About The Bull

Matador El Fundi having just placed the sword between the shoulder blades of a Miura bull in Seville in 2009 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

“The bull is a Spanish god who sacrifices himself.” Salvador Dali.

Without the bull, there is no bullfight, not only is this a semantic truth, based on the word bullfight itself, but also a behavioural one. The entire design and structure of the bullfight for the past three hundred years has grown up around the Spanish fighting bull, a fact enshrined in Spanish Crown Law.

The Royal Decree No. 145 of February 2nd, 1996, demands that all bulls that enter Spanish rings must conform to the following standards:

Section V

Guarantees of the Integrity of the Spectacle

Chapter I

Characteristics of the animals of the bullfight

Article 44. “No animal will be fought in any class of spectacle that has not been inscribed in the Genealogical Book of the Breed of Fighting Cattle.”

Article 45. “The males that are destined to be fought in bullfights should be as a minimum four full years and in every case less than six.”

Article 46. “The minimum weight of animals in bullfights will be from 460kg in rings of the first category, from 435 in those of the second and 410 in those of the third.”

Article 47. “The horns of the animals in bullfights and training will be whole [i.e. unshaved].”

Article 48. (Note: this law uses a variety of Spanish terms which have no direct translation, so I give the sense instead – AFH) The one-eyed, the one-horned, and even those with uneven horns are forbidden from the bullring, except for certain types of festival and training fight, and then only if it advertised these are not fully-fledged fighting bulls.

However, these are the bare bones of fighting bull, not the meat of the mattter. It is the particular anatomical, physiological and behavioural traits that distinguish the Spanish fighting bull from other cattle – and cattle in general from other animals – that are the prerequisites of the bullfight, because the essence of the modern bullfight, on the non-human side of the horns, is the charge.

Modern bullfighting is centred, for both audience and bullfighter, around a bull standing a certain distance from the bullfighter and being cited (from the Latin, citare to move, excite or summon) with a cape and then charging directly at it. It must then follow the cape’s subsequent movements in the manner the matador intends in order that the fight maintain its fine line between slack inelegance and fatal danger – and that last word is not hyperbole: there have been 533 professional bullfighters killed in the ring since 1700. The trouble, and controversy, comes when one tries to define the bull further than this. So, I shall use some details from the Wikipedia entry on the topic (and again confess to having been a contributor to this article).

Spanish Fighting Bull
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Toro Bravo, toro de lidia, toro lidiado, ganado bravo, Touro de Lide) is an Iberian cattle breed. It is primarily bred free-range on extensive estates in Southern Spain, Portugal and Latin American countries where bull fighting is organized. Fighting bulls are selected primarily for a certain combination of aggression, energy, strength, stamina and intelligence: a bull intelligent enough to distinguish man from cape would be too dangerous, too passive or lazy to charge would make no spectacle, without stamina it would tire before the fifteen minutes of the fight had passed etc. (See the page ‘About the bullfight’ page here to understand the full list of which qualities are required.)

History of the breed: Although the actual origins are disputed… [see details below – AF-H] the aggression of the bull has been maintained – or augmented – by selective breeding and has come to be popular among the people of Spain, France and Portugal for the purpose of bullfighting. It was later introduced to Latin America by the Spanish settlers who wished to hold bullfights in their colonies.

Breed characteristics: The fighting bull is characterized by its aggressive behaviour, especially when solitary or unable to flee. Many are coloured black or dark brown, but other colorations are normal. They reach maturity slower than meat breeds as they were not selected to be heavy, having instead an “athletic” look with visibly more massive muscles, especially the morillo, a complex of muscles over the shoulder and neck which gives the bull its distinctive profile and strength with its horns. The horns are longer than in most other breeds and are also present in both males and females unlike other man-made cattle types.Mature bulls weigh from 500 to 700 kg (1100-1600 lb).

