The League of Cruel Sports

At the same time as the Sunday Telegraph joined the Sunday Times in listing my book Into The Arena as “essential summer reading”, and I was doing what you see in the photo below (more photos here), the animal rights lobby groups have broken their silence and ‘The League Against Cruel Sports’ has put up a review of my book which even contains a complimentary paragraph:

To his credit, Fiske-Harrison does at least acknowledge the morally questionable nature of the bullfight. And the book does contain some interesting explorations of concepts such as fear, bravery and drive.

Alexander Fiske Harrison, far right – red and white jacket – with Torrestrella bull in Pamplona, July 7th 2011 (Photo: REUTERS/Joseba Etxaburu)

Despite this, the rest of their review is riddled with errors from the first sentence:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison spent a year immersing himself in the bullfighting culture of Spain, with the seemingly noble aim of trying to gain a greater understanding of it.

I spent two years in Spain with the bulls. To the last:

However, for the most part this book is unadulterated flag-waving for the bullfighting industry, and falls way short of adding anything interesting to the bullfighting debate.

My analysis of the environmental consequences of banning the bullfight and my blow-by-blow comparison of the meat-industry to the bullfighting industry is indeed an addition, as – in the English language – is my account of my personal experiences in the ring.

The middle is no better:

Bullfighters like Manolete are described as mythological heroes from a bygone age, and present-day matadors and bull breeders are treated with similar fawning appreciation. In contrast, Fiske-Harrison continually lampoons and attempts to discredit animal welfare campaigners for their stances against cruelty.

Whilst it is true that I regard and write of Manolete in heroic terms, the idea that I fawn on friends like Cayetano, Juan José Padilla, Rafaelillo or Eduardo Dávila Miura is laughable, despite my immense respect for them. Morante de la Puebla, and José Tomás especially, I have the reverence for of geniuses whom I do not know, but the recent review in The Spectator accused me of frankly ignoring Enrique Ponce, El Juli and José María Manzanares.

As for “continually” lampooning “animal welfare campaigners”, I only actually mention one, Jordi Casamitjana, campaigns co-ordinator of CAS (Comité Anti Stierenvechten – ‘Anti-Bullfighting Committee’) International, a Dutch based anti-bullfighting lobby group. Far from lampooning him, I begin chapter eight with an account of joining him in a televised deabte at the London studios of Al-Jazeera and include the entire transcript of the show, followed by reprinting his response, in full, to my original Prospect magazine article ‘A Noble Death’ which led to my book.

The trouble with anti-bullfight lobbyists, just as with pro-bullfight lobbyists, is the tone of authority, combined with the sort of intellectual laziness that pervades this review. A case in point is my exchange of comments on this blog with one such person, from the ‘League of Cruel Sports’ (sic) following my post, ‘The Rights and Wrongs of Bullfighting‘. Sometimes I comment within his comment in blue, sometimes I post my own. In the end, I blocked him from commenting as it had become annoying doing the research for both sides of the debate.

ANTI corrida Says:
August 14, 2010 at 4:35 am e

Interesting post – i came here because of your comments on the league against cruel sports website. It is rather laughable that you say that there is “evidence that the adrenaline produced in the bullfight serves to mitigate the pain”, when all the scientific evidence produced by reputable scientists demonstrates that beta-endorphins and the like are an INDICATION of extreme pain, and do not mitigate it – see Jordi Casamitjana’s work on the topic, as well as the authors of Blog Veterinario and others. [This statement is factually incorrect, see my response below. AF-H]

The fact that the pain may be “replaced” by fear (as indicated by the adrenaline) is hardly a “defence” of bullfighting, and if that is all aficionados can come up with, is rather pathetic. [This is not what I said. AF-H]

As for the comment referring to matadors and picadors as “gentle”, I find that difficult to believe. I think “cowardly” may be the term they are looking for. As soon as they come up with an opponent competing on an equal level with them (and let’s face it, even if the bull isn’t drugged up or hasn’t had afeitado performed on it, it’s still a bull, and you are still a human, and thus more intelligent, thus by definition it is HARDLY an equal fight, nor do most aficionados intend it to be) they bottle it with their tails between their legs. Why a pathetic creature like that is deserving of respect, I have no idea. [Indeed, as I say in the post, it is not a fight, it is not meant to be a fight, and fair doesn’t come into it. AF-H]

Still, an interesting blog. I agree with your points on the fact that it really makes little difference whether the bull is tranquilised etc, or not. Bullfighting is cruel and horrific enough without having to make things up about it.

