Bullfighting, already ailing in Spain, is battered by lockdown

Jose Tomas confronts a bull in the final corrida of the season at the Plaza Monumental in Barcelona, Spain, on Sunday, Sept 27, 2009. The New York Times
Extremeño, an imposing black bull who weighs more than half a ton, was set to fight to death next month in the neoclassical ring of the Spanish city of Valencia.

Instead, the coronavirus gave 4-year-old Extremeño an unexpected lease on life. Valencia’s fiesta was called off, along with the bulk of a Spanish bullfighting season that normally runs from March to October.

Although Spain ended its COVID-19 state of emergency Sunday, bull breeders and matadors are continuing to lock horns with a left-wing Spanish government that they accuse of wanting to use the epidemic as an accelerator for bullfighting’s permanent removal, in line with the wishes of animal welfare activists.

“I find it deplorable that the fiesta of the Spanish people has become so politicised,” said Aurora Algarra, who owns Extremeño and is among the few women to run a bull farm, which she took over after her father died in 2006. “We now                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         find ourselves under tremendous attack from Spain’s government, but at least this crisis has united us in the face of adversity in a way that I had not seen before.”

Algarra had been preparing to send 70 bulls this year to fight in the rings of Spain and southern France. Instead, the coronavirus lockdown had led her to send 30 of them to the slaughterhouse. She is earning about 400 euros, or $450, for each animal’s meat. That is only one-tenth of the cost of its upkeep during the four years in which a bull roams her nearly 2,000 acres of land in the empty countryside of Andalusia, the southern and largest region of Spain.

For now, Algarra is keeping Extremeño and her other bulls, while hoping bullfighting can restart soon. A breeder can earn thousands of euros by providing six bulls for a traditional fight, or corrida, with the world-famous Pamplona festival paying as much as 15,000 euros for each animal, Algarra said.

The Pamplona festival, famed because its bulls also run the city’s streets, was among the main events that were scrapped shortly after Spain declared its state of emergency in mid-March.

In recent years, bullfighting has not only been caught in strong political and economic crosswinds in Spain, it has also increasingly found itself denounced by activists who see it as publicly torturing animals.

During a corrida, the matador skillfully draws the bull toward him, at the risk of getting gored. At the end of a fight, the matador usually plunges his sword deep between the bull’s shoulders; then the dead animal is dragged from the ring. In some rare instances, the public spares a bull’s life by asking for it to be “pardoned” for its bravery.

In 2013, after the global financial crisis also significantly hurt the bullfighting sector, the conservative government at the time came to its defence by declaring bullfighting part of Spain’s cultural patrimony. This declaration was also a response to the growing separatist movement in Catalonia, whose regional Parliament voted to ban bullfighting in 2010.

Idled by the coronavirus, several leading matadors have recently waded more vigorously into Spain’s debate over bullfighting, both on social media and on the streets.

“We now have a government in Spain that sees the coronavirus as an opportunity to remove bullfighting altogether,” said Andrés Roca Rey, a Peruvian matador who joined a demonstration in Seville on June 13, when defenders of bullfighting rallied in several Spanish cities.

The government, however, insists that it is not mistreating the bullfighting sector. Faced with calls for his resignation, Spain’s culture minister, José Manuel Rodríguez Uribes, met with bullfighting representatives June 17 in Madrid. Afterward, the industry’s officials said they had received the minister’s promise that bullfighting would be excluded from a planned law that would protect animals against mistreatment.

Still, the tensions are simmering. Last month, Pablo Iglesias, Spain’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-left party Unidas Podemos, said in Parliament, “It makes me very uncomfortable that something is promoted as a cultural practice that I cannot avoid seeing as delivering a lot of pain to an animal in a show for the enjoyment of people.”

Most opinion polls suggest that Spanish society is deeply split over bullfighting, just as it is increasingly fragmented over politics.

Roca Rey, who is 23 and one of the younger stars of bullfighting, said that 16 of his 17 fights last year in Spain sold out. Some younger fans, he said, are probably drawn to the ring because it is such a powerful Spanish tradition.

“I think many younger people now want to identify with their country, and they understand that watching bullfighting is about embracing the culture of Spain, and certainly not about seeing an animal suffer,” he said in an interview on an estate that he bought this year from a descendant of William Randolph Hearst, the American publishing tycoon.

Juan Pedro Domecq, deputy president of the union of Spanish breeders, said Spain’s government, no matter its political leanings, had “a constitutional obligation to support bullfighting because it is the backbone of Spanish culture.”

“The coronavirus hit a sector that was already in a complicated economic situation, reliant exclusively on spectators and without sponsorship or television revenues,” Domecq said. Advertising revenues have evaporated, he said, because “no sponsor wants to face the fierce attacks of animal activists.”

Since the lockdown, some animal welfare associations have asked the government to disburse funds to help those working in bullfighting find alternative jobs. Many workers are contractually tied to a specific matador, making it hard for them to get jobs elsewhere. Even so, most of the support staff earn money only when there is a fight.

Ana Belén Martín, a politician from Pacma, a party that defends animal welfare, said that bullfighting had been declining for more than a decade and that it was heading for a natural death, with or without COVID-19. Last year, 1,424 bull fiestas were held in Spain, down from 2,684 in 2009, according to government figures.

But Martín said the COVID-19 crisis should not become a reason to extend a lifeline to bullfighting.

“This is the culture of our past, not that of the society we want to build, focused on compassion and empathy rather than on people who applaud while watching an animal agonising,” she said.


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