Bulls are domesticated animals that are systematically exploited and killed for the use of their muscle flesh, skin, and hide. They may also be used as labor to pull loads. However, most bulls are used in specific entertainment events, such as bullfights (where they are killed), festivals like the “encierros” (running of the bulls) or in rodeos.
Bulls have a high sensitivity to touch, and can feel a fly landing on their bodies. If they are aware of this slight touch, imagine what they must feel when they are stabbed with swords, lances and spears.
Bulls raised by bullfighting stockbreeders are split up when young, according to how they will be used: as “studs” to breed with cows, to be killed in the bullring, and to guide and contain the other bulls. Bulls used in bullfights tend to be the most aggressive as a result of genetic selection by stockbreeders and conditioning from birth. The selective process has developed over time to include physical characteristics as well, such as muscularity and long horns.
Bulls are transported to the bullring in narrow, tight-fitting crates that are loaded side-by-side on a truck.1 Their journey is just the beginning of a highly stressful ordeal. The trip is often over a long distance, and the truck can get very hot. The bulls are sometimes tied by their horns to the ceiling of the truck, and they may be unable to move or even scratch themselves if they need to.2 The bulls arrive at least twenty-four hours before a show begins3, and are penned up until they are forced into the ring for the show.
The most common style of bullfighting is called the “corrida española” (Spanish style bullfight), in which the bullfighter and his assistants provoke the bull into charging in certain ways while stabbing him with various weapons until the bull is killed or fatally wounded. The bull is continually weakened by repeated stabbings until he is weak enough for the bullfighter to kill. This type of bullfighting is divided into three stages called “tercios”. In each stage the bull is assaulted by different means.4
The bullfighting team consists of the “matador” and his assistants, which include two “picadores” (lancers) mounted on horses and several people on foot who work to direct the bull and assist the “matador”. A typical setup has three matadors alternating to kill six bulls in the span of two and a half hours.5 The bullfight is presided over by a judge, called the “presidente”, who makes decisions about things like how many times the bull should be stabbed and whether or not the bullfighter should be given the bull’s ears as trophies.6
“Tercio de picas” (the lancing stage)
The main objective of the first stage (the lancing stage) is for the “picadores” to weaken the bull due from injury and blood loss by repeatedly stabbing him with lances. In addition, this stage functions as a test run for the spectators and bullfighter to determine the courage and aggressiveness of the bull under stress.
Several groups of “picadores” participate, with each team consisting of two in the bullring at a time. The “picadores” are mounted on horses, which makes the horses vulnerable to sustaining injuries from the bull’s horns. Other members of the bullfighting team are on foot using capes to keep the bull in place as the “picadores” and their horses move into position.
Once the “picadores” have placed themselves on opposite sides of the ring, the “matador” directs the bull toward the center of the ring facing a “picador”. Using voice and movement, the “picador” incites the bull to attack their horse. As the bull rushes toward horse and rider, the “picador” stabs the bull with his lance, often while the bull is goring the horse with his horns. The horse’s right eye is also covered to reduce panicking once the bull charges.
Using voice and movement, the picador incites the bull to attack the horse. As the bull rushes toward horse and rider, the picador stabs the bull with his lance, often while the bull is goring the horse with his horns. The bull is stabbed in the top of the neck, which causes him to hold his head lower when he charges and also subdues him, keeping him from continually thrusting his horns.
The lances most commonly used are about two and a half meters (eight feet) long, with a straight, sharp, pointed blade that’s about six centimeters (2.4 inches) long and three centimeters (1.2 inches) in diameter.
The bull is stabbed by the “picadores” at least four times, though the number is at the discretion of the “presidente” of the bullfight. If the bull is determined to be too weak or too badly injured to continue, the “presidente” can reject the bull and call for a replacement.7
The horses used in this stage may also be badly injured or killed, even though they wear protective coverings. Some horses die from their injuries after being gored repeatedly by the bull. Others are able to survive their injuries, and once they have healed are sent back into another bullring until they are fatally wounded.
“Tercio de banderillas” (the “banderillas” stage)
In theory, the objective of this stage of the bullfight is to excite the bull, though in practice the bull loses strength due to wounds and fatigue.
“Banderillas” (little flags) are harpoon-like barbed instruments that are 70 to 80 centimeters (about two and a half feet) long, though on some occasions shorter “banderillas” are used, which are approximately half the length. Sometimes “banderillas” of fire are used. They contain gunpowder tinder so the “banderillas” easily catch fire, which burns the skin of the bull.
While the matador watches nearby, “banderilleros” (flagmen) provoke the bull to charge. As the bull approaches, a flagman runs in a curved line toward the bull, sticking the bull with two “banderillas” at a time. The number of pairs of “banderillas” that are stuck into the bull is left to the discretion of the “presidente” of the bullfight, though it is the custom to use six “banderillas”. If any fall out, one or two more pairs are stuck in.8
“Tercio de matar” (the killing stage)
In this stage the bull is fatally stabbed after several passes with the “muleta” (red cape). These passes are structured much like a piece of classical music, whereby the matador attempts to link four to five of them, each one building in intensity, until the final crescendo.
