wishing somebody would mercifully intervene and put the bull out of its misery.
The most interesting argument to me is that the cruelty lie in the spectacle, that by watching the bull’s ordeal, we subject it to a form of abuse. I think there’s truth in this. Smarter writers than I have shown that a knowing gaze from afar can inflict its own kind of unbearable violence. The roars of a drunken crowd must perplex and humiliate in some fundamental way.
But what’s at the other end of the spectrum? Pollan calls our relationship to meat an “invisible but crucial transaction.” Even reporters cannot see the killing of American cows. Our steers, living in a state of perpetual disease-kept-at-bay-by-drugs, are spared any excitement because it discolors their meat. Like sex, their death is kept a secret from them until it’s over. At least, for a couple of dinners during the summer of 2010, my transaction with my beef was completely above boards.
Many say that comparisons between meat and bullfighting are inherently flawed. As food, they argue, meat is necessity. Bullfighting is entertainment. In this matter, I defer to Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the enigmatic vegetarian-biologist-philosopher-Greenpeace-and-WWF-member-turned-matador who writes the blog The Last Arena and argues, quite convincingly, that beef has a negative nutritional value for most consumers. It’s eaten for pleasure, for the entertainment of one’s palette. That an animal should be killed for the entertainment of one’s eyes is no different, ethically speaking.
I hesitate to draw any conclusions. Animal rights, cultural traditions, and American food production are all subjects that send zealots swarming to online comment boards. Is bullfighting cruel and unnecessary? It is. Is it crueler than horse or dog racing? Possibly. Is it crueler than buying a factory-farmed steak at my local supermarket? Almost certainly not.
But more importantly, any judgment on the practice would be hypocritical coming from an American carnivore such as myself. The question is ultimately up to the Spanish to decide. Perhaps, fifty years from now, the idea of cheap marbled beef several times a week will seem an equally absurd and cruel spectacle.