Column: In the Ring

Bullfighting raises ethical issues, but done well, it's an art
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

When I read that the Spanish province of Catalonia voted to outlaw bullfighting, I was not surprised. A few years ago I traveled through Spain to write about bullfighting. Along the way, I met Barcelona’s director of tourism, and asked her why bullfighting was much less popular in Barcelona than the rest of Spain. She replied, “It is because we are civilized.”

Bullfighting’s biggest opponents, in fact, have always been Spaniards. Even bullfighting’s fans don’t brag about the 13,000 bulls killed every year in the ring, or claim they deserve to be killed.

But I’m not sure we’re in a position to judge bullfighting too harshly. We kill more than 35 million cows every year, and 100 million pigs and eight billion chickens. Not even Birkenstocks grow on trees.

The Spanish bulls might have it better than your average American cattle. They’re not castrated or stuck in a veal pen, but roam freely on the range and mate for life. Whether it’s better to die by a cattle prod and a knife to the throat or a sword to the back, after being allowed a few swipes at the swordsman, is debatable. But if you’ve never seen a bull killed outside of a bullring, you might be just as appalled by an Omaha slaughterhouse.

No one claims a bull fight is fair. But it would be a mistake to think the whole thing is just a mere contest. The aficionados don’t go to the bullfights to see who “wins” any more than music critics go the opera to see who finishes first.

It’s not a game, but a performance. Done poorly, bullfighting is humiliating and revolting, diminishing everyone involved. One bad bullfighter I saw named Jesulin kept shuffling his feet as if he was standing on a frying pan. He had no poise, no control. The bull ran when he wanted it to stop; it stopped when he wanted it to run; and then it simply ignored him altogether and walked away, leaving him standing there like a suitor trying to look brave after being slapped in public. When he drew his sword to end the bull’s life, I had to look away. It was that bad.

But seeing it done well was just as memorable. Francisco Ordóñez is one of Spain’s best bullfighters. His grandfather was the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s Pedro Romero in “The Sun Also Rises.” Unlike Jesulin, Ordóñez planted his feet as if they’d been nailed there. He was fearless, and exuded complete control, like a conductor who could create exactly what he wanted with the slightest gesture – and knew it.

In just seconds, he and his four-legged partner were dancing like they’d been doing it for years – first slowly and separately, then quickly and closely, but always in concert, with Ordóñez leaving the bull in position for his next pass the way a good pool player leaves the cue ball poised for his next shot.

After a flurry of passes, Ordóñez nodded respectfully to the mesmerized bull, then strode confidently away from him, trusting the bull with his back. He did not work to impress the crowd, but the bull – and he did.

When the dance was over, Fran guided the long sword directly over the bull’s horns, and thrust downward into the bull’s back. He then walked away, certain he had done it right. Two beats later, the bull fell on its side.

Hemingway wrote, “From a moral point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible. But whoever reads this can only truly make such a judgment when he, or she, has seen the things that are spoken of here.”

Bullfighting might be many things, but only a person who has never seen it done well could claim it lacks courage, skill and art.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By abc
    August 13, 2010 at 1:01 pm | permalink

    Mr. Bacon

    This is s tough subject, one which tends to bring out a lot of passion in people. Your arguments are reasonable. For centuries humans have debated what constitutes quality in life and in death and have argued what that means to the animals that are all around us; that we take advantage of in so many ways. Somehow the current feeling may be best summed up by saying that you can kill animals to eat or use them and, as you point out, raise them in horrific ways, but you cannot turn the killing into entertainment; even if the resulting death is swifter, and has less stress than the slaughterhouse. You can also put animals in strange environments and subject them to all kinds of pressures they were never meant to endure for entertainment purposes but killing them is not part of the show.

    By writing about this I think, like Senor Ordóñez, you just turned your back on the bull (and I may have climbed into the arena with you).

    Oh and by the way, you should have edited the Birkenstock comment out; they market vegetarian and even vegan products. Yes vegetarian and vegan shoes and sandals.

  2. By Joan Lowenstein
    August 13, 2010 at 1:41 pm | permalink

    Unlike bulls, humans do seem to evolve. We’re now banning bullfights and dogfights, voting to stop shooting birds, regulating whether chickens can be kept in cages, and — most amazingly — I just read that there may even be some extra padding required for NFL players.

  3. August 13, 2010 at 2:08 pm | permalink

    Dear ABC and Ms. Lowenstein,

    You both raise good points.

    I trust it’s clear I have more than a few reservations about it. There are times it’s just impossible to watch.

    But having seen it done well, and also researched our slaughterhouses a little, I’m not as quick to judge as I might be. If there’s one target I rarely can resist striking, it’s hypocrisy, and we’re guilty of some here — though ABC’s additions are on the mark, in my view. There were times I found myself impressed by the bullfighter’s work, despite myself. I can understand why many Spaniards go to see a bullfighter like Ordonez in his prime.