Among fighting cattle there are several “encastes” or sub types of the breed. Of the so-called “foundational breeds”, only the bloodlines of Vistahermosa, Vázquez, Gallardo and Cabrera remain today. In the cases of the later two only the ranches of Miura and Pablo Romero are deeply influenced by them. The so-called “modern foundational bloodlines” are Saltillo, Murube, Parladé and Santa Coloma, all of which are mainly composed of Vistahermosa blood.

Growth: A fighting bull or cow is born on specialised, wide-ranging ranches which are often havens for Spanish wildlife as the farming techniques used are extensive (the fighting cattle herds were the only in the Developed World never to have a single case of mad cow disease). It is raised by its mother until one year old, after which it is separated from the mother regardless of gender. Afterwards it is branded and kept in single sex groups. When they reach two years or so, they are sent to the tienta, or testing.

For the males, this will establish if they are suitable for breeding, the bullfight, or being slaughtered for meat. The testing for the bullfight is only of their aggression towards the horse, as they cannot see a man on the ground before they enter the ring. They learn how to use their horns in tests of strength and dominance with other bulls. Due to their especial aggression, these combats can lead to severe injuries and even the death of bulls at great cost to the breeder.

A few times a year a bull will be indultado, or ‘pardoned’, meaning his life is spared in the bullring due to ‘outstanding’ behavior in the ring leading to the audience petitioning the president of the ring with white hankerchiefs. The bullfighter joins the petition as it is a great honour to have a bull one has fought pardoned. The bull will then be returned to the ranch where he will live out his days in the fields and in most cases will become a ‘seed bull’ (he is mated once with some 30 cows and these offspring are tested after four years for their efficacy in the ring). In these circumstances a bull’s lifespan can be 20 to 25 years.

The females are more fully tested, including by a bullfighter with his capes, hence a bulls “courage” is often said to descend from his mother.

If fit for bullfighting bulls will return to their peers. Cows passing the tienta will become mothers and slaughtered after they are unable to bear offspring from old age.

After males are three years old they are no longer considered calves, afterwards they are known as novillos and are ready for bullfighting, although novilladas are for training bullfighters, or novilleros. The best bulls are kept for corridas de toros with full matadors [see regulations above – AF-H].

As even and fair as this particular description of the bull is, I have excluded much of what it says about where the bull came from because, for reasons both good and bad, the background of this symbol of Spain has made the messy slide from history to mythology. For example, I don’t doubt that Ernest Hemingway was reporting honestly what he had been told when he said in Death in the Afternoon,

“Bulls for the ring are wild animals. They are bred from a strain that comes down in direct descent from the wild bulls that ranged over the Peninsula.”

However, this is quite simply wrong. When I began my own investigation into the bullfight with my article in Prospect magazine in September 2008, I repeated this claim, and combined it with other things I had read, including an article in the peer-review journal Animal Genetics (35:2, ‘Genetic diversity and differentiation in Portuguese cattle breeds using microsatellites’, April 2004) and wrote:

“The Iberian bull, of the subspecies Bos taurus ibericus, is a man-made creature, measurably genetically distinct from other breeds and descended from a natural breed which was itself renown for its aggression.”

I was challenged at the time I wrote this by the animal rights campaigner Jordi Casamitjana but, given what else he had to say, I wrote his challenge off as mere propaganda without realising I was indulging in the dissemination of counter-propaganda myself.

The truth or falsity of such an account has considerable importance to our sentiments about the bullfight. The murder of a soldier in street violence will never invoke the same moral horror as the murder of a child in similar circumstances. The reality of this should be born in mind when evaluating the writings of those who are either pro- or anti-bullfighting. Not least because it then becomes reported as fact by people who should know better. For example, even in a recent book by Dr Evan D. G. Fraser, an environmental scientist:

“Spanish cows [in general] had a mixed bloodline. Much of it flowed from the light-coloured, utilitarian herds that had existed on the peninsula since Roman times… In Andalusia, they mated with Bos taurus ibericus, the black-coated savage who had walked the hills since prehistory, and from whom the modern fighting bull is descended. The urbane Moors had hunted him and pushed him to the edges of their neat, furrowed earth, but in Las Marismas [the marshy floodplain of the Guadalquivir River south of Seville- AF-H] he was free to do as he liked.”

