Spanish activists see red over bullfights as tide starts to turn
Animal rights group takes legal action over killing of bull amid changing attitudes
Activists lie half-naked covered in fake blood during a protest against bullfighting in Vitoria, northern Spain. Photograph: David Aguilar/EPA
A man stands face-to-face with a bull in a town square. Exhausted, the animal appears oblivious to the rifle in the man’s hands, pointing at its head.
A moment later, a single shot is heard and the bull collapses to the ground.
The taunting of a large bull followed by its shooting is a feature of the annual Sanjuanes festival, held every June, in the small town of Coria, in the agricultural, western region of Extremadura.
But this year the festivities have been followed by an unusual development: legal action.
An animal rights organisation, Pacma, has filed a complaint, alleging that the killing of the bull broke the law.
In an unusual twist, the group bases its case not on the safety of the animal, but on that of humans.
The bull was shot, Pacma said in a statement, “without any security measures, in front of the local police and with the knowledge of the town authorities”.
If found guilty, Coria’s town hall could be fined up to €30,000.
But the real reason for the legal action is animal welfare, with Pacma also pointing out that the bull had been taunted for an hour and a half before being shot.
The mayor of Coria, José Manuel García Ballesteros, gave a furious response, accusing Pacma of “trying to humiliate the entire town”.
Another said: “It’s a normal thing that we’ve always done and there’s never been any problem with it.”
But the fact that this year there has been a problem could reflect changing attitudes in Spain towards the treatment of bulls and other animals in traditional festivities.
Many such annual events now face protests. The running of the bulls in Pamplona is Spain’s best-known fiesta.
Just before this year’s San Fermine festival started, dozens of activists painted themselves blood-red and lay down next to the bullring where each day six bulls were due to be killed by matadors after being chased through the streets.
Meanwhile, resistance to the September festival in Tordesillas, in northern Spain, has been growing year by year.
In that town’s fiesta a bull is chased and repeatedly speared by locals, suffering a slow death.
National and regional legislation, she says, “protects and allows the organisation of bullfighting festivals where animals are harassed, stoned, kicked, thrown into the sea or burnt with torches”.
Instead, she says, they persist because they are usually subsidised and free to attend – this is certainly borne out by the steep decline in the number of pay-to-enter bullfights in recent years.
A campaign led by Igualdad Animal against local spectacles in which animals are hurt (Stop Festejos Crueles) has gained over 100,000 signatories in just a few weeks.
While animal-rights groups condemn Spain for its town fiestas, it’s worth noting that the country has a robust record when it comes to animal conservation.
Both the wolf and the Iberian lynx have come back from the brink of extinction due in great part to the efforts of Spanish authorities.
Political developments are at least partly behind the changing mood. Recently, a new generation of left-leaning Spaniards has taken up posts in town halls and regional governments across the country.
Many of them, unlike their predecessors, see animal rights as a priority.
Film-maker Miguel Ángel Rolland firmly believes Spain is at a turning point. He is making a crowd-funded documentary about the use and abuse of animals in the country’s traditional festivities, called Santa Fiesta.
He estimates that 16,000 such religious events take place each year, but points out that there are an increasing number of towns that declare their fiestas “blood free”.
“This reminds me a bit of the progress that was made with gay and lesbian rights – there was a moment when things suddenly shifted,” he said.
“In 2016 I think we’re going to see a big change when it comes to animal rights in Spain.”