Struggling industry’s plea for government help has been met with stiff opposition from animal rights groups
For months the ranchers had laid the groundwork; grazing and exercising a select crop of half-tonne fighting bulls to be transported to arenas and festivals across the country. Then – just as Spain’s bullfighting season was set to kick off – the country was plunged into lockdown.
“It was dreadful,” said Victorino Martín, a second-generation breeder of fighting bulls. “The coronavirus came at the worst possible moment.”
The lockdown brought the bullfighting sector to a standstill as Spanish authorities scrambled to control one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks, with more than 26,000 lives claimed. Weeks later, though urban hotspots like Madrid and Barcelona remain under lockdown, elsewhere measures have eased, and industries ranging from travel to car manufacturing have turned to the government for help in navigating Spain’s new normal.
No request has been as controversial as that made by the bullfighting sector. Long reviled by animal rights campaigners who see it as cruel and outdated, bullfighting’s fight for survival has triggered a fierce debate over its future in Spanish society.
Bullfighter Cayetano Rivera in the ring in Jaen, southern Spain, in October 2019. Photograph: SALAS/EPA
“The bullfighting sector is – and will be – one of the most affected by the dramatic situation that we’re living through,” bullfighter Cayetano Rivera said recently on social media, after dozens of events, including Pamplona’s running of the bulls, were cancelled.
With the virus threatening to wipe out much of the season, which runs until October, he appealed to Spaniards to consider the tens of thousands of people thrown out of work as the industry struggles. “We can’t forget the many people and families who depend, either directly or indirectly, on the bullfighting world to live.”
The estimated loss of income so far is at least €700m (£797m), said Martín, who also heads the Fundación del Toro de Lidia, which was created in 2015 to defend the industry. “Even more concerning is that we don’t know when we’ll be able to restart our activities,” he said. “Meanwhile, the animals continue to eat. You have to take care of them and the employees.”
The industry is in discussions with television networks about broadcasting bullfights behind closed doors – a measure Martín hopes could help the beleaguered industry.
But with little chance that crowds will be allowed to return to the streets for bull fiestas or into arenas for bullfights, he was steeling himself for his worst-case scenario: cancellation of the entire season. “What industry could survive a year and a half without any income and still cover its costs?”
A handful of ranchers have already given up, he said. “There are breeders that have slaughtered all of their animals … I know there was a week where more than 400 were killed.”
The economics of that make little sense, as it can cost up to €5,000 to rear a bull while the slaughterhouse pays €500, he noted. But for those who have bulls that will outgrow the strict age limits on bullfighting and street festivals if they are not used this year, it is one of the few options.
The Unión de Criadores de Toros, which represents the interests of some 345 breeders of fighting bulls, estimates that more than 7,000 bulls had been raised for this year’s season.
The industry has turned to the Spanish government for help, outlining a list of requests that include a rollback of the sales tax on fighting bulls and grants to help breeders. “We want them to treat us as they would any other cultural industry,” said Martín, citing the economic spinoffs for hotels, restaurants and bars generated by events.
Their request has been met with stiff opposition. More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition urging the government not to use public funds to prop up bullfighting.
“It’s outrageous – particularly at this moment, when there are families that don’t have enough to eat and hospitals that have been decimated by cutbacks,” said Aïda Gascón of AnimaNaturalis, an animal rights group that is one of the organisations behind the petition. “Public funds should not be used to promote and pay for spectacles based on the abuse and mistreatment of animals.”
Similar petitions have been launched in Portugal and France, where the local bullfighting industries have also asked for government help. “Bullfighting is facing the most critical moment of its existence,” the petition noted. “We have a unique opportunity … to build a world without bullfighting.”
The assertion is borne out by Spain’s last economic crisis, which saw cash-strapped municipalities shift funds away from festivals involving bulls. In 2007, one year before the financial crash, Spain held 3,651 events featuring bulls. Just over a decade later, this number had more than halved, with 1,521 such events held in 2018.
Spain’s economic minister, Nadia Calviño, predicts that Spain’s GDP could shrink by 9.2% this year and animal rights groups are pushing for bullfighting to be cut off from public funding.
“What we’re looking for is the total abolition of this practice of torturing animals as a form of spectacle,” said Gascón. “One way to do that is to choke off their subsidies … it wouldn’t get rid of the industry completely but it would reduce it to 5% or 10% of what we have today.”
(Source: The Guardian)