‘Have we not already had an overdose of death’: Spain holds first bullfight since coronavirus lockdown amid battle over tradition’s future

Pandemic brings declining tradition’s woes into sharp focus, spurring on both critics and proponents

Andy Gregory
Monday 10 August 2020 16:05 BST
Spain's first bullfight during coronavirus pandemic renews calls for ban

The hilt-end of a sword rises and falls in the bull’s back, pulsing in sync with what will be some of the animal’s final breaths as it stands slumped, tongue lolling in a mouth dripping with blood, eyes fixed loosely on a near-victorious matador.

In a series of failed coups de grace, the bull’s opponent then stabs him sharply and repeatedly at the base of his neck, drawing cheers and applause.

But the roar of the crowd is not what it once was.

The footage comes from Spain’s first bullfight since the country entered coronavirus lockdown, in Avila – some 55 miles west of Madrid.

It appears to show the bullring half-empty, and after what has been a gruelling period for proponents of the historic sport, last week’s fight has invigorated calls for it to be banned.

“Have we not already had an overdose of death and pain in these past months?” said Carmen Ibarlucea of animal rights group La Tortura No Es Cultura (Torture Is Not Culture), which created the footage alongside Animal Guardians, a global campaign group.

“They return to the bullrings and they mercilessly and tearlessly demand more public money to torture and see a peaceful herbivore dying. Meanwhile we, a social majority, are now calling for a true culture of peace and solidarity.”

The group pointed to 2016 polling by Ipsos MORI, which found less than one in five Spaniards aged 16-65 supported bullfighting, compared to 58 per cent who opposed it. A May survey by Electomania suggested 47 per cent of respondents favoured a ban, 18 per cent opposed a ban and a third were neutral.

With a cultural battle currently raging in Spain over the sport’s future and how it should be funded, animal rights campaigners pointed to the lack of crowd in Avila as further underscoring a general lack of public support.

“The bullfighting lobby has been clamouring for months, asking for public money and demanding to be able to hold a bullfight,” said Marta Esteban Minano, international managing director for Animal Guardians.

“And what happened? It has been a total failure, the alleged fans have not responded.”

With the steady withdrawal of advertising money amid a fierce moral backlash, the bloodsport has become largely reliant on ticket sales, which have evaporated during the pandemic.

And with the support of Spain’s left-wing coalition government far from assured, the past few months have seen the sport’s bosses and beneficiaries demand government millions of euros in funding and subsidies to help it survive.

Pro-bullfighting fight demonstrations erupted across several cities in June, with many idled proponents viewing the crisis as presenting an existential fight against the government.

“We now have a government in Spain that sees the coronavirus as an opportunity to remove bullfighting altogether,” Peruvian matador Andres Roca Rey, told The New York Times during a protest in Seville.

Shortly after these protests, culture minister José Manuel Rodríguez Uribes was forced to fend off calls to resign by meeting with bullfighting representatives, who emerged touting assurances that bullfighting would be excluded from upcoming animal rights legislation.

Regardless of its political leanings, Spain’s government has “a constitutional obligation to support bullfighting, because it is the backbone of Spanish culture”, Juan Pedro Domecq, the deputy president of the union of Spanish breeders, told The Times.

But the sport already receives financial assistance from both local and national governments, and despite a nominal ban, a multitude of bullfighting farms and schools have been found to receive tens of millions of euros from the European Union’s controversial Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is intended to subsidise food production and reward sustainable practices.

According to bullfighting documents revealed by the veterinarian association AVATMA, around nine in 10 bullfighting farms benefit from public subsidies.

Furthermore, research published in June by animal rights group LAV alleged that many bullfighting farms would likely be unable to function without EU funding, which accounts for nearly a third of their overall income via some €130m of CAP grants.

Madrid protesters hold a placard reading “Bullfighting is culture” while demanding more resources on 21 July
Madrid protesters hold a placard reading “Bullfighting is culture” while demanding more resources on 21 July (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images)

Ms Estaban Minano urged the European Commission, which is currently amending CAP, “to introduce the necessary conditionality so that no farm may receive its funds if they destine animals for bullfighting unless they have a reconversion plan to eliminate the raising of animals destined for bullfighting in the next five years”.

Meanwhile, Spanish culture ministry figures show a tradition in decline, with the number of bullfights falling by nearly two thirds since 2007.

And while pro-bullfighting figures have urged its opponents to consider the livelihoods of those whose income is dependent on the sport, many of the calls to defund it are accompanied by calls for a supported transition for workers.

In May, more than 800 organisations led by La Tortura No Es Cultura signed a letter that backed a reinvestment of public funds into transitory industries, to provide workers with a viable alternative.

Ms Ibarlucea added: “The numbers speak for themselves: statistically in Spain, those of us who reject bullfighting are a large majority. England in 2005 banned fox hunting. China banned the breeding dogs for human consumption barely a month ago.

“Traditions are not immovable, reflecting and making decisions that make us more and more human is the path we must choose. That is the true tradition that we must honour.”

But protests against the sport’s demise appear to grow only more bitter. Last week, bullfighting demonstrators protested in front of the ministry of employment, enraged that the sport was not included in emergency aid during the pandemic, El Pais reported.

Social media erupted in fury, after footage showed the demonstrators attacking a car carrying respected labour minister Yolanda Diaz, chanting “f****** communist”, “b*****” and “we will kill until we die”.

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