p.128, Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World, Harper, 2009

The piece was co-written with Boston journalist Andrew Rimas, but it is Dr Fraser’s scientific background that lends weight to this claim which lacks in reality any scientific currency. Dr Fraser is an enivronmental scientist, not a biologist, and when I asked Professor Albano Beja-Pereira, a field biologist and the leading expert in cattle genetics, he said categorically: “Bos taurus ibericus doesn’t exist.” And when I asked Dr. Fraser himself about it, he answered in an email:

As I look over recent literature, most of the stuff is related to Brazilian breeds, so maybe it’s just a myth that these are the fighting bulls. So, it’s quite likely that Andrew (the co-author who’s cc’d to this message) and I simply took the stories told to us in Spain at face value.

Which brings back to me to Mr Casamitjana, who was then the Campaigns Co-ordinator of CAS International, the largest anti-bullfight pressure group, and who began an article on their website as follows,

“This is an article of scientific opinion, not of empirical science, but it is based on my scientific background as a zoologist specialising in animal behaviour (ethologist)… Jordi Casamitjana,. Hons BSc. (University of Barcelona). Zoologist.”

Now, as someone who can claim ‘Hons’ MSc. (University of London) as well as ‘Hons’ MA. (University of Oxford), I feel quite strongly that readers should know that any degree below doctoral level leaves one vastly underqualified to call oneself a scientist, zoological or otherwise. That said, this is his ‘opinion’:

Bulls, otherwise very peaceful animals that spend most of their lives eating grass, sleeping and playing with each other, are submitted to such an ordeal that not only inflicts serious physical and psychological suffering on them, but also forces them to behave in ways they would not normally behave, namely charging other creatures so they go away, giving them the false reputation of being ‘brave’, which any other herbivore would have in the same circumstances.”

In our comment exchange on the blog post for my Prospect magazine article he went further:

“Bulls are herbivores, as are buffalo, hippos, elephants, deer, boars; they all have defensive weapons that can kill, and have killed, humans, and none of them are predators or ‘maniacs’ that attack for no reason. All of them, put under the same situation than the bullfighting bulls, from the selected breeding, the stress of the transport and the torture itself, would more or less react in the same way, with small differences due to their size and anatomy.”

So, where does the truth lie? Let us look more closely at the science (please forgive and ignore the dry tone, but I am very aware how closely what I write here will be scrutinised):

In the kingdom Animalia, within the phylum Chordata (those with backbones), among the class Mammalia (those who suckle their young), a subset of the order of the Artiodactyla (the even-toed or ‘cloven-hoofed’), are the Bovidae.

Bovid is from the Latin bos, bovis for cow or ox. However, this family of animals (143 species) that ruminate or ‘chew the cud’, but neither have branched horns nor shed them (like deer), also comprises sheep, goats, antelope (including wildebeest), cattle and buffalo: African (Cape), Asian (Water) or American (Bison).

Now, the bovids are all herbivores, but not all herbivores are bovids. Alongside Mr Casamitjana’s examples of elephant, hippo and boar, we also have the gorilla, the koala, the blue whale and the rabbit. The idea that their behaviours are in anyway similar is an amazing thought (and this is just sticking with mammals – termites are herbivorous animals). However, even within the bovid family we can see vast behavioural differences associated with the genetic difference between types.

Greater kudu (Photo: Author)

From my own experiences in Africa two spring to mind: the kudu and the sable antelope. After the ubiquitous impala, the most common antelope you will come across in the Kruger National Park in South African is the kudu. It is also one of the largest; at more than 300kg it is second only to the eland in size among antelope. Despite this size – and impressive horn array (see picture) – they are “not a naturally aggressive species” (to quote BMC Veterinary Research 2006; 2: 2.) Indeed, so passive is it that in the Milwaukee County Zoo in 1988 two were bitten to death by a single zebra.

