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Elephantgate and Spain's ‘elephant in the room’

Por: | 20 de abril de 2012

Don Juan Carlos with a dead trophy elephant

This week King Don Juan Carlos made an ‘unprecedented’ public apology for his Botswana hunting trip following outrage at such extravagance during Spain’s harsh era of austerity.  He also infuriated a legion of animal lovers following claims he not only killed an endangered African elephant but did so while president of Spain’s World Wildlife Fund (WWF).  

But if the 74-year-old-king, who has held the WWF role since 1968, thought his apology: ‘I'm very sorry, I made a mistake. It won't happen again.’ would be the end of the matter he was mistaken.  By the time he said this on Wednesday, an online petition calling for his WWF resignation had reached 85,000 signatures.  And his words did little to placate WWF supporters when it was further revealed that this was not a one off error of judgement.  Media reports claimed over the years he has gunned down everything from leopards and endangered European bison to a defenseless Russian zoo bear spiked with vodka.  

The CEO of the WWF Dutch office Johan van den Gronden put the position simply: ‘Outrageous! If this man were an honorary chairman of the Dutch WWF, and if I had the authority to do so, I would have expelled him from his duties today.’  However, the WWF in Spain has refrained from taking the swift action many of its members had called for.  Its response has been to request an ‘interview’ with the King and to put the scrapping of his honorary position to a member vote. 

But even if the vote leads to the groundbreaking decision to remove the honorary post, the question is how has the King remained head honcho at the WWF for so long? 

WWF Spain, it seems has turned a blind eye to the actions of its honorary president just as the rest of Spain and Europe turns a blind eye to a culture of animal cruelty that finds support at every level of Spanish society - from its royals, celebrities and politicians to the man-on-the-street.  I even discovered that the ‘John Lewis’ of Spain, El Corte Ingles, organises trips just like the King’s to shoot elephants in Botswana.

Animal Equality protest outside Hospital de San José de Madrid

A culture of cruelty

Anyone who has visited and lived in Spain cannot help but fall in love with the place and its wonderful vibrancy.  And of course, many people in Spain have a deep compassion and respect for animals and in no way support blood sports.  But even lovers of Spain cannot brush the ‘elephant in the room’ as it were under the carpet and ignore the scandal of blood fiestas.

Animal rights group, Animal Equality suggests that over 40,000 bulls are tortured each year at bull fighting festivals.  The powerful bullfighting lobby defends the practice as a sacrosanct ‘cultural right’.  And the tourists and Spaniards, who shamefully participate as audiences in this sadistic spectacle, are collectively responsible.

The bullfight is simply an evolved form of the Roman amphitheatre where gladiators were pitched against wild beasts.  The text books tell us how barbarous it was 2000 years ago, so surely it beggars belief that it still goes on in the 21st century. 

And bullfighting is just part of the story.  It is claimed there are thousands of other fiestas that include the torture of animals across the country.  Some feature ritual donkey bashing like the Pero Palo festival in Extremadura, where annually a donkey is beaten viciously by a baying mob.  In the Becerradas in El Escorial calves are tortured to exhaustion by local lads.  On collapse they are stabbed and their ears and tails are hacked off as they writhe in agony, then the still living butchered bodies are dragged out of the ring by their horns. Countless other fiestas see lambs mutilated and bulls speared and crudely castrated live without sedation. 

Becerradas de El Escorial

At state and EU level this abuse is supported and encouraged, often using EU money paid by tax payers in countries that deplore such cruelty. The Daily Mail reported in 2010 that the EU’s annual subsidy to the industry totalled £37 million and annually a further £4.3 billion in agricultural support and £1.1 billion from the EU’s Rural Development Programme, had partly been used for animal sacrifice and to renovate bullrings.  

Celebrities such as Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have made their name starring in films such as Matador (1986), Jamon Jamon (1992) and The Passion Within (2007) that glamorise bullfighting.  Pedro Almodavar was accused of animal cruelty and breaking the law when four bulls were slaughtered in bullfighting scenes in his film Talk to Her (2002). 

The future

However, the tide could be turning at last.  Even before this scandal broke some animal rights groups such as Animal Equality had exposed terrible instances of hidden animal cruelty in Spain which has led to a number of arrests.  In one example the organisation revealed through undercover footage the horrific mutilation of live pigs by farmhands wielding swords.  Miguel Rodriguez Castaño at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Madrid, said it was the most horrible treatment of animals he’d seen his career.  

Last year Catalonia banned bullfights in the autonomous region; and according to Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe (FAACE) some significant victories have been won such as prohibiting the tossing of a live goat from the bell tower in the town of Manganeses de la Polvorosa in Zamora.  And the economic situation in Spain could also be playing a role; El Escorial town hall said to me that they were not sure the Becerradas would be take place this year due to budgetary reasons. 

What now though?  Will a new generation of Spaniards mobilised by global social media networks drive change and help wean Spain off its gory entertainments?  Or, as we gear up to fiesta season will the recent furore be forgotten and the bullfights, blood fiestas and day-to-day abuse of farm animals continue as before? 

As Laura Gough of Animal Equality says: ‘The animal rights movement in Spain is increasing in size, and awareness about the suffering of animals is commonplace. But we clearly have a long way to go and must continue to aim for a better society for animals.’




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Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

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Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

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