The (shaved) horns of a dilemma

Safe bulls or a fair fight? Liz Nash on the controversy dividing Spain
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Spain's unprecedented bullfight strike that halted yesterday's opening corrida of the season is a stand-off between the government which wants to clean up fraud and the bullfighting establishment which favours safer bulls.

The Interior Ministry, responsible for the fiesta nacional, has declared war on the widespread practice of shaving bulls' horns, which disorients the beast and makes it easier to kill. But an alliance of breeders, ring impresarios, bullfighters and their managers has dug in its hooves, rejecting the government's measures as unacceptable. At root, the conflict is over who controls the multi-million-pound spectacle.

The bullfighters' action seems to fly in the face of the purpose of the corrida, which is to test a Spaniard's honour and bravery in the face of death. It is hardly surprising that behind the torero's strutting machismo shrinks a shivering, quivering child who is frightened to die. The supposed glory of the bulls is to confront the risk and overcome that fear. The point is lost if the bull is incapacitated before it enters the ring. But many toreros apparently demand that this should be done, and breeders go along with the desires of those at the sharp end.

Shaving horns is so commonplace that critics say an intact bull is now a rarity. The breeders counter that a bull often splays the points of its horns by charging a tree or butting the ground, and that what is denounced as shaving is usually the filing-down and tidying-up of a naturally damaged horn.

Nonsense, respond those favouring stiffer controls, including Joaquin Vidal, bullfight critic of El Pais. "You can spot a shaved horn at a glance. The bull is wedged into a tiny corral and drugged to make it docile. Up to four inches of horn is hacked off with a saw, the mutilated stump rounded off with a rasp and smeared with black grease."

The effect is similar to that of trimming a cat's whiskers, lopping an inch off your fingers or shortening the matador's sword: the bull, deprived of its sense of balance and distance, is more likely to miss.

The government has strict tests to detect horn shaving, including microscopic examination, and last year it insisted that all bulls could be challenged and examined after the fight, not just those that looked suspicious beforehand. In response, the main players in the bullfight industry came together in the Confederation of Professional Taurine Associations (CAPT) to complain that ministry tests were unreliable and that bureaucrats knew nothing about bulls.

On the eve of last April's Feria in Seville, a highlight of the taurine calendar, the CAPT threatened to strike unless ministry tests were withdrawn in favour of its own ostensibly more rigorous ones. The government caved in. But this season, so far, it has not, and the CAPT promises a season of chaos.

Bullfighting, as the veteran American aficionado Bill Lyon puts it, "always reflects the society around it". At one level then, here is a picturesque example of powerful private interests seeking to shake off clumsy, ill- wrought government shackles. Spain's conservative government, although pledged to liberalise, keeps control of things it really wants to. But in this case the public benefits. If horn-shaving goes unpunished, the public is sold a pup and the fiesta glorified by Hemingway will become a spectacle of ridicule.

But perhaps Spain is moving with the times, becoming post-modern in its indifference to what is real and what is illusion. Does it matter whether what you see is sincere? Is the show, not the peril, what really matters?

If this is happening, it is nothing new. A typical character in medieval Spanish picaresque literature is the impoverished nobleman who strolls the streets flaunting his finery, but who steals bread from his servant to satisfy his raging hunger. This portrait of hollow display is a cruel satire on the deep-seated Spanish desire to make appearance outstrip reality.