CAS International (Comité Anti Stierenvechten) is de grootste organisatie ter wereld die zich exclusief richt op het bestrijden van het stierenvechten en wrede fiestas ('dorpsfeesten') waarbij stieren en andere dieren worden misbruikt. Samen met onze zusterorganisaties willen wij zo snel mogelijk een einde maken aan deze dierenmishandeling.
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The suffering of 'bullfighting' bulls
An ethologist’s perspective
In this article I will deal with the subject of the suffering of bulls in bullfighting. This is an article of scientific opinion, not of empirical science, but it is based on my scientific background as a zoologist specialising in animal behaviour (ethologist), as well as the fact that I have myself witnessed and recorded all the main types of bullfighting events in the world, which I have been visiting during the last two years with the intention of studying them in detail.
I will try to answer several questions. Firstly, whether bulls and cows suffer in bullfights and associated activities; secondly, whether I know any bullfighting style where bulls do not suffer; and thirdly whether we can say that some acts within bullfighting do not produce suffering.
Suffering and pain are biological traits that have been evolving in animals for hundreds of millions of years and they have been spread all over the animal kingdom by natural selection. This is because they serve a fundamental function for survival : informing the animal about what it needs to avoid. Pain, in particular, informs an animal which specific stimuli it needs to avoid (for example, fire). For this purpose the animal has pain receptors and a memory that allows it to remember what caused the pain. Suffering has the same function, but instead of informing the animal about a stimulus to avoid, it informs it about a situation to avoid. Therefore, to experience suffering the animal needs an awareness of its environment, the ability to develop moods that coordinate a behavioural response, and the capacity to change adverse situations or avoid them. No scientist would doubt that all these characteristics are present in all mammals, due to their relative big brains and complex behaviour.
From a biological, zoological and evolutionary point of view we can be certain that the immense majority of animal species on Earth today, and certainly all mammals, have the capacity to suffer. We have at least the confirmation that at one of them, the human species, can verbally testify its own experiences and describe them indeed as suffering — or in other words, something adverse they do not want to experience again — and which negatively alters their moods.
The fact that we can hear from humans their accounts of suffering and pain allows us to correlate such experiences with factors we can observe in their physiology and behaviour. Once we establish the appropriate correlations, we can then easily look for the same ‘clues’ (o ‘indicators’) in other species to identify ‘when’ they are suffering. Specific neurological or endocrine indicators are commonly used by biologists and veterinarians, while facial expressions, body language and behaviour are used by ethologists.
Therefore, one can then assess whether bulls suffer in bullfights, by looking at their behaviour alone.
As far as the definition of bullfighting is concerned we can already say that of course bullfighting is bound to produce suffering, since it is commonly defined as “any activity where cattle are stressed, exhausted, injured and/or killed for entertainment, celebration or sport”. Stress, exhaustion, injuries and death are all causes of suffering and all mammals try to avoid them if they can.
However, the point here is to see if there is enough variation across the different types of bullfighting activities so we may find that there may not always be suffering involved. Bullfighting events can be divided into ‘bullfights’ and popular ‘fiestas’. The first ones happen in bullrings where bulls (or cows) and specially trained people engage one another. The second occurs in streets or in open fields and the bulls or cows engage members of the
general public, who have not been specially trained for the occasion. As far as bullfighting proper is concerned, there are four distinctive styles: the “Spanish style”, the “Portuguese style” and two French styles, the “Course Camarguaise” and the “Course Landaise”. Not all styles involve the killing of the bull - this occurs only in the Spanish and Portuguese styles, (although in Portugal the killing does not happen in public). The bull is not injured on purpose in all styles, only in Spanish and Portuguese styles, but in all styles of bullfighting the bull is stressed and exhausted.
