Mad Cows, Glad Bulls; How post-BSE regulations almost brought a halt to Spain's "national fiesta"

Mad Cows, Glad Bulls;
How post-BSE regulations almost brought a halt to Spain's "national fiesta"

July 30, 2001 Time by Rod Usher

Summer strikes are a pain in the neck. In Spain right now, rolling stoppages by pilots have led national carrier Iberia to shut down, devastating local and international tourism. While that dispute was being resolved by arbitration last week, another threatened to have literally the opposite effect on the necks of those most affected by it--bulls. It is the tremendous power in the neck and shoulders of a 500-kg bull that most endangers the life of a matador. If the animal can catch the man on his horns this mighty neck can drive them through his flesh fast as a chainsaw. It is to reduce this risk that--after six arrows have been cleaved to the bull's back by the banderilleros--the picador on a blindfolded horse uses a lance again and again to slice the muscles rippling back from the bull's head. This greatly reduces its ability to toss and gives the bullfighter a chance to perform with what Hemingway called "grace under pressure."

For me, bullfighting is disgrace under pressure, the taunting, torture and slow killing of an animal, the pressure being to make a buck under the guise of "national fiesta" or "tradition." I was therefore as over the moon as that nursery-rhyme cow to learn of a planned strike because of restrictions in the wake of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. It promised to spare many of the tens of thousands of bulls killed each year. It was as though the "mad cows" and the pilots were in cahoots because many of those who visit Spain's main bullrings are tourists.

The threat to start an indefinite strike this week came from the body representing all 12 aspects of bullfighting, especially the promoters and ganaderos, breeders who raise the bulls for some 17,000 fights or runnings held around the country each year. No one can recall a strike stopping this "sport" in its centuries of history/ignominy, but the breeders and promotors claimed they had been hit too hard by post-BSE regulations, specifically the Health Ministry's ruling that bulls killed in plazas can no longer be butchered and sold to the public. A 500-kg bull provides a welter of steaks and buckets of blood for sausages. Since July 1, they have also had to pay to truck carcasses to incinerators, plus about $ 300 apiece to have them cremated. All this, they argued, was cutting too deeply into their margins, especially given that most of Spain's bullfights are not in the grand rings of Madrid or Seville but in towns and villages, where they can't ask the same high prices for their animals.

They demanded compensation, and the bullfighting lobby is even more powerful than pilots. The Madrid government late last week jumped in to prevent the strike, or at least postpone it, offering to come up with a subsidy to cover incineration. Many ganaderos nevertheless continue to insist that the meat ban be lifted. They argue that, as happens in France, the bull's flesh could be frozen, tests made for BSE, then the meat sold if these prove negative.

But this system doesn't convince all the experts. A cruel irony, or rather an irony of cruelty, is that the proteins called prions that are blamed for transmission of the BSE equivalent to humans may be more likely to travel in bulls from the plaza than in cows from the abattoir. The reason has to do with the fact that many bulls don't die immediately when the matador plunges his sword up to the hilt behind the right shoulder. The exhausted creature may stagger about, coughing blood, before dropping to its knees to await death. At last--not wanting the poor animal to suffer--the matador or one of his aides performs what's called descabello. He stabs a special blade just behind the moribund bull's horns, aiming for the medulla oblongata, the spot where the brain tapers into the spinal cord. The puncturing descabello process, BSE experts say, may mean that material from a high-risk prion area filters into other parts. They also suspect that these prions may be in a preclinical stage and not detectable in tests. A partial solution would be to deliver the coup de grace with a gas-fired stun gun, like those in slaughterhouses. I've seen these used, and they do punch the last life out of an animal quickly. But the bullfighting crowd last week refused any ban on the descabello, saying it is an essential part of their "tradition." A spokesman actually used the word "liturgy."

Another option would have been for the government to have ignored the strike threat. It would have been interesting to see just how many tourists and how many Spaniards outside the bullfighting business would have taken to the streets in protest. There is a whole new generation in Spain whose members haven't heard of Manolete or of Hemingway and who find the stereotype of los toros shaming. Manuel Vicent, a living Spanish author, wrote recently that the real contamination in bullfighting is not to do with meat quality but is "a moral corruption that without being noticed reaches right to the soul of the spectator."

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