A noble death

Bullfighting is seen by many as cruel. But it is not merely a gaudy circus spectacle; at its best it is an art form. Can aesthetics justify the suffering of the animal?
September 27, 2008
"The slow, sad fury of a perfect bullfight": the matador El Cid faces the bull Borgoñés in Seville's Plaza del Toros
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The following events occurred on 19th April 2007, the second day of the Feria de Abril in Seville, in the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballeria

The bull enters the ring at a trot, a fanfare of trumpets fading in the background. He seems tentative, his eyes sweeping the ring.

His breeders have named him Borgoñés. He arrived in town the night before from the pastures of Victorino Martin's estate in west-central Spain, 50 miles from the Portuguese border. Here, on this mix of pasture, scrub and woodland, Borgoñés learnt how to use his horns on other bulls and built his 86.5 stone bulk of muscle and bone. Now that he is alone for the first time in his life, the restraints on his more ferocious instincts have been removed.

Standing at the far edges of the circular ring, some 60 yards from the bull, are three banderilleros: companions and employees of the matador in lesser versions of his "suit of lights," each with a large working cape in his hands, pink on one side, yellow on the other. They flap their capes from the safety of wooden hides in the barrier of the ring until Borgoñés charges across the ring, selecting his target. The bull does not stop until he hits the wall of the wooden hide, the man safely behind as Borgoñés jabs again and again at the wood, splinters flying. Borgoñés has shown that he is quick to take the lure, that he charges straight, without hesitation or pawing the ground, and that he favours his right horn.

The matador walks into the ring, an unprepossessing 33-year-old man of neat figure and composed manner. Manuel Jesús Cid Salas, or "El Cid," was born in a small town on the outskirts of Seville called Salteras. He flaps his cape and the bull turns, raising his great head with its wide-ranging horns so that the vast goring muscle, the morillo, bunches on its shoulders to a size outstripping any other breed of bull in the world. And then he charges. Unlike his cuadrilla, his group of companions, El Cid does not hide but stands his ground, his back ramrod straight, the cape held out to the right of his body in both hands, feet together, and waits for Borgoñés to come to him. Borgoñés is fresh, the distance is sizeable, and the bull nears 30 miles per hour as he reaches El Cid. El Cid moves the cape slightly, and Borgoñés takes the moving lure over the stationary man and thunders past, his horns low where the movement was, the cape sweeping over his face in a perfect veronica, named after the saint of the same name who wiped the face of Christ on his way to Golgotha.

Borgoñés comes out the other side, frustrated that his horn met no opposition, and turns within two body lengths of passing El Cid, who has readjusted his own position to receive Borgoñés in another veronica, as neat as the first, the horns passing some 18 inches from El Cid's face as Borgoñés leaps into the air when he reaches the cape, trying again to sate his rising fury in living flesh. The crowd, already impressed by the first veronica, shout an "olé!" for the second. Again Borgoñés passes the man by, again the crowd roars, again Borgoñés turns, again he passes, a foot away from the man this time, and he turns again, comes back and this time El Cid winds the cape around his own hips as Borgoñés follows it, winding the bull around his body in a media-veronica. For a brief moment, following the increasing display of risk and skill in the veronicas, we are given the sight of the man, stationary, in the midst of a circling fury, wearing this great beast like a belt, the crowd cheering, until Borgoñés, driven by his own momentum out of the charge, is drawn to a halt by attempting to turn in a distance shorter than his own body length. He is left panting, facing El Cid three yards away, who is standing with his back to the bull. El Cid receives his applause from the crowd and thus ends the section called suerte de capote, "luck of the cape," the first half of the first act of the bullfight called the tercio de varas, the "third of the lances."

El Cid has now learned that Borgoñés is a bull truly in the prime of life, possessed of speed, strength, stamina and courage, but without the excessive aggression which would make him unpredictable and self-destructive. He has sufficient intelligence to follow the cape in these moves—which have been refined over 250 years—but not so much that he has learnt to distinguish man and cape early in the fight. This bull, after all, has probably never seen a man on the ground before, his herdsmen on the estate all being mounted on horseback. However, he is learning. At some point he will, inevitably, see the man.


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A fanfare of trumpets announces the second part of the first act of the drama. The gates open and out trot two big horses, made larger by three-inch-thick compressed-cotton armour, which is encased in leather and canvas and wrapped around their bodies. They are blindfolded against the sight of Borgoñés—who is kept in place by the capes of the banderilleros—their riders dressed in the unflattering outfit of the picador.

