The Bullfight

by Julian

I like eating meat. I tried to follow a semi-vegetarian diet for a month once. I ate some eggs and fish, but no meat. By the end of the month I felt tired and drained. A day after eating a good steak I felt better again. I know this is very unscientific but suffice it to say, I eat meat for both my pleasure and my wellbeing. However, I was always dissatisfied with the fact that the meat often arrived in a packaged form. I felt that if I ate meat I should be comfortable with the raising, killing and butchering of an animal. No! More than that, as a fit, healthy man I should be able to do it all myself. Martina gave me the opportunity to test this when we went hunting caribou with her Inuit friend in Arctic Canada. The first day out I saw a caribou shot three times and still not die until the hunter stabbed it in the back of the head. As the first time I had witnessed the killing of a mammal I stood there stunned and unable to move to help as Martina assisted in moving the carcass to dry ground and butchering it. Not a good start. The next time we were out we spotted a mother caribou and its calf. I was offered the rifle; I thought ‘It’s now or never. If I can’t do this I should be a vegetarian for the rest of my life’. I had considered the situation; I could shoot well enough; I knew where to aim for; the caribou had lived a free life unlike most of the animals I had eaten, some of which had no doubt been kept in miserable conditions. I shot, the caribou jumped up twice and dropped dead. I felt comfortable not only to help Martina butcher it but to cut out its kidneys and along with some back meat from the calf I made a delicious steak and kidney pie. Some of this pie we brought round to Martina’s hunter friend who ate it all on the spot, out of courtesy I think.

Now here comes the big-big-big BUT! I am completely unsure, even hostile to the idea that an animal should be killed for entertainment, proof of bravery, or the pleasure of killing. Lines are blurred because in a world, or at least a part of a world, where we don’t need to eat animals to survive or prosper are we killing to satisfy our taste alone? Is there really a difference between the entertainment of our taste buds and our general amusement?

I have always been uneasy about bullfights; I watched one on television at my Uncle Ken’s once. Ken lives in Estepona and told me he had been uncertain to begin with but had become fascinated by the art of the bullfight. I didn’t respect Ken’s views, but I had a general respect for him. Fourteen years later I turn up in Andalucía on a boat with Martina, Lily and Katie. It is my job to take the girls out for a day of learning, entertainment and culture whilst Martina cleans the boat and works on her writing. So we take the bus to Roquetas de Mar. The señora at the tourist office in Aguadulce has highlighted two free museums, one at the bullring and another at the Castillo. We turn up at the bullring first, partly because this is the first stop on the bus and partly because there appears to be an international beer festival next door which may have various entertainments and soothing elixirs available. We walk into the information office where the señora speaks good English to find the “Museum is open ten o’clock until one in the afternoon on a Saturday but is closed today because of a bullfight.”

“Oh!” I say “Is the museum at the castle open?” This is on the other side of town and my heart has sunk at the thought of nothing to do for two hours until the beer festival starts.
“Yes” she replies.
“How much is the bullfight?” I ask out of genuine curiosity but absolutely no intention of paying to support something I have serious moral dilemmas about. “Oh nothing right now” she says “There are not enough people at this time so we have just opened the gates.”
“When is it?” I say, with a slight lump in my throat.
“Eleven-thirty.” This is fifteen minutes away. My feet are suddenly glued to the floor. My mouth goes dry. Here I am standing next to the open gates of a bullring, a fight begins in a few minutes and I don’t have to fund it. Martina is not here so I can’t say “Take the kids off, I am going to see what’s going on and come away the moment I feel ill at the spectacle.” What do I do? After a walk and a bus journey, Lily and Katie are expectant, so I say to them “Right, we are just going in to have a look at the bullring. The museum is closed.” Good start. “We may get a quick look at the bull and the matador.” Just out of curiosity and the sake of education.

We go in and get excellent seats in a little box. The girls are excited and interested in the theatre: the band, the crowd; the horsemen. I turn to them and, feeling about as uncomfortable as I have ever done, I say “We will just watch the bull come out. Now you know Daddy is not comfortable with this and would never pay money to support it. Please don’t look, close your eyes if you want to. We will leave as soon as you want to go.” I am on the edge of my seat. I consider my options for getting them out of here quickly if I need to. “You know they kill the bull.”, I say to them.
“Yes we know daddy.”
“The matador has a sword; he kills it with a sword.”
“You do know we don’t have to stay and see that, and we wouldn’t be here if we were paying for it.”
“Yes of course.” The girls are confident, they sit there transfixed, they really want to see this and I can’t think of a good reason to pull them away.

