Catalonia bans bullfights: Political move or sign of the future?

The Las Arenas bullring in Barcelona has largely sat fallow over the past decade, sprouting to the point where it has been literally raised from the ground and placed on top of a new leisure center.

Catalonia wasn’t the first Spanish region to ban bull fighting; that distinction goes to the Canary Islands, which passed measures to outlaw the sport in 1991. But this week the region passed a contentious vote in its legislature that caused it to become the first mainland area of Spain to render the sport obsolete. A sport never too popular in Catalonia, bull rings throughout the region such as Las Arenas had foundered under reduced attendance and unfinished upkeep. Over the past few decades grasses have been allowed to take over those seats left empty by an apathetic Catalan public that had an ever-expanding world of diversions to which it could turn to pass its leisure time.

The sport has also long held but begrudging respect among the Catalan populace, for whom it is as much a sign of their Spanish overlords in Madrid that continue to refuse any recognition of Catalonia as an autonomous region. Consider it the Quebec of greater España, if you will, except with a longer and more tumultuous history. So the “national” sport of Spain in Catalona, unlike the continued prevalence of hockey in that most French of Canadian provinces, by extension has been viewed by many in the region with derision. Hemingway noted it in 1931 when he said, “Although bullfighting flourishes in Barcelona, it is on a fake basis because the public that attends goes as to a circus for excitement and entertainment.” Of course, the man who also thought that “auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports” returned the scorn in kind for the Catalan attitude toward the sport.

[pullquote]“Although bullfighting flourishes in Barcelona, it is on a fake basis because the public that attends goes as to a circus for excitement and entertainment.”  — Ernest Hemingway, 1931[/pullquote]

But still the Catalan public is as divided as its legislature. The vote went down largely along party lines, 68 yeas and 55 nays tempered by nine abstentions. The two main parties in Catalonia, the CiU (Convergence and Union) and PSC (Socialists Party), essentially split the vote with the former going for the measure and the latter going against it. Make no mistake, the regional ban on bull fights is a purely political maneuver at its base. The ramifications, however, go far beyond Spain.

In the wake of the Catalan legislature’s ruling, Italy’s tourism minister Michela Vittoria Brambilla called for a ban to races like the Palio di Siena. The twice-annual race around the Piazza del Campo in Siena, in which ten horses are run as representatives of various city wards on the sand-covered cobblestones of the medieval town square, has been held without fail in the city since 1656. Attached to the Corteo Storico pageant, the race in the old Tuscan city attracts crowds in the tens of thousands annually. A tradition rooted in far more than merely the running of the horses, the Palio di Siena serves as a release for the inter-ward feuds between the contrade, those long-standing local feuds that run deep through the various cities throughout Italy.

Run annually since 1656, the Palio di Siena is under attack for the risk of injury and death it presents to both jockey and steed...

As an amusing coincidence, how might you guess the Palio di Siena emerged in the seventeenth century? It was a response to the ban on bull fighting by Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando I de’ Medici across the region in 1590. So why would Brambilla wish to ban this race rooted in the fight against more barbaric forms of sport ritual such as the bullfight? Well, racing on cobblestones around the tight corners of the city’s central plaza inherently presents major dangers. Throw in the fact that riders can use their crops on both their own mount as well as the other horses in the field, and the risk of falling — and subsequently getting injured on the hard cobbles in the fall, or hitting a crowd barrier, or getting trampled by the others in the field — is omnipresent. Since 1970 fifty horses have died in the twice-annual spectacle. Riders, too, have been fatally injured during the past four decades. With the thought of safety in mind, Brambilla stated his argument thusly:

“Italy should promote abroad the image of being an animal friendly country. If Catalonia can ban an ancient tradition such as bullfighting, I believe it is the time for us to review festivals and events where animals are mistreated. Violence against animals damages Italy’s image.”

It is hardly an illogical stance, especially from someone tasked to promote his country in the most favorable light to attract tourist dollars within its borders. But at the same time, to also ignore the fact that it is the very race itself which attracts large crowds to this city as well as others which hold their own summer palios throughout Tuscany is to neglect one’s very history. To ban such a spectacle would be to toss on the scrap heap a vital piece of one’s past, present and future. The horses themselves are a vital part of the tradition, the key part… for in the Palio, it is the first horse across the line that wins the race. Rider need not remain on the bare back of the equine champion, the first horse over the line the victor even if it wins sans mount (scosso).

The need to keep events as safe as possible — for the athletes (both human and animal) as well as the spectators — is certainly important when we consider whether to ban or retain a particular sporting event. But when it comes to legislating sport, things rarely come down to simple calculations of safety. As we saw in Catalonia, the ban was as much a political ploy as it was a genuine call for the security of bulls in the region. Brambilla is also taking a bold stand against something even more deeply rooted within the society in question. Where do we draw the line between safety and tradition?

The ban on bullfights in Catalonia is unlikely to spread throughout the rest of the country; the Castillian culture still enjoys the corrida, as ancient venues in places like Ronda and Sevilla pull large crowds to their calendar of events every year. But if other locales around the globe start to pick up on the wider ramifications and precedent being set by the Catalans, like Brambilla has already started to do in Italy, the snowball effect could have far-reaching implications in the future for any sport which employs animals in its contests. Where it stops, one can only guess. When things are taken from their unique context and used as a rallying cry for the redress of a wider range of grievances, where does that breaking point between a logical ban on actions end and the over-regulation of sport begin?

If the Palio di Siena is too brutal, what of the Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown races in the wake of the recent deaths of horses such as Barbaro and Eight Belles? People were quick to rally against dog fighting in the wake of Michael Vick’s conviction several years ago; but when you really get down to it pushing a dog in the quest of obtaining Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is ultimately less fatal than a dog pit… but is it any less exploitative? And it is a short step from banning bullfights to banning rodeos. A noble desire to protect an animal is one thing, but when we’re likely going to take an animal that has been bred solely for the purpose of fighting over the years out of its natural element what is to become of its life?

We are left to wait and see what if any wider repercussions will stem from the Catalan ruling this week — whether this is an isolated incident which can be chalked up to a political play or the start of the landslide toward the slow abolition of sport involving animals. It was largely the de facto fate awaiting most bulls throughout Catalonia already as the sport fell into the abyss of unpopularity; but now, instead of even the faint chance of earning the applause of tens of thousands of fans in the ring, will be treated as so much other meat munching away its life slowly toward our dinner plates. Is that any more noble way to live a life?