Although there are two picadors, it is the one closest to the president's box on the shady side of the ring to whom the bull is directed. Today that picador is José Manuel Espinosa. The bull is lined up by El Cid until it is facing the horse across five yards of clear sand. Espinosa shifts in the saddle with a call of "Toro!" ("bull!") and the movement-sensitive vision of Borgoñés locks on to the tall mounted target and charges. Espinosa sights the length of his lance for the morillo muscle over the bull's shoulders, and as the bull's horns strike the side of the horse, grazing ineffectually along the padding, the lance enters up to its crossbar, some 10cm into the muscle mass, still well clear of the cage of Borgoñés's spine and ribs. Borgoñés does not flinch from the lance, nor pause in his assault, and were the crossbar not there Borgoñés would surely drive the lance straight through his own thorax. Instead, he slides both of his horns under the horse's central body mass, and, forklift style, begins to lift horse and rider, armour and all—a combined weight of almost 100 stone. Espinosa leans over the bull, risking landing on the horns should he lose his balance, pushing down with the lance, not twisting or repositioning it as some will do to damage the muscle further and increase blood loss, but trying to get the bull to give way. However, horse and rider topple over, and the banderilleros and matadors—not just El Cid but the other two fighting that day, Salvador Cortés and Pepín Liria—come in with capes to distract the bull, which they quickly succeed in doing.

The horse gets back to his feet unaided and, surprisingly, uninjured. Espinosa remounts, Salvador Cortés lines up the bull with some elegant capework, and the bull is lanced once more, this time lightly as he is slightly winded by his exertions and his tossing muscle has lost some of its great strength from the earlier lance-stroke. Then the trumpets blare and the first act of the drama has ended, by presidential decree. The horses leave the ring, Espinosa receiving some applause as he passes the gates for not "ruining" (in the eyes of the afición) such a heroic bull.

Borgoñés stands recovering his breath. He has had his strength and his resolve tested. His head is held lower, he is bloodied, but very much unbowed. It is now that the El Cid's banderilleros come into their own, in the tercio de banderillas (the "third of the darts"). The banderillas are 70cm in length with a barbed steel tip, their wooden hafts adorned with coloured paper. The skill required here from the man is twofold. First, he must site the bull so that it charges in a line which intersects with his own semi-circular trajectory at a moment when he can lean over the horns to place the banderillas and continue past without being caught by the bull. Or at least this is the usual method. As with everything in the ring, there are some unbreakable rules, but other rules which are merely traditions the crowd enjoy seeing broken or innovated upon with daring and skill. The second task of the banderillero is to place the banderillas in such a way that they straighten out the charge of the bull, negating his preference for one horn over another, or at least reducing it so that he does not hook with one horn when he reaches a target. The banderillas are all well placed by El Cid's men, and the second act passes as it so often does in the theatre, of necessity for the development of plot and character, but with neither the novelty and energy of the first, nor the pathos and grandeur of the last.


The trumpets sound, and now begins the tercio de muerte, the "third of death." El Cid walks into the middle of the ring, to the applause of the audience. The Seville stadium—the second oldest in Spain, after Ronda, dating from 1749—is packed to its 12,500-seat capacity, so to fight this final act in the centre—rather than in the shade near the expensive seats—is a democratic act. However, it also means that the matador is far from safety should he fall, be tossed or drop his cape. His cuadrilla with their distracting capes are far away, and once a bull is upon a man, it will thrust with its horns until it judges the object of its rage to be dead. El Cid's sole protection is the matador's small sword, the estoque, in his right hand and the red muleta in his left. The muleta is smaller than the cape, with a stick along one of its lengths so that it may be used single-handed. (It is red to mask whoever's blood is spilt, bulls being quite colour-blind.)

Borgoñés is watching El Cid. Some ten minutes have passed since the bull entered the ring and during that time he has undergone many physical and psychological changes. His head is considerably lower and his charge is slower when he gives it, which is less often. He is wiser now, and at his most dangerous. He has also developed a querencia near one of the stands in the shade. A querencia—which can be translated as lair—is where a bull feels safe and to where he returns if given the opportunity. Centuries ago, when the bullrings were square (they grew out of the brutal, artless, spontaneous bullfights which used to be held in small town squares with the exits barricaded off), these would always be in the corners. Now, they are formed where the bull has developed a comforting association, in this case where he toppled the horse. In this place, he is at his most unpredictable.