    In some ways it mimics my utterly mixed feelings about boxing — wonderful to see done well, and horrible to see done poorly, and worse to see the long term effects on the boxers. Even football can come with a terrible price, one that’s hard to reconcile with our glorification of the athletes and the games.

    Obviously, I would never object to Catalonia banning bullfighting – nor any other place — and we need to see the NFL and the NCAA do more to protect the players on the field, not just during their careers, but years after.

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for writing.


    p.s. I did not know that Birkenstocks now come in Vegan styles, but I should have guessed it! Thanks for the information.

  4. By James C. Crawford
    August 13, 2010 at 5:14 pm | permalink

    John, I have been to slaughterhouses and there is no similarity whatsoever, not even close, to bullfighting. The cows are led through chutes to a stall, where their eyes are rolling from fear because they smell the blood of their predecessor who died only moments before. A man in a rubber apron, with rubber gloves takes an pneumatic piston, puts it between the eyes of the cow and dispatches it in a very casual, manner.

    Next! Keep the line rolling, we got a lot of beef to grind today.

  5. August 13, 2010 at 7:50 pm | permalink

    A nicely balanced piece. I would add some more details which need to be weighed about the environmental damage done if bullfighting were banned and the psychological damage done by watching it. But I develop them in the first post on my own blog, The Last Arena – In Search of the Spanish Bullfight. I would say this, though. People seem to ignore that most eating, especially of meat, especially in the US, IS entertainment. If you are clinically obese, eating a burger has a negative nutritional value. And this is where most of the 78.2% of the 34.4 million cattle factory farmed and slaughtered cattle in 2008 ended up. In the civilised world, most of what we eat is because it tastes good, which is an aesthetic pleasure, albeit a cruder one than the appreciation of art. Including bullfighting.

  6. By Katie Whitney
    August 16, 2010 at 11:27 am | permalink

    I heard somewhere–maybe it was even in Hemingway–that the bulls (at least at one point) were given to the poor, making the bullfight a great feast time with a slightly philanthropic bent. That said, I’m a vegetarian, and the one bullfight I attended (pre-vegetarianism) was beautiful and appalling. It’s hard to say which is less honorable: killing an animal in for entertainment or killing it in a slaughterhouse where there’s no public witness.

    To Alexander: good point about eating as entertainment.

  7. August 16, 2010 at 1:57 pm | permalink

    To Katie: thank you. It is amazing to me how many people refuse to acknowledge that point. By the way, I am not saying two wrongs: eating meat, fighting bulls – both of which I do, as participant AND spectator – make a right. I am saying they are what we do, and we would all know it if only we could see beyond the ends of our own noses and the cellophaned-wrapped meat aisle in the supermarket.

    Of course, you have the moral high ground here, although there is a less obvious, more subtle argument that vegetarianism, at least on grounds of ethics rather than taste, is a denial of life, but then I would have to wheel out Nietzsche and Kant, and this is not the place for such dry academic artillery…

  8. By Rod Johnson
    August 16, 2010 at 3:14 pm | permalink

    Alexander: you fight bulls?!

  9. August 16, 2010 at 8:12 pm | permalink

    Dear Readers,

    Always interesting to read intelligent comments. And you have to love any batch of letters on a story about bullfighting that includes a mention of Nietzsche and Kant.

    I am writing, however, to answer one of the questions above: the meat is donated to orphanages.

    And, a minor distinction, perhaps: for the true aficionados, the entertainment is not in seeing an animal die, but in watching a skilled bullfighter practice his craft, most impressively in concert with a strong, powerful bull. It’s the difference between going to a Formula One race to see any old driver get into an accident, or to see Michael Schumacher work his way around the field. Both are bound to happen, of course, but the question is your motive in attending. You might call that a distinction without a difference, and you might be right, but I felt compelled to raise it.

    Again, thanks for reading, and thanks for writing.


  10. August 27, 2010 at 8:52 pm | permalink

    Rod: I am learning how, rather painfully, in order to write the best book on the subject (‘Into The Arena – The World of the Spanish Bullfight’, Profile Books, February 2011). I realised I would have to dispense with the appearance of neutrality (if not the reality of impartiality) in exchange for completeness.

    John: if you like Kant and Nietzsche, then you’ll love the two following quotations on the bullfight.

    “In a bullfight the bull is the hero of a tragedy. First driven mad by suffering, he dies a slow and terrible death.”
    Ludwig Wittgenstein

    “”Such the ungentle sport that oft invites
    The Spanish maid, and cheers the Spanish swain,
    Nurtured in blood betimes, his heart delights
    In vengeance, gloating on another’s pain.”
    Lord Byron

  11. By Rod Johnson
    August 28, 2010 at 12:18 am | permalink

    Alexander–I am impressed and somewhat boggled.