The Barcelona Ban on Bullfighting: Two Years on…

Two years after the regional parliament in Barcelona voted to ban the corrida de toros, known in English as bullfighting – although not other forms of ‘playing with bulls’ – throughout Catalonia, it looks increasingly like this will piece of legislation will be overthrown by the federal government in Madrid when they, following France, make the corrida a matter of protected cultural interest.

It is interesting to review the arguments on both sides in this matter, and, despite asking me – who am avowedly anti-ban not least because I am politically a liberal – to write the foreword, the most balanced book produced on the subject remains the series of interviews with animal rights groups, bullfighters, politicians and journalists by Cat Tosko. Just take a look at the contents list below. I also enclose my foreword in full.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison
The book is available as a paperback or eBook for £5 at Amazon UK here, or Amazon US for $8 here.

The Bull and The Ban

Interviews from both sides of the debate on the controversy surrounding bullfighting, its recent ban in the autonomous community of Catalonia and its future in Spain, the rest of Europe and the Americas…


Foreword by Alexander Fiske-Harrison – author of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight.

Introduction by the interviewer, Catherine Tosko – documentary filmmaker and former Animal Rights activist.

The Interviews

Alfred Bosch: Catalan MP & Coalition Leader, Catalan Parliament

Antoni Strubell i Trueta: Catalan MP & Author

Rampova: Catalan artist

Marilén Barceló: Catalan Psychologist, Bullfighting aficionada

Bob Rule: British aficionado, member: Club Taurino of London

Miguel Perea: Spanish bullfighter (picador)

Emilio Bolaños Arrabal: Spanish bullfighter (banderillero)

Fernando Cámara Castro: Spanish bullfighting teacher (ex-matador)

Francisco Rivera Ordóñez: Spanish bullfighter (matador)

Frank Evans: British bullfighter (matador)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison: British author & bullfighter (aficionado practicó)

Gaspar Jiménez Fortes: Spanish bullring manager

Equanimal: Spanish Animal Rights lobby group

Graham Bell: British Animal Rights activist

Jason Webster: British writer: author of Duende: In Search of Flamenco and the novel Or The Bull Kills You…


In this book you will find the entire range of views on bullfighting represented in a series of interviews – from those who are completely against it to those who are completely for it – backed by the strongest arguments they can give. And although in my own interview I give the views I have come to hold after two years in Spain researching my own book on the subject – namely against any form of ban, but with grave misgivings about the cruelty of the activity – I have actually inhabited each position given at different times along the way.

As a child I joined both Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature because of a deeply felt and typically British love of animals, and even began my studies at university as a biologist with hopes of working in big game conservation. However, I was always much more sanguine than the representatives of Equanimal interviewed in the book. The realities of conservation and ideals of animal rights part company quite quickly. A classic example of this is on culling, be it badgers in the English countryside or elephants on the Savannah plains.

It was not until I saw my own first bullfight, and saw the possibilities of beauty in it, that my mind began to turn, although the cruelty was still clear to me. I also saw the staggering courage of the bullfighter, as described in the brief remarks of the matador Francisco Rivera Ordóñez about his father’s death on the horns of a bull. Rivera’s own strange relationship of love with the bull, and his views about his own death, are well summed up in the words of that great American aficionado of the bullfight, Ernest Hemingway, when he was writing about Rivera’s grandfather Antonio Ordóñez:

Any man can face death, but to be committed to bring it as close as possible while performing certain classic movements and do this again and again and again and then deal it out yourself with a sword to an animal weighing half a ton which you love is more complicated than just facing death. It is facing your performance as a creative artist each day and your necessity to function as a skilful killer.

Of course, the first problem for the Anglo-Saxon – as the Spanish refer to all English-speakers, – mindset is the immense conflict with our sense of fairplay. Although 533 famous toreros,’bullfighters’, have had their deaths recorded in the annals of la corrida de toros, ‘the running of bulls’, since 1700 (which begs the question of how many lesser known toreros’ lives have ended the same way), this is not meant to be a fair fight or even a sport at all. Our translations of these Spanish words into English are part of the problem with our perception of it: “bull-fight” is a 17thCentury English word co-opted from our own foul habit of bull-baiting with dogs, and the term bullfighter derives from it.