Thank you for your response and for keeping a reasonable tone.

First, an aside, which is intended to be general, not personal: one of my great problems with people who have become pro- or anti-bullfighting is that they meet up and tell each other stories that reinforce their beliefs, even though they are sometimes obvious nonsense. I have even heard aficionados claim bulls enjoy bullfighting. (It is amazing how much more sanguine and honest bullfighters and breeders are by comparison.) This is the case for this story about beta-endorphins that circulates in the anti-bullfighting community. Not to drop the reasonable tone, but does no one bother to check these things up?

Here are the facts: the word “endorphin” was a neologism – an entirely new word – coined by Goldstein and Lowery in 1975 in a paper in the journal Life Sciences (original paper here) from the phrase “endogenous morphine” – which should give you a clue as to what it does. Beta-endorphin is an endogenous (internally created), opioid (chemical that bonds to the same brain receptors as those derived from opium: e.g. morphine, heroin, codeine etc.) It is the the brain’s very own analgesic. There are literally hundreds of thousands of papers about referring to this feature of it over the past three decades. To give just one example, taken at random, for the peer-review journal Pain: In 1998 it published a meta-study, ‘Is placebo analgesia mediated by endogenous opioids? A systematic review’, by ter Riet et al, conclusively showing that it is endogenous opioids – endorphins, enkephalins, dynorphins and endomorphins – that are the reason for those ‘placebo’ effects that result in the reduction or absence of pain (original paper here.).

However, this information is not restricted to the scientific community. This is from Wikipedia’s entry on beta-endorphin: “It is used as an analgesic in the body to numb or dull pains. That is the reason why humans start to feel better immediately after an acute physical trauma even though the symptoms are still present. The reason the pain dulls is because it binds to and activates opioid receptors. β-endorphin has approximately 80 times the analgesic potency of morphine.” And this from their general entry on endorphins: “scientists believe it is due to beta-endorphins that some people who experience a traumatic injury, such as the loss of a limb, experience little or no immediate pain.”

So whoever told you that it does not serve this function and that the existence of an opioid in the brain is evidence of pain is actually being grossly dishonest, or conveying grossly dishonest information from others in bad faith. The reason it is in bad faith is because if you are posting on websites, then you know well enough to look things up, even if the limit of your ability is the world’s most famous online encyclopaedia. I am afraid that your posting compounds this, as does you saying that this is the view of “reputable scientists”. Either you know they are not reputable, or you are not qualified to judge and so should not be writing like that in public fora – I assume the latter. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but it is the truth.

Beta-endorphin presence could also be taken as evidence that pain may be being suppressed, yes, but even then not on its own as it does also appear in other contexts, such as orgasm, or, more relevant to what we are discussing, hard exercise. However, it always has a “pain killing” effect. That’s just what opioids do…

(You mention in this context “work” by Jordi Casamitjana, which is a telling choice of word, somehow implying that he does “work” in this area, i.e. neurochemistry. Jordi Casamitjana is a campaigns co-ordinator for a lobby group, not a scientist. As I have said elsewhere, a bachelor’s degree in biology does not a scientist make, whatever Casamitjana may describe himself as on the websites he writes for. I also began my studies as a biologist, at the University of Oxford, and hold a Master of Science, from the University of London. As a result, I am a writer, nothing more, nothing less.)

