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Sporting event or public torture? Inside Spain’s bull rings

There is a lot to like about Spain. The sun and the sea for a start, the Pyrenees and the Alpujarras, the Moorish architecture of Andalucía, the nightlife of Madrid, the wine, the food (unless you’re a vegetarian…), the powerful language, and of course the feisty Spaniards themselves.

Judging by the numbers of Britons who descend on the Iberian peninsula each year it appears my attraction to the place is widely shared. Over four million British tourists temporarily traded their damp homeland for Spain’s warm tierra in 2012, and nearly 800,000 British expats have put down their sticks permanently in the country of eternal sunshine and sangria.

The Fire Bull Festival. Pic: Faada

The Fire Bull Festival. Pic: Faada

But there is one thing about Spain that makes me choke on my tortilla and seriously question this choice of holiday destination. My issue is bullfighting and bull torture, in the name of tradition. Many local festivals and fiestas feature bullfights in one shape or another, always involving bullying and physical torture of the animal. You have probably heard about the famous bull run in Pamplona, where a group of bulls are release in a street amidst crowds of adrenalin-hyped young men and women who are living the adventure of their lives. The terrified animals are chased down the street by a screaming and provoking crowd, and later in the evening they appear in the bullring to endure a brutal torture before finally being finished off.

I wonder what it would be like to go along to a village festival, sampling homemade food and drink, perhaps buying a couple of souvenirs and chatting to a few locals – and later in the afternoon strolling to a field at the outskirts of the village, where a crowd of people has already gathered. There is excitement and anticipation in the air. Eventually three young bulls are released in the field accompanied by cheers and shouts from the crowd. A group of men armed with daggers and spikes jump over the fence into the field and start chasing and beating the bulls. The bulls initially try to defend themselves but eventually collapse from exhaustion and blood loss. In a final gesture to the cheering crowd, one of the men gets in his quad and drives over the collapsed bulls

Variations on this event happens every year at the bull fiestas in Algemesi, at the festival of San Roque in the village of Villalpando Zamora, and countless other places in Spain. At the Fiesta de San Juan, in Coria, a bull is made to walk for several hours while being tortured with darts thrown at his eyes, nose and testicles. Hooked spears are then plunged into his flesh and when he finally collapses from the blood loss, his testicles are cut off.

Pic: AVAAT (Asociación de Veterinarios Abolicionistas de la Tauromaquia)

In other places, bulls are tied up and their horns smeared with tar and set on fire. The bulls run into walls and stumble over things, blinded by the fire. After hours of torture, the bulls are killed and their bodies are cut up and distributed among the participants. Some bulls are burned alive, and others jump in the water to escape, sometimes resulting in drowning.

These fiestas are defended, and actively promoted, by the Spanish government as being part of their cultural heritage. I can think of several practices – now illegal and by most people rejected as cruel and utterly unacceptable – once defended as cultural heritage or local custom. We’ve thankfully moved on from burning witches, trading in slaves, and teachers beating up children at school, and the concept of universal human rights has become not only international law but a notion widely accepted across the globe. How can we accept, in this day and age, that animals are made to suffer unimaginable cruelty in the name of tradition?

Animal welfare legislation and practice has also covered significant ground in the past decades, and cruelty against animals is outlawed in most western European countries. There are no grounds for why the cruel bull fiestas are not only allowed to continue but also encouraged by the Spanish government and by countless British and other tour operators who promote and organise visits to these events.

As tourists we have a responsibility towards people and animals we touch on our travels. Our choices matter – where we go, which operator we go with, what activities we engage in, what practices we accept and where we draw the line, and what we do when we witness abuse and cruelty.

Pic: AVAAT (Asociación de Veterinarios Abolicionistas de la Tauromaquia)

There are various ways you can show that you don’t support these festivals. The first and most obvious one is to not attend. Foreign tourists attending these festivals add money to the local economy and by default endorse the cruelty. Many of these events may not happen at all without the tourist interest and the associated hype created through social media, reviews and websites.

You can take a more active stance by writing to the Spanish consulate to express your concerns and counteract their belief that these events encourage tourism. When you see tour companies or hotels promoting visits to these festivals, use Trip Advisor reviews and social media to show your concern, and speak to the management if you are already a client of theirs. And please, share your thoughts and experiences of animals in tourism on RIGHT-tourism’s blog at

For more tips about guilt-free and animal friendly holidays, please visit RIGHT-tourism stands for Responsible, Informed, Guilt-Free and Humane Tourism.

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