Bullfighting: An art or a crime?

By Laura Assis y Tamara Barriot


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he first time we saw a bull go down, the spikes sticking from his back and his face contorted in pain, we both cried. We didn’t know each other back then, we were 2,608 miles apart. Laura sitting, stunned, in Cali’s arena in Colombia, while I frantically tried to cover my eyes in Chihuahua’s “Hope Plaza”. It would be four years before we met and had the conversation that led to this article. From that moment to now, approximately 840,000 bulls have been killed due to bullfighting in Latin America alone.

Bullfighting is almost like a choreographed dance. It starts when the bull is taken to the arena and challenged by the matador with a red cape. Bulls cannot actually distinguish the cape´s color, but it is somehow part of the tradition. The bull is then approached by picadores who drive lances into its sides impairing movement and ensuring a relevant amount of blood loss. This is followed by the banderilleros who distract the bull and stab it with colored banderillas, making the animal run in circles. The purpose is to get the animal dizzy, so that it will stop chasing them. In the end, the matador performs the death blow (estocada) with a sword. If the matador fails to kill the bull, an executioner (puntillero) will be in charge of the animal´s death.

What is it that compels people to stand and watch the torture of a beast?

Most people, or at least the ones we’ve encountered in the bullrings, just go to them for fun. Because they like it. Because they can. However, there are certain pseudo-intellectuals who attempt to justify their love for bullfighting through misguided moral arguments, often citing Fernando Savater. We would find the arguments they try to employ hilarious, if it weren’t such a dark subject. There are usually four distinct ones, and as far as we’ve gathered they are presented in the same way, from Colombia to Mexico to Spain.

Argument #1 Bullfighting is a tradition

This is the standard argument. It is spat out as soon as you mention that you’re anti-bullfighting. It seems almost as a patellar reflex. There is little use in arguing that bullfighting is not a tradition — it is. It was established in Spain in the 1700’s and has been perfected and shaped through the ages by various “exceptionally talented” bullfighters: Juan Belmonte, Jose Gomez Ortega, Rafael Molina, to name a few. Bullfighting has inspired thousands of poems, novels, paintings, even movies. However, tradition is not a justification for the moral validity of an action. If that were the case, we wouldn’t fight so hard to abolish certain traditions that seem deplorable now, even when they were widely supported in the past. Just because something had been a certain way for a long time doesn’t mean it is the right way. For instance dog fighting, the tradition can be traced to the Roman empire. However, most people are abhorred by the idea of dogs tearing each other apart. It is vile and horrifying, and we now condemn its practice. Using tradition as an argument for justification is extremely dangerous. Most atrocities have been committed under its banner.

Argument #2 The bull is not a moral being

This argument is slightly more complicated. It is usually used by your well-read friend who constantly argues in favor of stoicism and impartiality. The general idea is that since the bull is not consciously a moral being (has no rationality and free will), we have no moral obligation towards it, therefore its torture is not evil nor wrong. We find several issues with this argument. In the first instance, if you’ve ever been in a bullfight, you see the bull trying to evade the bullfighter, trying to evade the pain. In our opinion, this makes the bull a conscious being. To an extent it could be said that it has free will. Even if it is in a very limited capacity, the bull acerts its free will in his attempt to escape the arena. This should be reason enough not to torture it. But if it weren’t, a report by Jordi Casamitjana (Spanish expert in animal behavior) affirms that bulls not only experience pain in bullrings but also suffering. The main difference being that pain is a physical discomfort while suffering has an environmental component. When the bull suffers it is aware of its surroundings and the whole environment that causes physical pain. The bull is stressed, in pain, and suffering during a bullfight. That is why it tries to escape the arena, and why it seems to attack the bullfighter, when in fact it is simply trying to push him away.      

Lastly, we believe that an immoral act is immoral in itself, by simply being, not because of its relationship with something else.

Argument #3 Lidia bulls would become extinct

This argument is simply ridiculous. It is used by your hipster friend who drinks organic gluten free coffee, uses old-style Ray Ban®, and generally just repeats what s/he reads in the not-so-mainstream-version of the New York Times. To start with, Lidia Bulls are not a real species, they are mutts bred for bullfighting. So they cannot become extinct. Of course if breeders stopped mixing them they would disappear for a while but since they are a mutt they could simply be bred back. We understand that the process of breeding Lidia bulls back and achieving the same characteristics they have now might take many years would be complicated. But what makes their temporary disappearance any worse than being brutally slaughtered in the bullring?

Argument #4 Bullfighting is the same as eating meat

This fourth argument is used by two types of people. First, your friend who tries to be vegetarian every few months and undoubtedly fails but still introduces herself as a vegetarian or pescatarian, or in process of becoming one. Or your friend who has used one of the arguments above (or all of them) and knows s/he’s losing and goes for the Hail Mary. The argument points out that since there is cruelty in the food production industry, bullfighting is not wrong… because there is cruelty there too, so one cruelty cancels the other one out? Or maybe it tries to point out at the inconsistency of attacking one kind of cruelty and not the other? There is no denying that there is animal cruelty in the food production business, and that something has to be done about it. But attacking cruelty in another sector, bullfighting, is completely independent. Change comes in small steps. Additionally, the food industry has a purpose other than just human enjoyment, feeding the vast majority of the human population. Finally, the argument seems to imply something like: “if you eat meat, you should be ok with people kicking dogs, or burning cats.” Which is a ludicrous statement.   

Going back to our original question, we wonder: why is it that we call the bull a beast? We believe that by calling the bull a beast people strip it from the animal characteristics that would compel our pity and compassion. It becomes a scary and dangerous creature, something to be feared. Therefore killing it, in some twisted way, becomes a good thing. But the bull is an animal, a helpless animal in the bullring. It should be no different from a dog or a cat; and therefore it should be treated with the same amount of gentleness, and even dignity, that we destine to these animals.


Tamara Barriot ‘18 is a visiting international student and Finance major in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at tamara.barriot@yale.edu.

Laura Assis ‘18 is a visiting international student and Economics & Finance major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at laura.assis@yale.edu.