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John M. Crisp: The complicated case against bullfighting

John M. Crisp, Tribune News Service on

Published in Op Eds

The case against bullfighting seems straightforward. What justification could there be for the obviously painful and bloody public execution of an animal in front of a cheering multitude?

In fact, the industry in the world’s principal bullfighting nations—Spain and Mexico—is increasingly threatened by animal rights groups that demand its abolition. A 2016 infoLibre poll of 16- to 24-year-old Spaniards found that 84% were embarrassed to live in a country that permits bullfighting. In 2020, a YouGov poll reported that 52% of Spaniards believe that bullfighting should be abolished.

Some cities and provinces in Spain have already banned the corrida de toros, and five Mexican states have prohibited bullfights since 2013. And legal challenges from animal rights groups forced the closure of the world’s largest bullring—La Plaza Mexico—for nearly two years.

Bullfighting resumed recently in La Plaza Mexico despite the protests, but the trend is clear. Bullfighting is a gory, anachronistic spectacle of doubtful values whose eventual abolition marks another milestone of human progress away from brutal practices of the past such as bear-baiting, dogfighting and fox hunting. Good for bullfighting’s opponents.

But the end of bullfighting provides the occasion for consideration of how we in non-bullfighting nations treat animals and ourselves.

After the corrida, for example, the bull is always butchered and consumed, and the bullfight itself embodies a brutal honesty about the relationship between humans and meat.

Our meat comes wrapped in cellophane and nestled in Styrofoam and in shapes and sizes—patties, filets, chops—that bear little resemblance to the animal from which they were carved.

This way of eating makes it easy to forget that if you’re a meat-eater—I’m one, too—a significant portion of your diet comes at the expense of considerable misery, pain and bloodletting.

Would we be better people if we were forced to watch our food being slaughtered? I doubt it. But the acknowledgment of the essential connection that bullfighting makes between meat-eating and bloodletting might awaken our sensibilities to the cruelties to which we submit animals in factory farms or, for that matter, in our horse-racing and dog-racing industries.

 

Defenders of the bullfight often argue that fighting bulls are pampered for four or five years on ranches where they are well fed and roam free as the wild animals that they are. Then they die on a Sunday afternoon after 20 minutes of passionate, if painful, combat, at the height of taurine glory.

This sounds like an anthropomorphic rationalization. Still, if one compares the bull’s life to the life of a killer whale or bottlenose dolphin that’s confined for 20, 30 or 40 years in a tank with the dimensions—in his terms—of a bathtub, deprived of his natural social interactions and experiences, who’s to say which animal’s life is more miserable?

Then there’s the human element. Most objections to bullfighting center around the suffering that the bull endures. Many people have the impression that the bull always “loses,” but the danger to the toreros is very real. Deaths of young men in the bullring are comparatively rare since the invention of penicillin, but they still occur, and every torero is gored eventually.

The difference, of course, between the bull and the bullfighter is the matter of choice. Bullfighters choose to enter the arena. On the other hand, young people make their choices based on the options that a culture provides for them.

In Spain or Mexico, some boys—and a few girls—see the life of a torero as a path to glory, wealth and fame. And while a few make it to the top, hundreds or thousands are beaten up, gored or killed in third-tier bullrings.

But is this much different from American football? Boys can play or not play, but society tells youngsters what it values and what it’s willing to pay for and to glorify on fall afternoons, which is the invisible, accumulative deterioration of football players’ health in nearly every game.

Accordingly, if we feel any inclination toward sanctimony or superiority over the bullfighting countries, we should probably examine our own culture more carefully.

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