Spanish bullfighting under fire

MADRID, Spain — When people think of bullfighting, they think Spain.

But that might change if the current trend of events continues.

While bullfighting is strongly associated with Spain, the cultural tradition is changing.

Catalonia, where only one bullring has been active, outlawed bullfighting in July, provoking widespread debate about the country’s centuries-old tradition.

Three years earlier, a major Spanish broadcaster, RTVE, stopped live coverage of bullfights. And in 1991, the Canary Islands became the first Spanish Autonomous Community to ban bullfighting.

The landmark Catalonia vote was seen in very different ways: Animal rights organizations saw it as a tremendous success but bullfighting advocates viewed the ban as merely an attempt by nationalist-minded Catalans to strut their political differences.

To learn more about this hot topic, GlobalPost sat down with Sharon Nunez, founder of the European animal rights organization “Igualdad Animal,” to discuss the future of bullfighting in Spain.

GP: Why did Catalonia become the first mainland Spanish region to ban bullfighting?

Nunez: I’d say there are two reasons. First, there’s a strong anti-Spain movement in Catalonia. Bullfighting is associated with Spain and Spanish culture. Second, there’s more sensitivity towards bullfighting, more caring about bullfighting and animal suffering in Catalonia because it is a region very much influenced by a European mentality.

How big is the bullfighting industry in Spain?

Aside from what we see in the bullfighting rings, there’s the special breeding of the bulls, restaurants that offer bull meat, also the running of the bulls on the streets in Spanish cities and villages. There’s also “becerradas,” which is basically torturing less than 1-year-old calves until they are dead in Spanish villages. It’s a big industry because practically every village of Spain has some sort of entertainment based on bulls and other animals. Bullfighting industry is also highly subsidized by the government, so it’s bigger than it should be.

Bullfighting is a centuries-old tradition and provides full-time jobs and part-time jobs, so why ban it?

Culture and tradition don’t justify animal suffering. Animals suffer not only during the bullfight, but also during the transport. They are frightened, bleed and sometimes vomit blood. If we are talking about human rights, no one would justify torture in the name of culture. On the other hand, surveys such as the 2006 Gallup Poll show that more than 70 percent of Spanish people have no interest in bullfighting. What we are seeing also is that young people tend not to support bullfighting. So I think eventually the tradition will die out, but we want to see it end as soon as possible. The more we make the public aware of the animal suffering, the sooner it will be abolished. I believe that [the ban] in Catalonia will have a domino effect in the rest of Spain in the next couple of years.

Bullfighting is a vital part of the tourist industry. Will a bullfighting ban affect tourism?

First of all, even if it does, it should still be banned. I think Spain should move towards an image that doesn’t support cruelty and suffering of animals. Spain should promote another image: tourism that’s not based on suffering, blood and death. In fact, most tourists are completely misguided about bullfighting. They think it’s a duet between the bull and the matador. We have images of tourists coming out of the bullfighting ring, crying and absolutely shocked because of what they saw. It’s something that’s very difficult to watch and understand if one hasn’t grown up seeing it. Most of the people in Spain who support bullfighting have seen bullfighting all their lives, and that’s how they become unaware of the animal suffering.

What is the current situation of bullfighting in Madrid? Is anti-bullfighting active? Are there possibilities that the administration will ban the tradition any time soon?

Bullfighting is popular here in Madrid, and April to June is the busiest season. And the further south you go, the stronger it gets. Note that popular doesn’t mean a big part of the population supports bullfighting; it just means the bullfighting rings are usually full, whereas in Catalonia bullfighting rings were never full. There are a lot of bullfighting rings in Madrid, the most famous one being Las Ventas. It’s also the most famous in the world. A few others are located in the city center, but keep in mind that villages all around Madrid have bullrings to entertain the villagers. There are also mobile bullrings in the summer, when villagers will bring bullrings to other villages to help celebrate their fiestas when those villages don’t have their own bullfighting rings.

Is the anti-bullfighting movement active in Madrid? Do you think a bullfighting ban is possible in the near future?

Yes. The anti-bullfighting movement that has been active in Catalonia for five to 10 years is spreading to the rest of Spain. So it’s certainly growing here, but I don’t think the government will initiate the ban. In Spain, if you collect certain amount of signatures, you can ask the parliament for a law, or at least ask for the parliament to debate it, which was how Catalonia managed to abolish bullfighting. More than 180,000 people in Catalonia signed the petition that was delivered to parliament.

For more information, go to Igualdad Animal’s website at