Pamplona’s storied bull run created some extra interest recently when a perturbed toro named Brevito inflicted a nasty horn wound on Bill Hillmann’s right thigh.
Hillmann is a regular at the annual, eight-day fiesta in honor of the region’s co-patron saint, San Fermin. As many as a million people from all over the world show up for the celebration, which includes parades, concerts, sports, fireworks, eating, dancing and a great deal of drinking.
But the festival is best known for its encierro, the running of the bulls, during which the toros designated for the evening’s bullfight sprint the half-mile between their corrals and the bull ring. Spaniards have been running with the bulls in Pamplona for several centuries, but after Ernest Hemingway publicized the event in The Sun Also Rises, in 1926, more and more foreigners have joined in.
In fact, Chicago writer Bill Hillmann has run with the bulls enough times to write a book about it: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona.
Several news sources noted the irony. But from his hospital bed in Pamplona, Hillmann was dismissive, pointing out that his book is about how to "survive" the bulls and, after all, he was only gored. It’s an interesting distinction.
In any case, you won’t see me running with the bulls at Pamplona. It’s not that I’m afraid. OK, I’m afraid, but I’ve found that a well-developed sense of self-preservation is an increasingly valuable trait.
But here’s a good reason to avoid the encierro: There are two ways of running with the bulls: dangerously and safely. Hillmann gets credit for running among the relatively small number of daredevils who try to get as close as they can to the bulls without being gored.
Whatever their motivations, these runners take real risks, as indicated by the 15 or so that have been killed by bulls over the years and the hundreds that have been seriously injured.
Then there’s the comparatively safer way. Many of the several thousand runners wisely position themselves strategically along the half-mile course, run a short distance, and never actually lay eyes on the bulls, unless they catch a passing glimpse from a safe vantage point.
Because the sheer numbers of runners prevent them from getting close to the bulls, these runners’ lifetime bragging rights ring a bit hollow.
But a better reason not to run involves respect and goes to the heart of how we treat animals everywhere.
The Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca called bullfighting "the last serious thing." This is a fanciful notion. The art and beauty in bullfighting are real, but mostly it’s butchery, very difficult to defend, though many have tried.
The slaughter is redeemed only slightly by its brutal honesty about the fact that our fondness for meat depends on considerable suffering and bloodletting.
The bullfighters are impressive and brave, but the most sublime participants in the bullfight are the bulls themselves. Subjecting them to taunts by drunken revellers is a trivializing indignity thoroughly at odds with whatever nobler aspirations apologists for the bullfight imagine.
Of course, countries like the U.S. that prohibit bullfighting don’t have much right to sanctimony about how we treat animals as long as we produce our beef and chicken in factory farms and raise, race, and discard greyhounds without much regard for their wellbeing.
Perhaps our cruellest practice is the confinement of marine mammals like killer whales and dolphins to tiny tanks for our amusement. Like bullfighting this practice depends on rationalization, but in many respects, limiting creatures that are accustomed to swimming a hundred miles a day to the dimensions of a SeaWorld tank is as cruel as bullfighting.
How we treat animals involves respect and honesty. Bulls are not willing participants in the bullfight, Shamu isn’t waving his flipper because he’s happy to see us, and the dolphin’s goofy grin doesn’t mean he’s content in his bathtub-like tank.
Bullfights and SeaWorld and factory farms. A more honest, compassionate and enlightened society would look for ways to do without them.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.
— McClatchy-Tribune News Service