You do not fight a bull, as my fellow torero Frank Evans says, but induce it to run – correr – past you with the dextrous use of the cape, using passes from the dance-book of bullfighting that has evolved over the past three centuries, striving for a physical elegance which results in a series of tableaux of man and bull designed to engage and alter the emotions of the crowd, until the exhausted bull is dispatched with the sword to complete the three-act tragic form of the drama.

However, I am not pretending that the corridais done from beginning to end by a single man. Yes, he is first in the ring to face the bull with the large pink cape when it is fresh and untouched, but then it faces the picador on the armoured horse – as the picador Miguel Perea describes in his interview – and then the banderilleros with their three pairs of multi-coloured barbed sticks, who are, like the picador, all employees of the matador – although some matadors still place their own, like my friend Juan José Padilla. Padilla who was so gruesomely gored while doing so in 2011 that the image flashed around the world’s media. (He has since returned to the plaza de toros in triumph, even with only one eye.)

Only after this does the matador return to the ring with smaller red cloth – the muleta – and the sword to begin the intricate dance for which the corrida is famed. There is nothing fair here, just there is not at the abattoir, and even if the bull were to kill the matador, another matador would take his place.

Whether or not you find this a something moving or something barbaric, something outdated or simply something bizarre, comes down to which protagonist on the sand you find yourself identifying with, as the author Jason Webster notes in his interview.

The very best expression I have ever read, in Spanish or English, of the purpose of the corrida comes from the pen of the great American filmmaker and actor, Orson Welles, a friend of both Hemingway and Ordóñez in whose house his ashes now lie interred:

What it comes down to is simple. Either you respect the integrity of the drama the bullring provides or you don’t. If you do respect it, you demand only the catharsis which it is uniquely constructed to give… What you are interested in is the art whereby a man using no tricks reduces a raging bull to his dimensions, and this means that the relationship between the two must always be maintained and even highlighted. The only way this can be achieved is with art. And what is the essence of this art? That the man carry himself with grace and that he move the bull slowly and with a certain majesty. That is, he must allow the inherent quality of the bull to manifest itself.

Views contrary to this about the corrida have been around for as long as it has, although it is only relatively recently that animals have been the centre point of the argument. When Pope Pius V tried to ban it in 1567, he saw it as a unnecessary endangering of Christian souls in a way similar to duelling or suicide. However, by the nineteenth century this had changed. La Sociedad Protectora de Animales y Plantas de Cádiz was founded in 1872, but long before that was the British Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1824, and gaining its Royal warrant from Queen Victoria in 1840 to become the RSPCA the year after it banned Britain’s Pamplona-style own running of the bulls through the streets of Stamford, Lincolnshire in 1839. (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1866).

These battle lines are drawn by two interlinked issues, as the interviews show: how we view Death, and how we value animals. In what the Spanish call the Anglo-Saxon world we view animals through a glass darkly, or –to put it less poetically – through broken lenses. This is shown in our language itself. We do not eat cattle or calves, but “beef” or “veal”- and we do so at a rate of three million cattle a year in Britain and thirty four million a year in the US.

And we do not do so out of need, but because we like the taste, in spite of the fact that with our ever swelling obesity crisis it has a measurably negative nutritional value, to say nothing of the environmental damage cattle-farming causes. And to put it plainly, these animals die for the entertainment of our palates, and at the expense of our waistlines, wallet and wild spaces. In the words of the animal rights philosopher Mark Rowlands, reviewing my own book in The Times Literary Supplement:

The lives of fighting bulls are better than those of beef cattle, and death in the ring is no worse than death in a slaughterhouse. Let us accept this.

The reason we are happy to kill this many animals after an inferior quality and quantity of life– beef cattle average 18 months mostly in corrals, while fighting bulls range wild in forested wilderness for between 4 and 6 years at one third the population density of British beef cattle – is because we are so distantly separated from their deaths. In Great Britain, the move away from an agricultural economy by means of an “industrial revolution” began in the late 1700s, and in the US not long afterwards. Spain, on the other hand, was still massively agricultural as late as 1900, with the interesting exception of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, the great change in Britain and America’s relationship with animals can be seen in two of the iconic books of that period, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Jack London’s Call Of The Wild, in which animals don’t just have feelings and desires, but every human cognitive trait from self-consciousness to language. Back in the real world, science only attributes self-consciousness to primates, cephalopods – whales, dolphins and porpoises – and the elephant, (admittedly via the crude ‘Gallup Test’). While language is a controversial area of study in which research is almost exclusively with highly trained great apes (another area I have written about).