As for pain being replaced by fear in a bullfight, that is not what I said. My claim is that this is likely to occur in an environment of helplessness like the abattoir. And I, following Dr. Temple Grandin, regard fear as a form of suffering just as much as pain. However, I do not regard rage as suffering, which will also have a “pain-killing effect”, and that is the predominant state of a bull which charges towards an entity, not runs away from it.

That said, I do not rest my arguments on the bull feeling nothing, I just wanted to get the facts straight. Bulls clearly feel pain during the fight, the question one must ask oneself is how much, when and for how long. The real point, though, is that in contrast to the farm and the abattoir, the ranch and the bullring give a better life – three times as long – and frequently a better death as well. What is more, it is a better death than that which a bull – or rather its ancestor, the aurochs – could expect in the wild at the hands of wolves or other predators who would be forced to bring down such a large animal and begin consuming it whilst it was still alive (For the horrors of predation for large mammals read Savage Paradise: The predators of Serengeti by Van Lawick or The spotted hyena: A study of predation and social behaviour by Kruuk). It is also a far better quality of life with modern veterinary care to deal with disease and parasites and food supplements to remove the whimsy of nature in providing water and pasture. The life is admittedly about half the average length estimated for an aurochs.

The fact remains that this is what we do to animals, and what animals do to each other – an unsurpising synchrony, given that we are animals. However, we are higher animals (see the next blog post on the ‘chain of being’). For that reason – unlike other predators – a human inflicting pain without cause shows a grotesquerie of spirit; but to elevate avoidance of pain to the level of “greatest good” – no matter what is feeling it and in what context – shows a morbidly sensitive spirit.

For those who can access it, bullfighting is a beautiful dance with Death, a side-effect of which is improved animal welfare and conservation throughout Spain. For those who can’t, look away… A steak has its qualities which justify the death of a bull as well. If you don’t think so, don’t eat it. Just don’t expect to be allowed to pressure politicians in liberal democracies into banning these things because of your idiosyncratic views on human progress.

Finally, I’m not sure what you mean by your comment about matadors and picadors “bottling it” since I assume you have never met one. I would guess it is an emotional knee-jerk on your part, understandable I guess, given your visceral dislike of the bullfight. However, whatever you think of the spectacle, the circumstances of and levels of injury sustained by bullfighters in a career are terrifying. As you yourself say, you have no need to make things up… (And no, I don’t think they are gentle either.)

ANTI corrida Says:
August 14, 2010 at 6:05 pm e

Thanks for your polite response.

The comparison with Soldiers I have to say is rather fatuous, because as you have said, the corrida is not a fight, and not only that, but most soldiers either go to war because they want to serve their country, (No matter what we think of that choice or the manner of doing it) or they don’t get a choice in the matter or are called up, or compelled through financial circumstances to do so, there being few jobs and few qualifications in the area. The idea that they are some kind of people who don’t wish to harm or kill animals and that they do it out of necessity is rather strange, since, if they weren’t, then they would have chosen another career. As far as I know few people are compelled, if any, through financial circumstances to become a bullfighter (as many are to join the Army). [Exactly as you say, “as far as I know”, which says more about your knowledge than the argument. It is a traditional route out of poverty in Spain. AF-H]

RE: Beta-endorphins – I will have to look further into the issue as I admit that I’m not a scientist, but I have read other studies by people other than Casamitjana. Of course one only has to observe the behaviour of the bull during the bullfight, to know that it is not enjoying it and is actually very scared and confused – if it really wated to fight would it stand against a wall, backing away, paw the ground (which is actually a sign of fear) or run around looking for an exit?

[This is a very rare set of behaviours in a bullfight, although it does happen. I think I’ve seen a dozen or so times in three hundred bulls. Does that reassure you? No? I didn’t think it would. So your argument is not with the pacifism of the bulls, nor their suffering then. AF-H]

Over 70% of Spaniards dislike the corrida [No, the poll you are referring to found they answered “no interest”, not disliked. AF-H] and this is especially true among young people [Are you saying we should ignore the views of the elderly? AF-H]. Maybe they don’t all think it should be banned, but they certainly have little interest in it.