El Cid puts the point of his sword through a corner of the muleta, and with his left hand on his hip, his left foot forward, he sites the bull in the classic matador pose, calling, "Toro! Toro!" Borgoñés charges, slower now, his horns following the bottom edge of the muleta along the sand, and El Cid slowly turns on his heels, the muleta sweeping around him in a lazy arc drawing the vastness of the bull around him. The bull passes and turns, ready to charge again with his recovered wind. El Cid does not turn to face him, but, barely glancing over his shoulder, he lets Borgoñés charge at his unprotected back, at the last minute beginning that perfect sweep of the muleta in reverse. The bull takes the lure and passes the man by, a little closer this time, the hafts of the banderillas clattering against El Cid's thighs as he passes. The bull turns again, and now El Cid removes the sword from the muleta and sights the bull with the red fabric in his left hand, sword in his right—a left-handed natural, the purist's move, classically executed at chest height, the bull even closer so that his rear flank brushes past El Cid's chest, leaving traces of blood on his suit of lights. Again and again, closer and closer, the audience shouting "olé!" at each move, El Cid builds the sequence of shifting tableaus of man and bull, ending with a pase de pecho, which, in turning the bull faster than he is able, leaves him standing three feet away from the man. El Cid sweeps his sword through the dust into the air in salute to the audience, the bull and the day that brought him the opportunity for such a faena, such a display. However, Borgoñés is not finished.

Turning to face his opponent again, El Cid requests the dance begin, and Borgoñés is eager to oblige. And so they turn, one around the other, the band now playing a paso doble in the background, animal going around man like hands around the face of clock (to paraphrase El País's critic José Suárez Inclán's description of the day), and with each natural in the dramatically constructed series, the bulls horns came closer and closer to El Cid's chest, until on two passes they brush the fabric of his suit on the left, the point passing no more than two inches from his beating heart. The crowd are on their feet now, cheering each pass, as man and bull become one self-encircling instrument. It must end, and it does at El Cid's direction. Borgoñés is left standing panting and finished. The 15 minutes that Spanish law says a bull may live in the ring is drawing to a close, and the tragedy must have its preordained finale. El Cid walks to the barrier and his sword handler gives him the killing sword, with its special curved tip. Then something happens which I have never seen before in 100 fights. The people take out their white handkerchiefs and wave them, requesting that the president of the bullring pardon the bull. Borgoñés's nobility has been such that they ask that his life be spared and that he be put out to stud. El Cid looks to the president, but, for whatever reason—perhaps the bull is too damaged—he does not agree.

El Cid returns to Borgoñés for the momento de la verdad (moment of truth), the one moment when, if he kills properly, the matador cannot avoid the risk of death, no matter how good he is. It was at this moment that Bailador killed Joselito, the greatest matador who ever lived, in 1920. It was at this moment that Islero delivered the fatal wound to Manolete, the most famous and epic of matadors and heir to Joselito, in 1947. Greatness and skill are not a sufficient defence for the matador at the moment of truth.

Standing less than six feet from Borgoñés, El Cid uses the muleta on the floor to make the bull shift his feet until they are together, opening the great shoulder blades outwards. Then, with the sword in his right hand, he sights down the length of the blade at eye level, every muscle tense, standing on the tips of his toes. He drags the muleta in his left hand over the ground across his body to the right, Borgoñés moves to follow, and El Cid goes with his entire body over and between the horns, the sword slamming to the hilt between the shoulder blades. For a single moment, man and bull are one, indistinguishable in the evening light, and the outcome is unclear—as the headlines said of Manolete, "He killed dying and he died killing!" Then El Cid moves out of the arc of the horns to his left as Borgoñés continues his momentum to El Cid's right.

The sword is in the right place. The blade is not long enough to reach the heart, and when it strikes a lung the result is obvious as the bull bleeds from its mouth, whereas if it manages to penetrate the spine the bull drops as though poleaxed. This time it is in the aorta, and the bull wavers on its feet for a moment, before crumpling to the ground. The crowd are on their feet, stamping and cheering, but El Cid just stands and stares at the bull in grave silence, his face inscrutable. This was truly what Kenneth Tynan called in his 1955 book Bull Fever "the slow, sad fury of a perfect bullfight."

The crowd has its handkerchiefs out again, for El Cid this time, and he looks up. The president lays a piece of white cloth on the rail of his balcony. And then another. The crowd goes wild. El Cid has been awarded both of the ears of the bull for his brilliance. Then a blue piece of fabric joins them. The bull has been awarded a lap of honour. It is strange and fitting to see the corpse of the bull receive as much applause as the man, as it is dragged around the ring by a team of mules. At the end of the day, when El Cid has killed another bull and received one of its ears (neither of the other matadors has received anything), he is carried out of the Gate of the Prince at the front of the bullring on the shoulders of the crowd, the greatest honour Seville can bestow. A couple of weeks later he is named top matador of the Feria for that day's work. Borgoñés is named best bull.


