This month I took the intercity train from Barcelona to the rural town of Tordesillas to report on the residents’ annual tradition — stabbing a bull to death with 8-foot-long steel-tipped spears.
I tried hard not to pass judgement on the Toro de la Vega tournament straight away. Coming from the Cotswolds — home to the World Shin-kicking Championships — I understand how a centuries-old tradition that seems entirely bizarre to an outsider can bring a community together.
It’s hard to make further comparisons of course — one is an endearing sport in which farmers kick seven shades out of one another’s shins, the other involves the mutilation of a creature that feels pain.
On this point, I’ve heard supporters of bullfighting — or “aficionados” — make the case that these bulls live better lives than animals subjected to the horrors of industrial farms. That they spend years frolicking happily through sunny Spanish paddocks, before enduring a comparatively brief period of confusion and agony. The difference, I would posit, is that a dairy cow doesn’t draw spectators who will on her ill-treatment.
Silvia Barquero, president of Spain’s animal welfare party PACMA, puts it more strongly: “It’s evil to think just because someone lives a happy life that they should die like that.”
That morning, I stood on the south bank of the River Duero and watched several men stretch and sprint down the bridge, preparing for the running of the bull. Thousands had now gathered to witness the spectacle, as well as hundreds of screaming protesters. For the last decade, animal rights activists have come to Tordesillas to condemn Toro de la Vega. This year heavy security including police helicopters were in force, charged with preventing a repeat of the violence in 2014 that saw several protesters and journalists hospitalized.
A local pensioner, Alejandro, told me he was bewildered when the activists first started turning up.
“We have been doing this for centuries,” he told me. “And now they want to stop this. They kill bulls in the arena, so why can’t we have our fun?”
Horsemen armed with spears filed across the bridge and passed the protesters, now in a frenzy, yelling “murderer” and “national disgrace.” Taunting locals brandished Spanish flags and told them to go home — one man simulated the sounds of a dying bull and two more wandered through the crowd dressed in novelty cow costumes.
The sound of a fire cracker signalled the bull’s release. Its name Rompesuelas or “Sole-breaker” made reference to the pounding footwear took as residents chased it through the streets, some daring to run just yards in front of its horns. Rompesuelas thundered across the bridge and into the “Field of Honor,” where armed men on foot and horseback thrust spear into its flanks.
Protesters clamored around one activist who had bolted himself by the neck to a sign post with a U-lock, just yards from where the bull had cut its path. A horseman returned from the field and aggressively cleared a path through the crowd as firemen freed the protester with bolt cutters.
As with the proportion of Americans who believe there should be stricter gun laws in the United States, the number of Spaniards who do not support bullfighting hold the majority. When it comes to legislating against tauromachia, Spanish politicians find themselves treading on similarly sacred ground.
"It’s unthinkable,” Carlos Nuñez, President of Spain’s bull breeding union, said of a ban on bullfighting. “The symbol of Spain both at home and abroad is the bull and without bullfights, it would not exist."
Bullfighting has endured condemnation from powerful sources. By pain of excommunication, Pope Pius V prohibited the practice with a 1567 papal bull entitled “Super prohibitione agitationis Taurorum & Ferarum (An injunction forbidding bullfights and similar sports with wild animals).”
Known for the burning of heretics and the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I, Pope Pius V was not an early animal rights advocate — the bull was created for the “welfare of the Lord’s flock.”
According to Raffael Nicolas Fasel, a PhD in Law candidate at the University of Cambridge who studied the document while attending Yale Law School, the papal bull may still be valid, as sources indicate that later popes removed the excommunication sanction.
“Regardless of whether or not the bull is still legally valid today, I think that invoking the bull can be quite powerful — at least morally and rhetorically,” he told me. “It shows that already in the Middle Ages, bullfighting and similar events with wild animals were considered to be brutal and ignoble.”
Following the withdrawal of public funds for events involving bulls in some municipalities in Spain earlier this year, some international media questioned if the slow death of bullfighting had begun. However, both history and the continued existence of Toro de la Vega show us how resilient this national tradition is. In the face of an overwhelming lack of support from most Spaniards — and disdain from activists and “aficionados” alike — a doomed bull is likely to run the gauntlet in Tordesillas next September.