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Bullfighting: what I found during a year on breeding estates

Modern enough? Robin Irvine

Bullfighting: what I found during a year on breeding estates

Bullfighting appears to be facing tough times once more. As many as 76% of the Spanish public may oppose it receiving public funding. What’s more, the conservative Partido Popular has just lost its absolute majority in the Spanish parliament, which it had been using to support bullfighting. This follows the loss of key city councils to allies of Podemos, which recently resulted in Madrid scrapping its longstanding subsidy to the oldest of the country’s 52 bullfighting academies.

The European parliament also recently voted to prevent Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies going to breeders of fighting bulls – potentially affecting bull-breeding estates in France and Spain, where bulls die in the arena.

Opponents see bullfighting as a barbarous and medieval relic which has no place in modern Europe. But who are these 21st-century “barbarians” who breed fighting bulls? And what do we know about the lives of the animals themselves, beyond their deaths on the torero’s sword? Probably not very much, in most cases. But as an anthropologist who worked for 15 months on a bull-breeding estate in Andalusia, I can offer some insight into the people who care for and know these animals.

“Care” and “know” are the right words here, incidentally. The job of the foreman on bull-breeding estates is to care for (“cuidar”) the herd. To care for fighting bulls means to know (“conocer”) them, so the foreman is often referred to as the “conocedor”: the one who knows. The conocedor is in charge of the everyday well-being of the bulls, with a particular focus on feeding up and exercising animals which will bear the colours of the estate at bullfights.

I worked closely with Joaquín, the conocedor of the Partido de Resina bull-breeding estate. He was an animal lover. His little dogs, Mona and Mono, were sleek working animals. They got more cuts of cured ham than I did. And while Joaquín was aware that raising bulls was a commercial endeavour, caring and good animal husbandry were central aspects of his job.

Joaquín returning a calf to its mother on the Partido de Resina estate. Robin Irvine

Bull welfare

The bulls’ psychological and physical well-being is part of what determines whether they perform to their potential. This encourages breeders to raise them as “naturally” as possible: in herds, with varied grazing, space, shade, dust baths, water and hidden spots to which they can retreat. These formidable creatures are incredibly sensitive to change. To ensure proper care and minimise disruptions, the foreman works with a team of cowhands, working horses, the estate owner/manager, secretaries, grounds staff, vets, ethologists and even nutritionists.

As with any industry, standards can vary. I cannot speak for all bull breeders, but I certainly saw how seriously people took correct care and a modern approach in Andalusia. The world of the bulls is often labelled “traditional”, but breeders don’t oppose modernity. These “barbarians” have their own vision of the future, which actually complements the CAP in some respects. Aside from food production – and let’s not forget fighting bulls are high-quality beef animals – CAP subsidies are intended to support the sustainable management of natural resources and rural economies. Partido de Resina is an island of biodiversity: around 500 hectares of open woods and marshland surrounded by a sea of monotonous orange, olive and peach plantations.

You could of course argue that commercial horticulture employs more locals, or that there are other ways of protecting biodiversity which do not involve bullfighting. You might be right. Right now though, outside Seville – and across Spain, France, Portugal and Latin America – there are vast stretches of bull breeding land that are already spaces of biodiversity. The Common Agricultural Policy is modern: progressive, science-based, future-oriented and bureaucratic. So are many estates in the world of breeding fighting bulls.

Two mature bulls on the Partido de Resina estate, with orange and olive plantations in the background. Robin Irvine

Reality check

Whatever your view, the European parliament’s decision to ban subsidies for bull breeders will be diffiult to enact. It would require legistlative change to the CAP, which is a sticky area of EU politics. After the vote, the European Commission informed the parliament that there was no legal basis upon which to enact the amendment. Every such challenge pushes the scattered bullfighting lobby to unite and strengthen its legal position. That could be important in future battles, but for now the victory for the European Greens who tabled the budget amendment is purely symbolic.

As for the the state of bullfighting more generally, things are more complicated than they might appear. Recent attendance figures from the Spanish ministry of culture don’t support a simple narrative of decline. Though there was a clear dip during Spain’s economic crisis, attendance in the year 2014/2015 overtook pre-crisis figures. The industry was also placed under government protection in Spain after the government voted in 2013 to give bullfighting intangible cultural heritage status. We are certainly not talking about a one-way losing battle.

The fight begins… Joaquín looks on as a bull he has spent four years caring for sallies to meet its fate. Robin Irvine

So we should take care when it comes to derogative rhetoric, particularly about poorly understood traditions. It’s worth noting that attacks on bullfighting, while often out of genuine concern for the suffering of animals, also come from a tradition of northern moral supremacy. Not surprisingly, the European parliament vote on the anti-bullfighting amendment largely divided along a north-south axis, with 57% of Spanish MEPs voting against.

There is still a large public out there who appreciate bulls and bullfighting: 9.5% of Spaniards attended events involving fighting bulls in 2014-15. These people live in the same modern Europe as the rest of us. Anyone who condemns bullfighting as barbaric should not judge until they have looked beyond the arena to the wider world of the bulls.

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