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The bullfight is one of the most morally contentious of all legally sanctioned activities in the western world. There is a long history of argument against the bullfight, but the most notable feature of the modern form is that it takes the side of the bull rather than the man. Compare Pope Pius V's edict of 1567, which stated that activities like bullfighting endangered the souls of those involved and so were to be banned by every "Christian prince." The modern protest against bullfights—from the foundation of the Cádiz Society for the Protection of Plants and Animals in 1872, to Barcelona's famous ban on bullfighting in 2004, to British Labour MEP Robert Evans's January 2007 bill to ban bullfighting and withdraw subsidies from those who breed fighting bulls (which won the support of 207 out of the 785 MEPs)—has been concerned solely with the welfare of the bulls.

It is clear that the majority of people in Britain think bullfights unethical. But well over 90 per cent eat red meat, and a significant number also watch nature documentaries, usually shown in the Sunday early evening slot, also the traditional time of the bullfight. There is something ironic about British families sitting down to watch wildebeests eviscerated by lions on Big Cat Diary after a nice joint of roast beef while deploring their Spanish cousins when they are sitting down to watch a bullfight. After all, while slaughtering techniques have become more humane, most of the billion or so animals killed annually in Britain are still reared on factory farms.

But it is too easy to mock this hypocrisy. Bullfighting is most interesting because it does live on a borderline between right and wrong. More specifically, some fights, such as the one described above, are justified and some are not. Bullfighting inhabits a place where two conflicting moral influences overlap: one linked to aesthetics (which also justifies us in killing animals for meat, which we eat mainly for taste in Britain rather than out of medical necessity), the other inspired by sympathy, a utilitarian ethic and a non-religious sense of piety, all of them inducing us not to cause suffering in animals for our pleasure.


I have always been an animal lover. I grew up with cats, dogs and horses reading the novels of Gerald Durrell, Richard Adams and Gavin Maxwell, joined the WWF before I was ten and began as an undergraduate at Oxford as a biologist. So what persuaded me to go to my first bullfight, also at Seville, some ten years ago when I was 21? Well, a love of art, an admiration for courage and a recognition of mortality and the grim realities of our dealings with animals. (I should add that I have seen bullfights which have horrified me, and ones which have left me asking, in Byron's words, whether it is just that my "heart delights/In vengeance, gloating on another's pain.")

When I went to my first bullfight I had already killed animals and eaten them. I recognised that even the most loved of pets are disciplined and confined for our benefit and without their consent: horses are ridden, dogs are worked, cats kept in cramped apartments. The closest I have witnessed to any notion of equality between animal and man was during my time working with apes at the Language Research Centre of Georgia State University: the nature of the studies required that the apes be amenable to the research, which requires working in close physical proximity to the researchers, and moreover, a bonobo like the famous Kanzi has 20-inch biceps and muscle fibres four times as dense as a humans. The situation in the laboratories, shelters and forests of that habitat was a negotiation with a conscious and intelligent being not only holding all the cards, but holding them in very powerful hands.

But such equality is not the norm in human-animal relations. And this is reflected in bullfighting. As Ernest Hemingway puts it in his non-fictional introduction to the topic, Death in the Afternoon, "The bullfight is not a sport in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word, that is, it is not an equal contest or an attempt at an equal contest between a bull and a man. Rather it is tragedy, the death of the bull, which is played, more or less well, by the bull and the man involved, and in which there is danger for the man but certain death for the animal."

So perhaps bullfighting is "unsporting," in a narrow sense of the word. However, no one can seriously deny that a fair fight between animal and man would be grotesque and would deserve to be banned immediately. (Recent improvements in medical techniques mean that fewer matadors die from their wounds—in the pre-antibiotic era, the figure was one in 25. Yet the injury rate remains high, as I have witnessed on numerous occasions.)

One of the greatest disservices done to the cause of fair treatment of animals is the failure to distinguish between the species within the animal kingdom in theory when we so clearly do so in everyday practice. There is a natural chain: ants and chimpanzees are wildly different in their mental complexity and are treated accordingly. 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 renowned for its aggression. It would be an unfair comparison to say that its mind resembles that of the shark, for no shark shows the level of systematic aggression of an Iberian bull. Back in the bad old days, people would pit Iberian bulls against other wild animals: lions, tigers—and on one noted occasion, an elephant. No other animal stood a chance in these ghastly encounters (to repeat: I do not claim any sympathy for the raw, barbaric blood-sport predecessors of the corrida). There are also plenty of accounts of bulls escaping from transports on their way to the ring, and killing people willy-nilly in the streets or houses into which they have broken.

