Centuries-old Pamplona bull run remains as bloody and violent as ever: 'Tradition is no excuse for cruelty'
While the event still attracts tourists in the millions, its popularity has been waning since the turn of the decade
'The Running of the Bulls', or 'Encierro', is the most popular event during the week-long, historically-rooted celebration of the San Fermín festival that is held annually in the city of Pamplona between July 6 and July 14.
Every year, at 8 am on every day of the festival, thousands take to the street for what will eventually just take 2.5 minutes of their time, but will etch itself in their memories for the rest of their lives.
Six bulls and six steers hold off for the two rockets that signal the start of the run as the participants ready themselves to make the mad 875-meter dash across the narrow cobblestone course and into the bullring, where 20,000 eager fans wait with bated breath.
And every year, unsurprisingly, many get injured.
This year, mirroring the opening run, three people were gored during the final run, taking the total number of those gored to eight. The Royal Navarre Hospital said, over the course of the festival, they had treated 35 participants in total for broken bones and fractures.
However, their condition pales in comparison to that of the bulls, whose cause has been championed by animal rights activists from around the world who have called for the event to be abolished because of the inhumane conditions the animals have to suffer.
MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) reached out to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for comment, and the animal rights organization laid bare the gruesome side of the run that often escapes the public's attention.
"Before the run, bulls are kept in cramped, filthy pens, and then they're forced onto the streets of Pamplona with electric prods," PETA said. "During the run, screaming and sometimes violent participants compel the frightened bulls to run for their lives. The terrified animals can lose their footing on the cobblestones and break their legs"
And there is no respite waiting for the six bulls that participated and complete the encierro.
In the evenings, the same bulls that have been driven into the bullring during the run are killed in the bullfight, where things can often get ugly.
"In the bullring, picadors on horseback drive lances into the bull's back and neck, and banderilleros plunge banderillas—bright sticks with harpoon points—into his back," PETA said. "After around 15 minutes of torment, the matador finally stabs the exhausted bull with a sword, and a short dagger is used to sever the animal's spinal cord at the neck before he's dragged out of the arena. There's nothing 'royal' about these animals' prolonged and agonizing deaths."
The encierro and bullfight have seen increased scrutiny since the turn of the century because of the allegations of animal abuse, and it has been condemned by the public internationally and by every animal protection group in the world.
This year, like the past 18 years, PETA U.K., together with the Spanish group AnimaNaturalis, led a provocative protest the day before the event this year to encourage tourists to stop supporting the bloody bullfights.
The protests have worked to an extent, and despite the publicity the event attracts every year, its popularity amongst tourists has been steadily declining.
PETA told MEAWW that based on recently released data from Spanish authorities, they had calculated that the number of animals killed during bullfights in Spain has declined by more than 50% over the past 10 years — the number of bulls stabbed and killed has reportedly dropped from approximately 16,000 in 2008 to somewhere around 7,000 in 2018.
The decline comes after more than 125 Spanish towns and cities have declared themselves anti-bullfighting, with the regions of Catalonia and Balearic Islands both passing parliamentary laws that have effectively ended in the sport in the regions.
However, there are still hurdles to outlawing the event altogether as bullfighting in the country is not regulated by the central Spanish government, but by the regions where they are held.
The jurisdiction of the Running of the Bulls, and on a larger scale, the San Fermín festival, falls under the authority of the Mayor of Pamplona, the president of the autonomous region of Navarra, and the other parliamentarians of the region, all of whom benefit from the significant revenue the event generates every year.
That revenue is especially relevant these days because of a languishing Spanish economy that sees the unemployment rate touch 52% and has forced many to leave their homes in Pamplona for pastures anew in a desperate search for full-time employment.
They do return for the festival, but that's because it's estimated that more than a million visit the city every July, mostly to witness and participate in the iconic encierro which remains supremely popular amongst tourists.
And these tourists contribute millions of dollars to the economy, so it's understandable that there is a resistance to canning what is arguably the festival's most popular event.
But PETA says an animal-free San Fermín festival would still attract compassionate tourists from around the world in droves.
Indeed, the festival does offer a host of other attractions for the family-friendly crowd. There's the Chupinazo, the opening of the festival marked by setting off a pyrotechnic chupinazo that has been tradition since 1941; there's the Saint Fermín procession, where thousands of people accompany the 15th-century statue of Saint Fermin through the old part of Pamplona; and there's several concerts, dances, and parades to soak in and enjoy.
The Running of the Bulls has retained its charm, for a variety of reasons. For many young Spanish adolescents, it's a rite of passage. For foreigners, it offers a nostalgic pull often cultivated by a seed that was planted by Ernest Hemmingway's 1926 novel 'The Sun Also Rises,' where he romanticizes the dance of life and death that the event presents.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that the event is a bloody, violent, archaic spectacle that results in the deaths of thousands of innocent animals every year. And yes it has been a tradition for more than 600 years but that simply isn't enough. The event has no place in modern society.
"Every immoral human activity that has been abolished—from child labor to slavery—required a change of mindset and a rejection of 'tradition' in favor of moral progress, and bullfighting is no exception," PETA said. "Abusing animals doesn't bring honor to any culture, and tradition is no excuse for cruelty."