It is this historical difference between our countries that gives the biggest clue of all to the difference in mindset over our “four-legged friends” (a phrase which we only adopted in the UK after hunting to extinction the less than friendly wolf, bear and wild boar.)

When Paul McCartney of the Beatles said that if abattoirs had glass walls we’d all be vegetarians, he didn’t realise that this doesn’t mean that it is wrong to kill animals., just as animals kill each other. What it means is that we have become so far distant from our means of food production we can no longer stomach the reality along with the product. It is a result of us becoming unhealthily sensitive to the natural conclusion to life – death –not of our having progressed to a more advanced or civilised state of being or society.

The truth of this is clearer when you think about one of the most successful television formats in either the UK or US, the nature documentary. How many shots of lions bringing down buffalo has David Attenborough provided his charming narration for? And how much footage of the lions beginning to eat the buffalo while still alive – which such a large and dangerous mammal almost invariably is – remains on the cutting room floor of the BBC’s Natural History Unit?

In sun-blasted rural Spain, though, things are – still –different. As the greatest Spanish poet of the twentieth century, Federico García Lorca put it in his essay on duende, the dark spirit which is central to the corrida’s cousin flamenco:

It is not an accident that all Spanish art is linked to our mountains, with their thistles and sharp stones…

In all other countries death is an end. It arrives and the curtains are drawn. In Spain, no. In Spain they open. Many people there live indoors until the day they die and they are taken out into the sun. A person dead in Spain is more alive than dead than anywhere else in the world…

Spain is the only country where death is the national spectacle, where death plays long trumpets the arrival of spring, and his art is always ruled by a sharp duende who has given it its difference and its quality of invention.

This is a strong note, and not one with which it is easy for everyone to agree. However, I think that noone can deny, even if they admire the sentiment – and sentimentality – of the voices of the group Equanimal interviewed in this book, that part of the source of their anti-bullfighting feeling is a deep terror of death:

I don’t want to be killed, first slow or fast, no one want to be killed, no individual want to be killed, where is a quick death or slow death, of course if I’m going to be killed I prefer a quick death of course, but in the first case I don’t want to be killed -so a bull is the same.

(The other statements of Equanimal make them seem not so much “sinister”, as Frank Evans says, but plain wrong. They claim that when bulls are reared wild they are completely peaceful, even though bull-breeders accounts books can tell you of the expensive losses of animals caused by fights between bulls, just as there are in African buffalo herds.They also speak of the pain of the bull after its spinal column has been severed, even though this cuts both motor and sensory neurones: no more movement and no more pain. They even claim that the bull is warning the rest of his herd to flee when he vocalises in the plaza (something I saw only twice in the three hundred bulls researched for my book.) He is, in fact – like any social animal – calling for assistance. Something no less piteous, but let us at least try to stick to the facts.)

The Spanish bull, whose life is better in so far as it is what I would choose for myself, has his injury in the ring justified for me by this culturally embedded art form that is also a ritual – a tragic play that contains a sacrifice.

All of this, of course, should be taken in light of the second half of the title of this book (in English), “the ban” of Spanish-style bullfighting in Catalonia. Note that the ban does not include the correbous and correfoc, in which every animal’s most dreaded instinctive enemy, fire, is made to envelop and enshroud its head, and it is then run wild and insane among a taunting crowd. If anyone ever wanted to see the machination of politics dressed as the purity of ethics, it is contained in Article 6 of that ban exempting these two distinctly Catalan hobbies. Something the politicians quoted within seem to tacitly acknowledge when pinned down by the interviewer’s questions.

The concrete proof that the ban was indeed largely political is also contained in the voting statistics themselves. In the Catalan parliament in July 2010, three-quarters of the votes in favour of the ban came from Catalan nationalist parties, while both the Spanish national parties – conservatives and socialists – accounted for three quarters of the votes against the ban. It was passed in the end by 68 votes to 55, with 9 abstentions. It is the socialist party’s voice – banned at the time of Franco – that should tell you that the rest of Spain does not see bullfighting as part of the old totalitarian Spain.

However, I am aware that I am now espousing views which I have come to hold, for better or worse, rather than letting you make up your own mind. The interviews here provide an excellent starting point for you to do just this.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The book is available as a paperback or eBook for £5 at Amazon UK here, or Amazon US for $8 here.

2 thoughts on “The Barcelona Ban on Bullfighting: Two Years on…

  1. Pingback: – The Last Arena

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