On the Spanish fighting bulls

There is no figure more iconic in Spanish culture than the fighting bull, all 1,400 pounds of him. When students ask me about Spain, they inevitably also ask if we will be going to a bull fight, the ritual slaughter of one of these brutal animals. Even though the bull is highly recognized, highly iconic, he occupies a very small part of real Spanish culture. Yet bullfighting is such an odd and outrageous spectacle that it has become one of the most recognizable parts of Spain’s image. The fighting bull, a rather savage and brutal species of cattle, are native to Spain and have been bred for centuries for this one purpose: to be killed by a “matador de toros” or torero, armed only with a very sharp sword and his cape. Given the ferocious nature of these animals, bullfighting is an extremely dangerous line of work, and many men have died because of it. The bulls are raised in the distant high pastures of the central, southern, and western mesas that cover most of Spain. Curiously, the cows of the same species are relatively tame in spite of their large fierce appearance. The ranchers that raise these animals begin to cull their herds to the “plaza” when the bulls reach about three years of age and weigh in at about 1,200 to 1,500 pounds. I will skip the exact details of the ritual killing of these animals, ritual slaughter because others have written about it before and done a much better job–Hemingway, for example, in Death in the Afternoon. One might make an argument for the art of bullfighting, the danger, the ballet, the pressure, but I’m not super-impressed. Raising a large animal in order to kill it with a sword seems like animal cruelty, I’m just saying. Others would disagree and say that this is tradition, culture, and passion, but I would suggest that not all traditions, not all bits of culture, are worth saving. I don’t think that Spanish culture is better because of bullfighting, and I don’t think Spanish culture would be missing a whole lot if bullfighting went the way of the Dodo bird. A few old cigar-smoking curmudgeons with raspy voices will be free at five o’clock on any given afternoon, ranchers will have to raise regular beef cattle, and a few skinny guys with good sword skills will have to get real jobs. Still others will argue that it is hypocritical to challenge or criticize bullfighting and then go eat a hamburger. Yes, we slaughter our beef cattle, but it takes but a moment, not the average fifteen minutes that a single bull might last.To idealize bullfighting seems disingenuous, if not outright reckless, turning the ritual slaughter of an animal into a spectacle and business. Since I am not really Spanish, (I hear the murmuring), I just don’t understand either the ritual or the tradition. Perhaps I am just a bleeding-heart, tree-hugging, granola eating liberal that has no guts for a little pain and suffering, and I don’t understand the beauty of the pageantry, the glory and art of the successful bullfighter who runs that sword into the bull’s back. Perhaps I just don’t understand the danger, the challenge, the pain, the athleticism of the entire dark scene–blood, sweat, sand, swords, pink socks, and guys with ponytails. The bull is at the center of an extremely bizarre happening that is almost impossible to describe to the uninitiated. The animals are huge, fast, and dangerous, and the guys trying to kill them are definitely risking their lives, but in the end, I might ask, what’s the point? Prove they are more macho than the animal?