Sable antelope (Photo: Author)

At the other end of the antelope spectrum is the sable antelope (pictured right), which is far more rarely observed in the wild, and weighs a quarter less than its kudu cousin. However, this antelope is treated with grave respect by all predators, including man, and are well known to kill lions. Even within a herd of these antelope the level of violence is abnormally high which makes this near-endangered species hard to maintain in zoos. As a report put in Zoo Biology (2005, 12:2) “because of their aggressive nature, sable antelope present a challenge to captive management.” (It is worth noting the developed neck and shoulder muscles on the aggressive sable and comparing them with the fighting bull.)

El Fundi passing a Miura bull in the Feria of Seville (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

“In a bullfight the bull is the hero of a tragedy.” Ludwig Wittgensein.

And this is just amongst antelope. Mr Casamitjana would put in the same bracket both sheep, an animal I jog among every day I am at home in the East Anglian countryside, and Cape buffalo, an animal known by big game hunters as the ‘Black Death’ and often quoted as the most prolific killer of lions (and sometimes humans) in Africa. “Minor differences due to size and anatomy” indeed!

Looking at human fatality statistics is illuminating on the reality of dividing line between herbivores and carnivores. According to the Journal of Travel Medicine (1999, 6:3), between January 1988 to December 1997 there were twenty-one serious attacks on tourists by wild animals in South Africa and over 70% were by herbivores – 14% by buffalo. Of the seven fatal incidents, over 40% were by herbivores.

So, narrowing our focus further, within the bovids, and their subfamily the bovines, we find the genus Bos. There are five living species of this genus. Ignoring the yak, the gaur, the kouprey and the banteng; we are interested in those currently classified as Bos primigenius, which, according to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, is divided into three subspecies. The humped zebu cattle of Africa, Bos primigenius indicus, all other breeds of domestic cattle, Bos primigenius taurus, and the ancestor of both, the vast, bestial aurochs, Bos primigenius primigenius, of which we know:

“The last animal died in central Poland in the year 1627. Its former range was across much of the Old World, including Europe, north Africa, and large parts of Asia. [It is estimated] that the height of bulls at the withers [was] 170 to 190 cm [5ft 7 in, to 6 ft 3 in] during the Pleistocene period, with a curved, in‐turning horn length of 60 to 110 cm, and weighing between 450 and 900 kg. Females would have been little more than half the size of the bulls. The bulls were dark brown to black with a lighter, narrow stripe along the backbone. Females and calves were reddish‐brown. The diet of the animal would have been similar to cattle, including grasses, browse, acorns, and some tree bark. The species was a forest dweller and likely preferred marsh and wetter forests. [It is argued] that extinction was a consequence of the expansion of farms and pasture.”

(Quarterly Review of Biology, 81:3)

We know that all the Bos primigenius subspecies – despite being wildly different in shape, temperament and circumstance – shared their basic visual system. Unlike man and other predators who see with their eyes front, they have prey-vision with eyes protruding out to the sides. They also have far wider skulls than deer or antelope for horn-attachment. A narrower skull would mean that such a large weapon, with so much weight behind it, would break off on impact.

This means that they not only an increased visual awareness towards the vulnerable rear, and excellent vision at the sides, but also unusually poor forwards vision with a tiny blind spot immediately in front of the head because the eyes cannot converge easily.

Many authors on the subject of bullfighting have propagated a myth, believed by some bullfighters as well, that this blind-spot is large enough to create a so-called anti-cone of immunity, which the matador can stand in and be invisible to the bull. Now, the idea that evolution would provide a visual system which meant you could not see the predator you were defending yourself from, the fellow bull you were fighting against for a mate, or the grass you are eating, is simply ludicrous. This blind-spot only comes a few inches out from the animal’s head.

The eye-placement and bone-contours of the skull also cause the visual plane to be unusually low down, so they have to move their whole head up to look up. Because of the physiology of the eye itself, this idiosyncratic optical array is dichromatic – they are, in trichromatic, human terms, functionally colour blind – and particularly sensitive to movement. The cape used at the end of the fight is red from tradition, not because of any natural antipathy to that colour. It also masks the blood of the bull and stands out, even in their impoverished eyes, against the golden, sandy background.