The arena is perfectly round. We sit half way up in a boxed off area with three short benches. Below us are several rings of plastic seats where we would be closer to the action but not have as good an overview. The theatre is more than half empty but most people are in a group to our right so there is a crowd-like atmosphere. The crowd ranges from old ladies to young men and schoolgirls. I even see a mother feeding her baby. Gee whiz, I imagine these same women knitting happily at the guillotine during the French revolution.

The ring is covered in neatly raked orange-reddish sand. Around this is a well-kept wooden wall with several gaps, each covered by a short barrier behind which the men can jump to get out of reach of the bull. Behind this wooden wall is a ring with a higher wooden wall between it and the crowd.

After some important looking men shake hands with some very young men and everyone takes their places we hear the band strike up outside the arena, at first distant, becoming louder and louder. As they pass into the tunnel the sound of the brass, drums and cymbals rises to a stirring crescendo. They emerge into the arena to applause and circle once, exiting the way they have entered. Later they take up position high in the stands with a few trumpeters over the bull’s gate to herald any significant event.

Two horsemen ride in side by side with extreme coordination and purpose. The girls find this exciting. Handsomely dressed in black with capes and hats with feathers, they are like two Zorros riding out for adventure. The horses are beautiful. They dance their horses sideways around the arena, facing the crowd and doffing their hats to more applause. After this the matador and all the performers walk into the ring, equally spaced out in formation. Most are dressed in reds, greens and gold with small black hats. The matador, a distinguished looking man, is resplendent in light grey with a wide brimmed hat, waistcoat and jacket. The golden men take their places around the edge of the arena and the bull’s gate is opened. Nothing happens. The man by the gate taps several times until eventually the bull emerges into the daylight of the ring. It is not the biggest bull I have ever seen but not one I would like to be near. He is brown with curly hair between a magnificent pair of horns. The men jump out one-by-one waving large pink capes to entice the bull to charge them. The bull eventually does with some astonishing acceleration so that the men have to hurriedly jump back behind their barriers. After a few passes some of them emerge into the middle of the ring, standing to the side as the bull passes beneath their capes. The bull is quite energetic at times, and able to turn back on these men quickly enough that it seems quite dangerous. As this occurs other men spread their capes and shout to entice the bull away, so that no individual gets in too much of a knot. The crowd cheers acts of bravery or foolishness. I assume that most of this action is to tire the bull so the matador can perform without having to jump behind the barriers, or be rescued. After a while a novice matador comes out with two brightly coloured barbed sticks. Without a cape he seems vulnerable and the men with the pink capes have to work to get the bull near to the man without it attacking him. Finally he throws the sticks into the bull, just piecing its skin so that they rest on its back. The bull is agitated by this.

Finally, the matador comes out. On his own with a sword and a small red cape he cuts a very striking figure. He entices the bull to run at him letting it under his cape to one side and then the other in what appears to be a well choreographed dance. He turns his back on the bull and strikes the most elegant pose with his back arched and his arms down. He toys with the bull waving his cape from side to side; the bull seemingly hypnotised, he places his hand on the bull’s head to great clapping from the crowd. Accompanied by atmospheric music he swaps swords and we all know the bull’s time will soon be up. The bull charges and the matador strikes it deep in the back with the sword. The bull slows, blood comes out of its mouth and its legs gave way. Another man bearing a dagger stabs the bull in the back of the head and it dies quickly, much as I have seen done with caribou in the Arctic. Horses come on to drag the bull away (Lily and Katie liked those horses), and the bull’s ear is cut by one of the horsemen from earlier and ceremoniously given to the matador. The fight is over, the crowd cheers, waving white handkerchiefs at the demise of the bull.

