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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

Dancing Towards Death: The Bullfighting Controversy

The centuries-old tradition of bullfighting continues to pose the moral question of keeping a tradition alive despite its subversion of animal ethics.
Spanish bullfighter Antonio Ferrara executes a “pase de pecho,” a common pass in which the bullfighter extends the muleta over the bull, from its horns to its tail. (Photo Credit: Muriel Feiner, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

On September 25th, 2011, the third and final act of the last bullfight in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia began. 

Clad in a suit of crimson silk, embellished with ornate gold beads and embroidery, the bullfighter, twenty-eight Catalan-born Serafin Marin, took his position in the arena. The denouement of the bullfight, the kill, was about to commence. After doffing his montera hat to the crowd while turning around in a full circle, he tossed the hat over his shoulder onto the ground, indicating he was dedicating the subsequent bull’s death to the crowd. 

Turning his attention to his opponent, the 570-pound bull named Dudalegre, Marin began circling the animal.

The bullfighter extended the crimson muleta, a red cloth draped over a two-foot-long stick, with his right hand, daring the bull to follow the cape. The animal charged, provoked by the movement of the fabric and Marin’s shouts.

In a flurry of gold sequins and crimson silk, Marin swerved, swiping the red cape over the bull’s head. The animal staggered, with the barbed darts planted during the previous act wobbling as they dangled from its shoulders. After two more passes, a roaring applause from the twenty thousand spectators in the audience flooded the stadium.

Once the time came for the kill, Marin held his sword close to his chest and parallel to the ground. In a swift jab, he thrusted the muleta towards the animal with his left hand and followed with a lunge of the sword in between the bull’s shoulder blades with his right. The beast lashed forward, but the bullfighter’s assistants now came from the sidelines to lure the bull away from Marin with their bright pink and yellow capes, allowing the victor to bask in the glory of the deafening cheers.

Bullfighting would become illegal in Catalonia on January 1st, 2012 after a narrow majority voted for its ban in the Catalan Parliament in July 2010. There has not been a single bullfight in Catalonia since the ban, despite the overturning of this ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court in 2016.

The tradition of Spanish-style bullfighting was first spread by Spaniards to Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, and Mexico in the 16th century. It later developed in France in the 1800s to gratify Napoleon III’s wife, who was notably from Spain. In a typical bullfight, bullfighters enter a bullring to taunt and attack a bull released into the arena. The spectacle usually occurs over a series of three acts. 

In the first, the banderilleros, who are the assistants on foot, lure the released bull to either side of the bullring and perform basic passes with large colorful capes. The act ends with the picadors, who are the assistants on horseback with pike poles, as they pierce the bull’s neck to keep its head low for when the matador, who is the main performer, strikes the bull in the final act to kill it. 

In the second act, the banderilleros plant three pairs of banderillas, which are colorfully decorated barbed darts, into the middle of the animal’s shoulders and neck. Like the picadors, the banderillos aim to weaken the bull’s neck to prepare for the matador’s kill in the next act.

The third and final act is the anticipated standoff between the matador and bull. The previous acts have considerably debilitated the animal, and the matador now uses a smaller red muleta for capework. Before killing the bull, some matadors make a distinct demonstration to show their complete mastery of the animal, among which include kneeling in front of the animal or kissing the animal’s head. Carlos Arruza, one of the most eminent bullfighters in the twentieth century, would pretend to call the bull on the phone while leaning his elbow on the animal.

In the final act of a bullfight in the Mexican city of Aguascalientes, a bull follows the movement of the muleta as banderillas dangle from its body. (Photo Credit: © Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons)

To give the bull a swift death, the matador must execute the kill in two swift lunges. The first of which is a lunge of the muleta forward with the left hand to prompt the bull to lower its head and charge towards its provoker. The second is a jab of the sword with the right hand into the area between the animal’s shoulders to pierce diagonally into the aorta, quickly ending the bull’s life. To ensure the bull’s death, another bullfighter, the puntillo, uses a small dagger, a puntilla, to stab behind the animal’s head. A matador who gives an excellent performance will circle the ring with the banderilleros and receive an ear, two ears, or even both ears and the tail of the bull. These serve as tokens of general approval of the fight. If the bull displays extreme bravery, the audience may ask for the animal to be dragged by a team of horses around the arena in a victory lap, or even for the bull’s life to be spared. The latter, however, occurs extremely rarely.

After the fight ends, the stadium often sells the bull’s meat to the audience. Once the arena is raked over, the next bull is brought out to meet a similar fate.

In recent years, the spectacle has grown significantly controversial as animal rights activists advocate for the eradication of the blood sport and bullfighting enthusiasts hail the tradition as an intrinsic part of their culture. While the practice has been prohibited in several countries, including Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Denmark, Italy and the United Kingdom, it remains legal in Spain, France, Portugal, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador.