AurochsThe reasons for this way of seeing are evolutionary. Looking at the painting on the right, you can see that the aurochs’ natural opponent came at it from low down, was usually camouflaged so movement is a far better indicator than colour, and, when your horns are quite so lethal, it is not the predator snarling in front that you need to worry about but the one coming from the side or behind.

This visual setup is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of the bullfight. The other necessary condition is its response to moving objects in this visual field. When the bullfighter walks towards the cow or bull (as I have done), he reaches a point on the edge of the bull’s terreno, its ‘terrain’ or ‘territory’. This boundary is exactly like the ‘biting point’ of the clutch on manual transmission cars.

If you are careful enough, you can see the animal begin to trembling on point of committing to a charge. It is here that the bullfighter transfers the animal’s attention to the cape either by placing it further into the territory at the end of his arm, or by shaking it at the bull from where he stands. Either of these will invoke in the right sort of animal an overwhelming urge to charge the cape, which can then be used to direct the animal as close to – or far from – the bullfighter’s body as he wishes.

It is this irritability, this overwhelming urge to charge the aggravating image that appears before – rather than run away – that is the unique characteristic of the Spanish fighting bull over other animals. Other cattle have been bred to be easy to manage – for milk or meat – and the fight has been taken out of them. Having said that, one must realise how dangerous a regular cow can be. A cursory glance at the archives for The Times for the past decade brings these four examples from Britain:

Angry bull kills water board man

A WATER board official was gored to death yesterday by a bull that broke through a fence. Wilson Cowan, 56, was sampling water from a mains in a street in Pettinain, Strathclyde, when an Ayrshire bull in a nearby field grew agitated and began to bellow.

The animal charged through the wire fence and pinned him against his van. It gored him in the head and body, and tossed him into the middle of the lane. Road builders working near by tried to distract the bull by throwing stones but by the time they reached Mr Cowan, an official with the West of Scotland Water Board, he was dead.

9 June 1998

Cow kills man

A 74-year-old man from England died after being gored by a Highland cow near Plockton, Highland. The man, thought to have been with family at a holiday home, had apparently been walking on a path and come across the cow and its calf.

29 August 2003

Bull kills farmer

A farmer was gored to death by a bull as he rounded up his cows for milking. William Pennington, 68, had farmed the land in Dunham Massey near Altrincham, Cheshire, all his working life. It is understood that there was a delay before paramedics could reach him because the bull was standing over him.

8 July 2005

Bullock kills farmer

A farmer died after being trampled by a bullock that he had just bought at a livestock market. Raymond Burrough, 72, was attacked at Gateshayes Farm, Whimple, East Devon and died 11 days later. Mr Burrough was the Master of the East Devon Hunt and a leading member of the National Farmers’ Union.

1 January 2007

It is for this reason that:

“Section 59 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 bans bulls of recognised dairy breeds (eg. Ayrshire, Friesian, Holstein, Dairy Shorthorn, Guernsey, Jersey and Kerry) in all circumstances from being at large in fields crossed by public rights of way. Bulls of all other breeds are also banned from such fields unless accompanied by cows or heifers, but there are no specific prohibitions on other cattle.”

from the British Health & Safety Executive (HSE) wesbite

Despite the enforcement of this legislation:

“In 2006/07 injuries from animals caused more deaths than any other category. Eleven people were killed by animals, five more than in the previous year (2005/06). Three involved bulls, seven cows or other cattle and one a horse. All the victims sustained trauma injuries consistent with them having been attacked, trampled to death or gored and trodden on by an individual animal or a herd of cattle.”

HSE report, ‘Fatal injuries in farming, forestry, horticulture and associated industries’

In the US, where animal handling techniques are as advanced and safety conscious as anywhere in the world, the authors of one study found that from 1992-1997:

“Cattle were responsible for 142 deaths [more than any other animal]… Most deaths from cattle were from attacks or mauling from the animal, especially bulls.”