As far as suffering by stress is concerned, which is already universally recognised as a real animal welfare problem (and human too, of course), this can be clearly seen in the behaviour of bulls and cows in all bullfighting activities, from ‘fiestas’ which involve ‘vaquillas’ or ‘encierros’, to classical Spanish bullfights. For example, in all bullfights of the type Course Landside, the cow (typically used in this style of bullfighting instead bulls) is tied in the bullring by a rope and repeatedly pulled and teased to charge. The body language of the cow is clear. Not only does it move its head showing that it does not want to go where the bullfighters pull it , but it repeatedly runs towards the door from which it entered the ring, in order to flee and avoid the ‘adverse’ situation. It is not surprising the cow does not want to be pulled, since at the end of that rope it will be teased repeatedly and eventually stabbed with a pointed stick that will naturally produce pain. When because of this the cow then runs in fear towards the door (clearly visible in this style of bullfighting), the bullfighters jump acrobatically in its path (or dodge it with established postures), which is the purpose of the “show”.
The pain of pulling on the rope, sometimes violently as I have myself recorded in video, turning the cow’s head with the potential of neck injuries, and the repeated stabbing of the pointed stick, is the adverse situation the cow is trying to avoid, especially if it has been used before for similar events. The fact that this takes place continuously, without giving the cow much of a break, turns what it would be a simple negative experience into a very stressful situation, especially because of the rope the cow is unable to flee the negative experience despite repeated attempts. In addition to this, the cow remembers what happened to it last time, and the anxiety caused by the anticipation of what is going to happen next plays a further role in increasing its feeling of suffering. In fact, this spectacle could not work without the rope, because the cow would never collaborate after having experienced the situation once (because natural selection has provided it with a memory so to avoid situations that cause suffering).
Like in the Course Landaise, in certain ‘fiestas’, such as the “bous ensogats” (which could be translated as “roped bulls” and take place in the regions of Valencia and Catalonia), ropes tied to the cattle horns are also used, but in these cases the suffering due to stress is even more intense, because there is more people provoking the animals and the events last longer. In the case of the fiesta called bulls ‘embolados’ (translated as ‘balled bulls), balls on fire placed on the bull’s horns add a component of fear and suffering to those already present caused by the ropes and the provocation of people, because, as everyone knows, mammals respond instinctively fleeing from fire (and they do it even faster if they have been burnt in the past, which is not unusual in the case of cattle that has been marked with red hot iron in the farm where it was bred).
The case of suffering for exhaustion is also basic in all bullfighting activities. This can be clearly seen in ‘fiestas’ such as ‘vaquillas’ or ‘encierros’ (running of the bulls), where the animals are forced to run without break, but another good example can be seen in the bullrings where Course Camarguaise is performed. In this style the bull is constantly teased by “runners” who use a hand-held metal instrument to try to cut strings tied between its horns, accumulating points when they do so in what is basically a competition between the men. This takes place continuously whilst the bull runs after each runner without stopping. After a while one can see the facial expression of the bull with the tongue out and lifting its head less and less, all clear indicators of exhaustion caused by the continuous running. Bovines in general do not have much physical stamina due to their heavy weight, which explains why their natural predators, as for example wolves, base their hunting on exhausting them. In fact, the runners count on that exhaustion to be able to get close enough to the bull to pull the string between its horns. Obviously the bull does not wan to be exhausted and tries to flee at the least opportunity, but the circular bullring does not leave it any option, and it has no choice other than to charge towards those that provoke it.