The nervous tension of watching a bullfight for the first time, added to the fact that my two tiny daughters are with me is very tiring. I cannot and will not even try to describe the draining emotions. However, the girls seem happy with everything, asking questions, pointing things out, and so we stay for another one. In the second fight the matador is younger. He seems less sure. He loses a shoe and ends up under the bull. Others jump in with their pink capes to quickly lure the bull away. Later the young matador’s cape is ripped away making him more vulnerable. Again others quickly ran to distract the bull. Early on he tries to turn his back on the bull, probably misjudging the energy the bull still has. The crowd scream to him and he reacts just in time. From the overall performance I assume he showed some great skills but at the end of the fight he puts his back to the side of the ring and breathes heavily for a while. I can only begin to imagine the effects adrenaline is having on him; it is certainly having a big effect on us as a crowd. I think this is all too much for Lily, who is easily frightened. She has moved closer to me, as has Katie. “I’m scared”, Lily says, “I want to go”.
“Okay.” I reply. I have had more than enough, and feel mentally exhausted by what we have witnessed. However, Katie, is upset. “I don’t want to go. I want to see the next one. I love bullfights.”
“Let’s just see the bull come out”, I say. “Then we have to go.” Katie is distraught. Previously Martina and I had been convinced that the midwife should have held Katie up at birth and said “Congratulations, it’s a vegetarian!” Whereas Lily happily munches on baby squid and has even eaten raw shrimp from our engine intake filter, Katie tends to say things like “Yuck! I don’t like meat” and “I only like the yellow fish!” (Meaning in batter)! Now all she wants is to tell Mummy how much she likes bullfights and can she go again.

So what about the morality of the whole thing, the cruelty to the animal? Well, when they got into the killing and the physical hurt to the bull I can only say they did it very quickly. I have seen animals hunted for food that have, to my eye, suffered far more than the quickly dispatched bull. To be honest we can get a bit too hung up on suffering and death and seem to prefer years of suffering and a painless last minute over a last minute of suffering and a great life. This is probably due to our often being disconnected from the realities of nature. So is it wrong that the bull was killed for the chance for some men to show off their art, their skill, their bravado, their tradition, to entertain the crowd? Is it right to kill because, frankly, I really like the taste of caribou? Try it, it’s delicious. I still don’t feel right about bullfights.

Yes I could kill the bull. I would stay as far away from it as possible and shoot it with the best weapon I had to hand. I would hang it to get the best flavour, butcher it and roast or barbeque it rare. Then devour it with some fine English mustard (The one with the drawing of a bull’s head on the jar) or some strong horseradish sauce. What I would not do is stand around waving a red cloth at the animal until it charged at me. But maybe that is just the way I get my satisfaction and actually nothing to do with imagined moral superiority. I hope the girls grow up to respect animals, and people, and that neither of them ever considers becoming a bullfighter. Although my biggest concern in that regard is their safety.


8 thoughts on “The Bullfight

  1. We eat meat, too. I’ve been a vegetarian before, and while I still eat mostly that way, we buy chicken and occasionally beef (for some reason, the children are just not as enamoured with chickpea curry as I am).

    And you have a point: that it happens fairly quickly, it’s likely no more traumatic than cows going to slaughter in an abattoir. But the fact that it’s sport… it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, too.

    Nice to hear from you, Julian 😀

    • Hi. We’ve been forced to eat a lot of lentil curry due to not having a working fridge at anchor. It is a bit hit and miss on the taste but seems to work well when I put a beef OXO cube in it. Julian

  2. Good description, Julian – wish I could have see the look on Martina’s face as she was told all about it!!
    Those girls are having a very rich (and well-considered and explained) childhood 🙂 Well done, Mum and Dad!!

    • Hello Martha. Martina was a little surprised but became amused quickly when Katie asked her to take her to another bullfight. I don’t think we will make a habit of it though this was just an exceptional combination of circumstances.

  3. Well told Julian but I didn’t like it! In my (animal loving) opinion the girls should not have seen poor, defenseless animals being killed for sport or food. They’re way too young. Discussion to follow at the weekend!

    • The girls are okay and not really troubled. Not in the way I am. I’ll leave the abattoir trip for a few years until they are old enough to have a more in depth conversation about it. There is a local tourist day out here to see northern Europe’s winter tomatoes grown by Africans working under large sheets of plastic, we’ll do that next.

  4. A fascinating account and not least an interesting one. I must admit to never having the inclination to do the same. I am amazed by the girls reaction but influences at their age are taken more naturally than our hugely expanded knowledge allows us to be as adults. Altough I personally would not want to attend a bullfight, I admire you Julian! We will talk soon. x

    • I find that although the children cannot reason using the depth of experience that we can they have quite a good basic perception which is not so different to ours and they are just as likely to feel bad or good about something, They can be either more or less affected than an older person and often in the opposite way. Much the same as between adults. I don’t think the children have had any particular difficulty watching a bullfight because of their age, maybe less difficulty as you say without the baggage of indoctrination. We have approached things with a differing degree of experience and different perspective. I have tried to explain to them my perspective and the perspective of the people there and will go on doing so in order that they grow up fully able to face the world with as much open eyed knowledge and experience as I can give them. I hope to talk to you soon.

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