Bullfighting fans, known as aficionados, often cite the long-standing history of bullfighting in support of this existence. Since the practice has been ingrained for centuries in Hispanic culture, it represents an integral part of the region and its citizens. In a 2013 law passed by the Spanish Congress, bullfighting was declared “cultural heritage,” as well as a form of art. 

Moreover, bullfights are exhibitions of courage, as the bullfighter seeks to demonstrate skill and mastery of the bull while challenging the bull to display its own valor. To signify more of their own bravery, for instance, matadors may choose to perform passes in the center of the bullring since that area is the furthest away from the exits and from the bullfighters’ assistants on the sidelines. The audience also shouts “olé” whenever the matador executes particularly spectacular passes. To enjoyers of the spectacle, bullfighters are heroes participating in a test of merit and gallantry.

Aficionados also contend that the sheer thrill and enjoyment while watching a battle between man and beast is remarkably enticing, as the performers make sure to give a good show, whether that entails performing passes dangerously close to the animal or in the center of the ring. In fact, the goal of giving an unforgettable show is one of the main reasons the muleta used in the third act is that captivating shade of crimson red. Since bulls are colorblind, the cape’s red color does not invoke the bull to charge (it is the cape’s movement alone that provokes the bull), but instead masks any blood spilled during the spectacle and makes for a more vivid performance. 

The connection between the artistic view of bullfighting is perhaps most apparent when looking at celebrations of the spectacle in works of art or literature. Writer Ernest Hemingway, for instance, was one of the most famed aficionados, having written vigorously about the excitement and artistry of bullfighting. “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor,” Hemingway writes. His Death in the Afternoon is considered the quintessential work of nonfiction about bullfighting, as it highlighted the nobility of both the bullfighter and bull in the dance towards death in the ring.

Opponents of bullfighting, however, raise concerns about its use of animal cruelty for the sake of entertainment. As sentient beings, bulls experience pain and fear when subjected to a non-consensual fight to the death, as found in a 2021 study published in MDPI. Furthermore, not only is the bull both physically and psychologically weakened in the first two acts of the bullfight, but the animal’s suffering begins before the start of the show as well.

Naturally, bulls tend to stay away from humans but will retaliate if provoked. To create a more exciting performance, bulls are selectively bred to bear more aggressive traits, exemplifying how even before the calves are born, humans interfere with their lives for their own benefit. Then, in the hours prior to entering the stadium, bulls are often beaten in their kidneys, locked in a dark pen connected to the open arena, given animal tranquilizers and laxatives, forced to have their horns shaved without anesthesia to reduce their ability to properly attack, and exposed to petroleum being rubbed in its eyes, causing the bull to become disorientated and struggle to see clearly.

Subsequently, when the final act draws to a close, bulls frequently suffer a long, agonizing death. The matador should strike the sword into the animal’s aorta to almost instantly kill it; however, this is rarely the case. Usually, the bullfighter misses and pierces the bull’s lungs, which can cause the bull to spew blood out of its nose and mouth, and then stabs the animal repeatedly until it collapses and severs its spinal cord, paralyzing the animal. 

The bull’s suffering may continue after the third act as well. If the matador performed well, one or two of its ears, or both its ears and tail are cut off and presented to the bullfighter, even if the bull is still alive. Afterwards, the bull may still be conscious if dragged by horses or mules in a lap around the arena to honor its display of bravery during the fight. If the bull is still alive, it will finally be killed.

Bullfighting often polarizes countries in which it is still in practice. Considered art by some but animal cruelty by others, the spectacle remains in a gray sector of ethics. In recent years, however, support for the sport has been waning, with less than 2% of the population in Spain having attended a bullfight in the 2021-2022 season, as reported by the The Ministry of Culture and Sports. 

This serves as an indication of the general public’s view on bullfighting. The abuse of animals for entertainment becomes less appealing as we learn to understand and empathize with the living beings around us. Moreover, the long history of the tradition may very well be indicative of the unnecessarily outdated and violent aspects of the practice. As we enter new eras of advancement, it may be time to part with vicious customs that endanger and kill animals.

The war against bullfighting rages on, so, as of now, the dance of death in the ring continues.

“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor,” Hemingway writes. His Death in the Afternoon is considered the quintessential bullfighting novel, as it highlighted the nobility of both the bullfighter and bull in the dance towards death in the ring.

About the Contributor
Katherine Han, Staff Reporter
Katherine Han is a Copy Chief for ‘The Science Survey.’ She enjoys how journalistic writing serves as a channel of knowledge and medium for experimentation and expression. Katherine finds photojournalism to be fascinating, as it enriches articles by giving context to the piece of writing, helping readers to visualize the events, and making the article’s message more tangible to grasp. Moreover, Katherine is passionate about creative endeavors, especially through visual arts, creating works in her free time. She is a current anchor for Wolverine TV as well as the Editor-in-Chief of the school’s physical science magazine Reactions. Outside of school, she works as a dental assistant, learning about the wonders of medicine and the dedication of dentists to their fields. She is interested in pursuing the field of medicine, and she hopes to bridge her interests in the sciences and humanities in college.