Often one can see bulls and cows in these situations producing calls and vocalizations. Many animals that suffer do not express their suffering in a clear way we can understand, since the expression of suffering only has a major biological function when we are talking about social species, where the suffering of one individual can be communicated to others, allowing them to learn which situation to avoid without needing to suffer the experience themselves. In the case of primates, facial expressions inform others about suffering since most primates are social. In the case of the human primate, crying is another good example. Bovines, the group of mammals cattle belong to, live in herds, and therefore do have a social life, although perhaps not as complex as in primates. Anyone who has seen bulls in the field can realise that they develop relationships among themselves (they recognise each other, play, fight, avoid each other, look for one another, etc.), which means that they are not simply eating together in the same place. Therefore, you would expect that there will be communication between bulls and cows about bad experiences too, and in this case this takes mainly the form of vocalizations. Bulls vocalising in bullfighting events do not ‘complain’ without reason, but they indeed are calling other bulls or cows letting them know that something bad is happening there. These calls may take the form of ‘calling for help’, or simply ‘warning about danger’, and only detailed studies can fine tune their precise meaning, but there is no doubt that they refer to adverse situations, and therefore they show us the existence of suffering (in the same way that hearing anyone crying or shouting in panic show us the same).
Stress and exhaustion are not just causes of suffering in bullfighting events where the bulls or cows are not injured on purpose, but they are also key elements in the Spanish and Portuguese bullfights, where they are indeed injured and killed. For instance, in Portuguese bullfights, in which the main bullfighter rides a horse, the horse only charges two or three times and is immediately replaced by a ‘fresh’ one (each bullfighter coming to the event with several horses), which means that the bull is getting tired while the horse is not. It happens similarly in Spanish bullfight on horse in which the bull is killed in public by the rider, called ‘rejoneos’. This exhaustion is necessary because in the third act of the Portuguese style bullfights a group of eight bullfighters on foot called “forcados” try to immobilise the bull simply by using their hands, which would not be possible if the bull was not already totally exhausted both for the continuing chasing of the horses and for the lost of blood caused by the numerous ‘banderilhas’ that the riding bullfighter has already stabbed on it.
Besides, although one can say that the bulls are deliberately exhausted at the arena of the bullring, they came already stressed when they first step on that arena. Independently of the rumours often claimed by the bullfighting critics about various kinds of abuses the bulls receive before the bullfight (which they might have never happened, happened in the past but not anymore for being now illegal, or still happen in some cases) my experience of seeing bulls during normal transport or in the areas where they wait before they are forced one by one into the arena, made me conclude they are already stressed. This is not surprising, especially if we are talking about bulls that lived in a situation of relative freedom of movement in the fields without too much human contact, which suddenly are forced to go through a series of situations totally new to them, with lots of people around, and which radically restrict their freedom.
Sometimes, the bull is tied by its horns to the ceiling of the lorry and transported this way over a long distance to the bullring. In this situation, and during quite a long time, the bull will not be able to move much, not even to scratch itself if it needs to, and besides of these physical restrains the high temperatures that can be reached inside such lorries in a sunny day should be added as stressors. Anyone that has seen bulls in the field can remember that often they are resting on the shade, which suggests that they are sensible to high temperatures and they tray to avoid them if they can. If they cannot avoid them, and in addition their movement is restrained while placed inside a closed ‘cell’, which in itself moves unwarrantedly, this may be a cause of stress. In the case of Course Landaise or Camarguaise, this situation may occur twice, before and after the event, and sometimes several times during the life of the bull, adding the anxiety of the anticipation of what is going to happen to the factors that contribute to the animal’s stress, since such animals have good memory, characteristic not only of most mammals but also of those that live in herds (because they need to remember who is who in the herd).
Regarding the ’cells’ where the bulls are placed in waiting to enter the arena, often one can see the animals behaving as a herd behaves when there is danger around. If they are still together (they are separated in the end) they get close to each other and cover their backs with one another, looking in all directions, and with their eyes fixed on the possible source of danger if they can identify them (which often they cannot, generating more anxiety). Bulls that are transported and taken to a bullring will be in this constant state of alert, not being able to figure out what is going on, and therefore not knowing which the best thing to do is. Pain will also be used to move them around, in the form of sharp pointed spears which are stabbed on their bodies if they do not respond to verbal instructions, which will, of course, cause them more stress. It is not surprising that when they enter the arena without their herd companions (or breeder with whom perhaps they have develop a relatively friendly relationship), they appear brave and excited, since this would be the normal reaction of an animal that is already stressed, and suddenly faces an arena with lots of people shouting all around, and nothing to be used as protection.