As for the point about matadors and picadors getting hurt, yes, they can be subjected to terrible injuries, BUT the likelihood of them dying is very very low (very few matadors have died in the 20th century in the ring). In Ceret where I have some family connections, two years ago a matador was gored and the rest of them refused to go into the ring. As far as I can tell that is not a particularly brave act!

[This is unheard of. I have seen many friends gored, I have never once seen a matador refuse to enter the ring as a result. You say “very few”: when Dominguin, Montes Vico, Serranito, Cheche, Pep III, El Jerezano, Corchaito, Ballesteros Solsona, Malla, Pastor Lavergne, Marti Fernando, Varelito, Granero Valls, Litri, Montes Mora, Cavira, Gitanillo de Triana, Perez Gutierrez, Sanchez Mejias, Balderas Reyes, Marquez Diaz, Manolete, Carnicerito de Mejico, El Sargento, Morenito de Valencia, Pete Mata, Falcon, Paquirri, El Yiyo and Pepe Caceres were all killed in the ring in the 20th century, the bullfight carried on. The invention of antibiotics – hence the statue to Fleming outside the Madrid ring – and the vast improvements in vascular and trauma surgery have staunched this death rate. However, the wounds the matadors receive are the same. Enough to kill only a little while ago… I think you need more research. AF-H]

ANTI corrida Says:
August 14, 2010 at 7:30 pm e
I did not know that bullfighting is a traditional route out of poverty in Spain. But, if that is true, then that is another argument against it, and against the exploitative nature of the industry. I’ve been watching a French documentary about bullfighting schools in France, and they are describing the fact that these schools deliberately recruit in underprivileged areas, so I guess I should not be too surprised. Still, not every person who goes to one of those schools, or even every poor person in Spain, becomes a bullfighter in their later life.

I’ll have to read up about the matadors who died in the ring, while it is undoubtedly a risky job, I don’t think it’s as risky as is made out. And your comments about bulls behaving in a fearful manner – you are right, it doesn’t reassure me, as I am quite aware you have an agenda. Just as the League of Cruel Sports or anyone else has an agenda, so do you.

Yet again you admit have no idea what you are talking about. And then you say that I have an agenda? Really, what agenda is that? The League of (sic) Cruel Sports is funded to stop the bullfight. If they were to suddenly say, “actually, bullfighting isn’t that bad,” they would all lose their jobs. I was paid by Profile Books to write a book on bullfighting. That was my sole remit. I could write a book savaging it. I didn’t know one person in this world when I arrived in Spain; I had two introductions, that was it – no loyalties. I can say what I like, leave when I like, and it will have no consequence. In fact, a well-written, well-researched book with the level of access I have had which attacked the bullfight would sell a hundred times more copies.

So, if I have an agenda what is it? Money? No. I am forfeiting personal profit. Career? No, this makes me unpopular as a writer and my life more difficult in terms of future contracts as a writer (and frankly impossible as an actor given the people that run film and theatre in Britain and the US.) So what are we left with? A bloody minded pursuit of the truth, partly for reasons of contrarianism, partly vanity, partly pessimism about progress and partly a visceral hatred of people selling me a lie – but in the end, they all just get me to the truth.

Let us not ignore the time and effort I have taken to read the thousands of documents and books, to talk to the hundreds of people, to fight the dozens of cattle myself, all in order to understand this thing before I have the arrogance to write about it. And you couldn’t even be bothered to look up endorphins on Wikipedia before you contributed your piece to the debate. Only one of us hasn’t lifted a finger to find out the facts here, and if that isn’t putting ‘agenda’ before the truth, then I don’t know what is. End of this discussion. AF-H

P.S. I actually posted a response in the comments section of the League Against Cruel Sports’ website, under my review, describing their errors. The site said it would be moderated and put up within four hours. That was two days ago…

P.P.S. To their credit, the League Against Cruel Sports posted my comment, four working days after it was submitted, 12 hours after the above comment was added to this blog post.

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