Sometimes, before the fatal blow, several passes are performed by “peones” (pages), with the goal of weakening the bull. However, this practice is not popular with the fans of the bullfight and is usually protested by whistles when it is prolonged
The “matador” can perform the passes using the “muleta” in the right or left hand. During the performance, he waves the cape, varying its position as well as the pace and rhythm of the passes. After using the “muleta”, the bullfighter positions himself in front of the bull with the sword, which he thrusts into the bull’s body. Sometimes the bull does not die after being stabbed by the sword the first time. If this happens, the sword is removed and the bull is stabbed again. The type of sword that is currently used has a double blade with a strong tapered point that curves downward.
On many occasions the bull, despite having the sword stuck in his body, does not die. When this happens, pithing is performed. Pithing refers to severing the spinal cord between the first and second vertebrae in the neck with a dagger.
The pithing dagger is thrust into the bull’s neck. However, this does not always end the bull’s suffering. There are brain and spinal responses in more than 91% of bulls after its use.9
Once he is dead or immobilized by the sword or dagger, the bull is dragged out by mules, other animals exploited in bullfights.
On rare occasions, the “presidente” may decide that the bull will not be killed. This is known as “indulto del toro” (granting the bull a pardon), and occurs when the bull has gained the sympathy or admiration of the “presidente” or the crowd, as for example by showing unusual courage. The number of bulls pardoned is insignificant (approximately one in a thousand), and many of them die later from their injuries. In most cases, six bulls are killed for every bullfight.10
After the bullfight, sometimes the bull’s body is mutilated by having an ear cut off which is presented to the bullfighter as a trophy by the “presidente”. Occasionally, the bullfighter keeps two ears, a foot or the tail of the bull he killed.11
In some places, such as Portugal, the bulls are not killed in the bullring, but in most cases the bulls die anyway due to injuries from the bullfight or are euthanized because they would not recover from the injuries.
Other forms of entertainment with bulls
Bulls are forced to participate in many other types of shows other than bullfights. These include:
In some Spanish municipalities, the spectacle called “toro de fuego” (fire bull) is celebrated annually. Flaming materials are attached to a bull’s horns, and he is then released and taunted as he shakes his head, trying to get rid of the flaming apparatus attached to him.
The most well known of these is the “toro júbilo”, celebrated annually in Medinaceli (Soria). At this event, the fire balls may be placed on the bull in one of two ways: by putting a 30 centimeter (12 inches) high apparatus with rings on the horns of the bull or by placing a small yoke behind the horns with fireballs hanging from it.12
Encierros (running of the bulls)
The most well-known “encierros” in Spain are called “sanfermines” and are celebrated annually in Pamplona (Navarre). The “encierros” are common in many Spanish municipalities and may take place in the country or in urban areas. During this event, participants run in front of bulls and cows, and are admired by fans for running so close to the bulls. The bulls are frequently hit and antagonized by those running with them and may also be injured as a result of collisions.13
Rodeo events in the United States and Canada may include bull riding, where participants jump onto and ride a bull and attempt to withstand the bucking movements of the bull without falling to the ground. If the rider falls, clowns come and try to distract the bull so the rider can escape.14
Other spectacles and festivals include the “rejoneo”, which is bullfighting on horseback; bull-leaping, which is taunting bulls without weapons and avoiding them with acrobatic leaping; and an event that involves chasing and throwing bulls into the sea, which is celebrated in Benicarló.
Arguments for and against bullfighting
The reasons to oppose bullfighting are the same as those to oppose all practices causing the suffering and death of nonhuman animals. The bulls and other animals forced to participate in these sports are all individuals with the capacity to suffer pain and experience pleasure. It is species discrimination (speciesism) to perform actions causing harm to animals that would not be accepted if the victims were human.
Supporters of bullfighting use several arguments to try to justify the practice. We can respond to these arguments from an antispeciesist viewpoint, though bullfighting is also criticized from viewpoints that do not challenge speciesism.
The events are considered a tradition where they are performed
Unjustifiable acts of aggression should be rejected whether they are traditional or not. Tradition is irrelevant. What is relevant is the harm inflicted on the bulls, which is not justifiable simply to satisfy the interest of those who benefit from the bullfights.
Sometimes the tradition argument in favor of bullfighting is countered by claiming that bullfights are no longer really traditional, due to changes made over the past few centuries. But focusing on this argument seems to imply that tradition is a relevant factor, which it is not. It is irrelevant that bullfights have changed. They have caused the suffering and deaths of animals for centuries and they continue to do so now.
Bulls live a great life up until the time they arrive at the bullring
Even if it were true that the bulls lived very good lives before being tormented and killed in the bullring, this would not justify their exploitation. No one would accept the torturing of a human being with the argument that up until that moment they had lived a good life. The same respect should be shown to other sentient animals.