‘Occupational fatalities due to animal-related events,’ Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, 12:3

Spanish language documentary covering the period from birth to fight (not shown) of a Spanish Fighting Bull

Returning to the particular breed of the Spanish fighting bull, what distinguishes it from the animals described above is a matter of degree so extreme that it becomes a difference of quality, not just quantity. It will relentlessly charge whether it is fresh or tired, strong or weak, hale or injured. This is what the Spanish mean by calling a bull bravo, which means brave, but in animals also means fierce. As it once did in English, the etymological ancestor of ‘brave’ being the Latin word rabidus.

In the documentary about a bull’s life I have embedded above there are two very interesting moments which can be seen – even if the viewer does not speak Spanish. The first is at 28 minutes and 30 seconds, when the branded young bull, upon release, not only chases off the multitude of larger animals (people) who have been holding it down and inflicting pain on it, but then turns on the fire itself. It plunges its head into the fire and does not even seem to flinch. Secondly, at 45 minutes and 30 seconds, the bulls can be seen fighting each other, including remains of the serious wounds they cause each other: note the bull with one eye!

Despite this, I will not deny that the circumstances of the fight contribute to the aggression of the fight: because the ring is circular and has no exit, so the animal can neither run away nor find a corner to back into, the animal must charge. However, this is a partial explanation and anyone who has ever seen the bullfighters getting young bulls and cows to charge their capes in the open countryside knows this.

The ring, though, is a situation of extreme danger to the bullfighter. At that distance the he is as likely to be identified as a target as the cape and he has no chance to adjust the animal’s focus. This category of animal – into which all other bovids including regular cattle fall – is simply not possible to fight in the style of the Spanish bullfight. It is the incessant urge to charge, and the total commitment to that charge without deviation, which is required by the bullfight.

So, having argued that the bull behaviourally differs from other cattle in a very tangible sense, is there quantifiable scientific evidence that it is a distinct entity?

In a paper last year in the journal Animal Genetics (39:6), a team at the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Complutense in Madrid discovered that “the high [genetic] diversity in the breed – closer to that seen in Middle Eastern than European populations – is evidence of a certain degree of primitivism.” What this means is that the bloodlines that comprise the fighting bulls are some of the oldest in Europe (genetic diversity within a population increases over time).

Dogs and Cows

A neat analogy to this situation is that with dog breeds and the wolf. It has been long known that the domestic dog descended from wolves somewhere around thirty-six thousand years ago (the aurochs only thirteen – which makes sense as hunting predates agriculture). Recently, like the cow, the dog has been reclassified as a subspecies of its ancestral form the wolf, making it Canis lupis familiaris. Just as there is between breeds of cattle, there is great temperamental diversity between breeds of dogs. One might think of the docile labrador as an analogue of the British dairy cow, the Fresian-Holstein, whereas the boxer, bred at various times for both fighting and hunting large mammals like bear and wild boar, is more like the fighting bull. (See pictures above – note the heavier shoulders in animals which are more likely to attack, as with the kudu and sable antelope above.)

So when aficionados claim that the bullfight must exist to keep the fighting bull breed alive, one must realise that what they really wish to preserve is a man-made race, but an ancient one nonetheless. It is also a race within a subspecies, within a species – which is a little narrow – and a great deal less natural – than most conservation projects you will find the WWF (of which I have been a member for three quarters of my life) publicising. However, one must also remember the vast landscapes within which this free-ranging animal roams, remaining entirely in their natural state. A brief look at the film above will confirm that the bullfight is effectively paying for large swathes of Spain being turned into de facto nature reserves.

Yes, it is difficult to believe that the fighting bull would ever be allowed to die out even if the vast herds were reduced to a few thousand individuals should the bullfight be banned: intellectual bad faith exists on both sides of the bullfight debate and this rather narrow conservation argument is an instance of it. However, conservation in a broader sense is paid for by the bullfight, along with the preservation of a certain sense of Spanish national pride and honour that has come to be symbolised by the fighting bull existing en masse in the countryside. In conclusion, what is being preserved here is both more important, and far wider in scope, than mere Quixotic windmills…

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

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