It has been argued that this aggression is a manifestation of fear, but this does not fit with my own observations. I have seen several Iberian bulls clearly manifest fear. These "cowardly" bulls (so-called by the afición) will not charge, give due warning before they finally do so by pawing the ground and bellowing, and spend most of their time in the ring trying to find the way out. To see one of them in a fight is a horrible thing, and to see the attempts of the matador and his cuadrilla to inspire wrath in the poor creature is to witness what one can only call a sin. These incidents do occur, despite the fact that bulls are "tested" at around two years old and divided into those deemed suitable for fighting or not. (The latter are raised for meat in the usual manner.) However it is not until a bull enters a ring that one can truly know their courage, hence some bullfights are still what I would deem "unjustified." In those, the matador has sunk to the level of asesino (matador translates as "killer," but this is a compliment as it means to kill within the rules and traditions; to kill well. To call him asesino, an assassin, is to claim that he fails in this on every level). Luckily, on some occasions I have seen the president of the ring bite the proverbial bullet and call for the steers to be sent in. The moment this herd of cattle enters the ring, the bull's head sinks and he wanders over to rejoin the herd, allowing himself to be led out with them. But this is rare, because the audience has paid to see six bulls fought, so a substitute bull must be provided, and at as much as £30,000 per bull, this is no mean decision.

It is, of course, economics that runs the bullfight and that has dictated the course of its history, as described in Adrian Shubert's 1999 study, Death and Money in the Afternoon. The corrida was formalised into 18th-century Spanish culture as a means for towns and various institutions, including the church, to raise money, and the great bullrings were the first amphitheatres built on this scale since the Romans—over a century before the British started to build their football stadiums. Matadors were the first sporting superstars, complete with agents, managers and promoters, and now a top matador can earn as much as £50,000 an afternoon, as well as the related fame.

As for the bull, I do not claim that it does not suffer, although we can tell from its behaviour, particularly under the picador's lance, that the adrenaline coursing through it must numb its pain to some extent. I know of no other breed of bull, let alone another species of mammal, that will charge again and again on to a lance, its only saviour being the crossbar. I would almost agree with Juanjo Urquillo, a vet at the largest Spanish bullring in Madrid, who said a few years ago, "The only time I get really upset is when the bull is handled badly by man… Man has a responsibility to the bull to fight it expertly. And in a good corrida the bull feels no pain."

It is also worth noting, in the no-man's-land between welfare and economics, that Borgoñés was at least four years old, as are all bulls that face matadors, and that he grew up in a herd on open fields. Considering that somewhere in the region of 37,000 bulls die each year in Spanish bullrings, there must be hundreds of thousands of Iberian cattle living in idyllic conditions across Spain paid for by the bullfighting industry. Compare that with how British beef cattle are kept and the fact that they are all slaughtered aged between one and two years old, and one wonders if that 15 minutes in the ring is not a worthwhile price for the life the bulls have led before. And, of course, the Iberian breed is not really usable for anything else, so to ban the bullfight would lead to the extinction of the breed.

This brings us to the heart of the matter: the question of animal rights. I do not believe animals have rights in the strict ethical sense of the word. If they did, they would have duties to uphold those rights for themselves, which is a risible notion. It would also follow that we would have a duty to prevent the lion from killing the wildebeest on Big Cat Diary, which would be an obscene act. However, even if one believes that attributing rights to animals is a nonsense, "it would not follow," to quote Roger Scruton's 1996 book, Animal Rights and Wrongs, "that we can treat them as we choose. It may still be the case… that certain ways of treating them are vicious and that there are only some ways of treating them that a good person would contemplate."

Now comes the key question as to whether the level of suffering inflicted on the bull in the ring is justified by the sheer aesthetic pleasure of the bullfight. And it is an aesthetic pleasure, for the bullfight is an art form. The pomp and ceremony, the rigid structure combined with the room for improvisation by an individual performer, the emotional appeal which is not merely the gaudy sparkle of circus spectacle, or an admiration of bravery, but something much more fundamental and tragic. The one element which distinguishes the bullfight from all other performance art is the singular risk to the performer, and the intrinsic requirement of the death of the animal. As Hemingway puts it in The Dangerous Summer: "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."

Whether or not that artistic quality does outweigh the moral question of the animals' suffering is something that each person must decide for themselves—as they must decide whether the taste of a steak justifies the death of a cow. But if we ignore the possibility that one does outweigh the other, we fall foul of the charge of self-deceit and incoherence in our dealings with animals.

El Cid will fight in Seville, alongside Julian Lopez, "El Juli," on 27th September as part of the celebrations of the feast of San Sebastian.

Discuss this piece at First Drafts, Prospect's blog