Article - Spring 2023

The Pain Principle

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What if the animal rights movement abandoned its focus on suffering and appealed to a different set of human emotions?

By Matthew Denton-Edmundson | March 1, 2023
Spanish bulls, such as this animal from the Lo Alvaro farm near Seville, are raised on expansive pastures and have very little contact with humans. (Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images)
Spanish bulls, such as this animal from the Lo Alvaro farm near Seville, are raised on expansive pastures and have very little contact with humans. (Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images)

Before arriving in Pamplona, in the Basque region of northern Spain, I had imagined the San Fermín festival as Ernest Hemingway describes it in The Sun Also Rises—as a picturesque Spanish town’s quaint celebration of its annual bullfight. In the novel, Jake Barnes introduces us to tavern keepers, local aficionados, and bullfighters, taking endless pleasure in revealing the intimate details of what was, in the 1920s, a little-known regional tradition. I understood, of course, that in the decades since, the festival has evolved into a wildly popular tourist attraction, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw this past summer, when more than a million people from all over the world descended on Pamplona for the fiesta, the running of the bulls, and the corrida (the bullfight). The narrow cobblestone streets were packed. Almost everyone was dressed in the traditional garb of San Fermín festivalgoers: white shirt and red bandana. Moving with the crowd on the third afternoon of the fiesta, I felt like I was inside an unhinged version of Where’s Waldo. A marching band plowed its way past me, the tuba player spinning with his unwieldy instrument. The restaurants sold overpriced pintxos (the Basque version of tapas), and the storefronts hawked T-shirts and plush bull toys, some of them stuck with miniature spears. In the Plaza de Toros, somebody had placed a red fedora and a string of Mardi Gras beads on the statue of Hemingway.

When I bought my ticket to the corrida from a round-faced Basque scalper, I had my hesitations. For the first 22 years of my life, I had been a staunch vegetarian. When I was 12, my father (who was not a vegetarian) gave me a copy of Animal Liberation, the seminal work by the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, and for a time, the book was my bible. More recently, I’ve started eating meat occasionally, opting for cuts that are, I make sure to learn, “responsibly raised” by local farmers. I told myself that I was attending the bullfight as a journalist—I’d chosen not to wear the white shirt and red bandana—but I was far from sure I’d be able to stomach sitting in a cheering crowd while a bull was tortured to death.

The corrida began with the matadors and their teams paying their respects to the crowd and the presiding dignitaries. The fighters dressed in colorful traditional costumes, looking a bit like rhinestone cowboys, in their slim-fitting suits that sparkled glamorously in the afternoon sun. The head matador, or torero, was the most extravagantly dressed, his green suit laced with gold. My seat was about halfway down the stands, in the shady half of the arena, where the serious aficionados tend to sit. On the other side, in the unrelenting sun, the peñas—local social clubs—were already going wild, singing, waving flags, sharing wine, and now and then whipping pastries at one another.

Without more fanfare, the first bull charged out through a trap door. He was much larger and stronger than any bull you’ve seen in a roadside pasture. I had expected him to behave aggressively from the moment of his entrance, but this was not the case. At first, he seemed mostly confused, running from one side of the arena to the other, testing the boundaries of the enclosure. I would later learn that before they are brought to the corrida, the animals are kept together in large pastures away from human beings. Until this moment, the bull had probably never seen more than a few people. Now, here were 20,000. The noise was deafening.

After a few moments, four mounted men—the picadors—cantered into the arena. The bull started toward one of the horses at a jog. He lowered his head as he neared the horse, its rider using a long spear to stab him in his prominent neck muscles. The bull still managed to make contact with the horse’s flank, which was protected with quilted armor. The crowd booed the picador ferociously, apparently for his failure to keep the bull away from his mount. In the early 20th century, before armor was required, more horses than bulls died in the arena. Today, they often suffer broken ribs, bruised organs, and internal bleeding, injuries that sometimes prove fatal.

By this point, less than two minutes into the fight, I found myself in a strange state, both disgusted and transfixed. Blood covered both of the bull’s flanks. The picadors were soon replaced by banderilleros, men holding the short, colorfully decorated lances known as banderillas. They ran straight and fast at the bull, who also began to charge, and with acrobatic flourish sank the barbed tips of the lances beneath the animal’s skin, so that the lances hung against his flank and neck. After these wounds were inflicted, the bull held his head much lower than he had when he first entered the arena. This is the object of a corrida. In order for the torero to kill the bull without running too great a risk of being gored, the animal must not be holding his head high.

I now found myself unpleasantly jittery—probably due to an overload of adrenaline as well as concern for both the bull and the men. Still, I couldn’t look away. The banderilleros retreated, and the torero entered the arena. He unfurled a red cape, behind which he held a long, thin blade. For a few moments, the bull watched the cloth and the man, seeming at once furious and perplexed. The crowd went quiet, and you could hear the heaviness of the bull’s breathing, made loud by the saliva and blood in his mouth and nose. Then, he charged, lowering his horns at the cape and the man hidden behind it, the decorated lances thwacking against his ribs. At the last possible moment, the torero stood tall and spun, allowing the tips of the horns to pass just under his arm as he swept the cape over the animal’s head.

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