Already in the arena, especially when bullfighters start to provoke the bulls with their capes or verbally, and, in the case of the Spanish and Portuguese style, injure them with weapons such as the puya (Spanish style) or the banderillas (both styles), the bull’s behaviour takes one of two forms: either try to flee the adverse situation or try to confront it if there does not seem to be a way out. The later is the most common.
Bullrings are in fact ‘rings’ so it becomes impossible for the bull to find a corner where it can protect itself against the attacks. They are also circular so the bull, after a couple of rounds, cannot identify any longer where the entrance is and therefore cannot try to escape through it. However, sometimes the bulls do try to jump the fence in desperation, sometimes with success, as I have seen and recorded several times in French style bullfights (which may take place in bullrings where the fence may be a bit shorter than the ones in Spain). In these cases one can see how is quite difficult to ‘convince’ the cow or bull to return to the arena (which proves that they indeed realise that in the arena is where the adverse situation they want to avoid is), and they only return when forced by pain (in the Camargue metal tridents respectively stabbed on the flanks of the bulls are used for this purpose).
Because the design of the bullrings, the most common response to attack would be to turn towards the attacker and to try to push him away with its horns. This is a behaviour that can be seen in many herbivores when they have been hunted by natural predators or humans. For instance, deer hunted by hunters that use packs of hounds, as in the case of the now banned practice in England of stag-hunting, behave by fleeing for hours, but when they are exhausted and cannot run anymore (often close to rivers attempting to refresh themselves due to hyperthermia), stags then turn to the hounds and try to push them away with their antlers. This is called ‘stag at bay’, and is the time when the human hunter approaches and shoots the stag. The bulls in bullfights respond, therefore, as if they have no choice other than to charge, since all escape routes are cut off and camouflaged, and the bull is injured which triggers this ‘last resource’ behaviour. Its exhaustion does not allow it to chose the fleeing option, and the pain awakes its defence instinct, in the same way that the bites of hounds (or wolves) awake this behaviour in the stag that has already being caught by them. Therefore, the behaviour of the bull is consistent with what would be a ‘bull at bay’, which explains its charging.
In other words, the charging of the bull should not be interpreted as an attack (so the term “fight” in bullfighting is an absolute misnomer), but as a way to push away the attackers (a form of defence), to avoid the adverse situation. Consequently, the charging of bulls in bullrings are in themselves behavioural indicators of suffering.
In addition to the stress, the exhaustion and now the injuries caused by the weapons, the bull eventually faces the matador’s sword, which, more often than not, inflicts terrible internal injuries on the bull but it remains alive and standing for a considerable time. We then see several facial expressions that anybody, ethologist or not, can easily interpret as severe suffering.
The bull’s final behaviour confirms it even more. It tries to walk towards the edge of the ring, where the exit is bound to be, as its last attempt to escape, or at the very least to cover its back after all this attack and defence in vain. Sometimes it even approaches a bullfighter that does not appear to be hostile at that instance(perhaps sitting quietly at the base of the fence), as if looking for help or perhaps mercy.
Bulls, otherwise very peaceful animals that spend most of their live eating grass, sleeping and playing with each other, are submitted to such an ordeal that not only inflicts serious physical and psychological suffering on them, but also forces them to behave in ways they would not normally behave, namely charging other creatures so they go away, giving them the false reputation of being ‘brave’, which any other herbivore would have in the same circumstances.
Therefore, my direct experience in the subject brings me to the conclusion that the answers to the question I put myself at the beginning are: yes, all behavioural evidence shows that bulls and cows suffer in bullfights; yes, they do suffer in all types of bullfights, even in those that do not end with their deaths; and yes, all aspects of any bullfight, from the transport to the death, are in themselves causes of suffering.
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