Supporters argue that the situation of many animals, such as those raised for consumption, is much worse than that of the animals exploited in bullfighting
There is little doubt that many animals, including those who die in slaughterhouses, suffer lives far worse overall than those killed in bullfights. This does not make bullfighting any more acceptable. On the contrary, it simply makes it even clearer how much harm is done by the many forms of animal exploitation.
Sometimes opponents of bullfights who favor using animals for food will argue that the death of animals for entertainment is unnecessary, while torturing and slaughtering cows, bulls and other animals for food, for example, provides sustenance. However, we should keep in mind that consuming animal products is also unnecessary.15
In other cases, it is suggested that bullfights are particularly unacceptable because an animal is made to suffer in public. This supposedly makes it more serious, possibly due to the effect it may have on human beings. It is often believed that humans engaging in or watching acts of violence against nonhuman animals are more likely to develop callous and aggressive attitudes towards humans. However, this does not imply that a non-public practice which causes the suffering and death of animals is acceptable. An animal is still harmed whether he is subjected to pain publicly or privately.
Bullfighting is necessary to preserve the pastureland where the animals are raised
There are other ways the pastureland could still be preserved even if bullfights were to disappear. That said, would we consider it acceptable to use human slaves to ensure the existence of a specific ecosystem? No one would consider this a reasonable way to preserve ecosystems if human lives were at stake. People would find another way to preserve them, or accept not having certain pasturelands or other ecosystems. It is understood that a particular ecosystem is not more important than the respect that humans deserve. Once we see that sentience is the relevant moral criterion, then it is equally unacceptable to harm bulls in order to preserve an ecosystem.
Spaces do not suffer but the individuals within them do. For this reason, it is not the pastureland that we should worry about, but the sentient animals. Animals with the capacity to suffer pain and experience pleasure should be defended, not the pasturelands that have no feelings and therefore cannot be tortured like bulls can be.
It is necessary for the survival of the so-called fighting bulls breed
This is clearly not true, since it is possible to ensure the survival of bulls bred for fighting by releasing them or keeping them on reserves. But it must also be kept in mind that the survival of a group of animals doesn’t necessarily benefit any individuals. It is the living bulls who have lives that matter. A species or a breed is not an entity that can be well or experience suffering. As explained above, it is only sentient individuals, those with the capacity to experience pain and pleasure, who have interests that should be taken into account. Since breeds, species, and other taxonomic categories do not have this capacity, there is no morally compelling reason to worry about their continued existence.
We should also keep in mind that the lives of many animals in natural environments involves significant suffering. Therefore, it would be irresponsible to take bulls to natural ecosystems in which they could suffer from disease, lack of food or water, or fall victim to predators.
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2 Casamitjana, J. (2008) “‘Suffering’ in bullfighting bulls; an ethologist’s perspective”, animal-protection-consult.com [accessed on 10 March 2014].
3 Spain. Ministry of Justice and the Interior (2011  Real Decreto 145/1996, de 2 de febrero, por el que se modifica y da nueva redacción al Reglamento de Espectáculos Taurinos, op. cit., artículo 50 [accessed on 15 July 2014].
4 Although the bullfight is considered by some to be divided into four parts, the traditional practice is to divide it into three parts. Sánchez Vigil, J. M. (ed.) (2007) Cossío: los toros. El toreo. 4, Barcelona: Espasa Calpe, p. 152.
7 Sánchez Vigil, J. M. (ed.) (2007) Cossío: los toros. El toreo. 4, op. cit., pp. 149-159.
8 Ibid., pp. 159-167.
9 Limon, G.; Guitian, J. & Gregory N. G. (2012) “A review of the humaneness of puntilla as a slaughter method”, Animal Welfare, 21, suppl. 2, pp. 3-8.
10 Menacho (2010) Laza, J. M. (2012) “Muere ‘Verdiales’, el toro de Miguelín indultado por Galván en Los Barrios”, huelvainformacion.es, 28.05.2012 [accessed on 14 October 2014]. Larrea, K. (2014) “Muere el toro indultado por Hermoso de Mendoza en Manizales”, Toros en Navarra, enero 10 [accessed on 3 September 2014]. Ventura, D. (2014) “Muere el toro ‘Tirano’, indultado por El Cordobés”, mundotoro.com, 22/09/2014 [accessed on 20 February 2015].
11 Sánchez Vigil, J. M. (ed.) (2007) Cossío: los toros. El toreo. 4, op. cit., pp. 167-176.
12 Ibid., pp. 673-675.
13 Ibid., pp. 685-689.
14 Groves, M. (2006) Ropes, reins and rawhide: All about rodeo, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
15 Melina, V.; Craig, W. & Levin, S. (2016) “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian diets”, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116, pp. 1970-1980 [accessed on 21 January 2017].