Running Into Trouble: Can the Spanish Be Proud of Their 'Bull' Culture Without Being Barbaric?

People of Spain: Say no to these embarrassingly un-macho and old-fashioned barbaric practices. We'll do all we can at this end to support you and bring the focus back to all the magical and positive parts of your endearing culture.

I've just come back from a week's holiday in Spain and chose an area that I thought would be a little more off the beaten track than the package holiday destinations of norm. Our charity has done some work speaking out about bull fighting and cruel fiestas, so unlike many tourists I had a good understanding of the issues to be found in many locations across Spain re animal cruelty, mostly linked to bulls.

However, I was caught off guard when I discovered to my horror that the week I was going to be in Denia, the small resort town near Benidorm where we stayed , was the same week the town was hosting the annual 'Bous a la Mar' Festival.

The Bous a la Mar (Bulls in the Sea) is a festival that involves some seemingly obligatory Spanish bull cruelty - some running through the streets against a background of tormenting spectators and where a make-shift half bull ring is assembled on the edge of the port. Here, spectators tease and pester the bull to try to get it to fall off the edge of the port wall into the water below. If the bull does fall, a small boat attempts a rescue, though a quick internet search reveals that it's not rare for any bull to instead die a painful death by drowning.

This festival - one of thousands of similar events across Spain - takes place for just over a week with bullring activities twice daily. On the same week, the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona took place, where numerous bulls were tormented and slaughtered in the name of culture.

Local news reported that 1000 injuries to participants were treated in Pamplona during the week-long event, with 50 hospitalised, including an Australian woman who was gored severely.

A few weeks ago on this blog I called for tourists to boycott Iceland due to their crazy decision to re-allow commercial whaling. This makes sense owing to the exact details of the licensing and the relationship of tourism to their GDP. (Since then one major shipping firm that ships from Iceland has refused to transport whale meat!). To call for a boycott of Spain for their cruelty to animals and their heritage of slaughter would be lunacy as it would have no impact, so another approach is needed, but what I saw in Denia shows that there is real hope.

There are two angles here - one is re unaware, perhaps uncaring (can I call them 'idiot'?) tourists, supporting this barbaric medieval practice and encouraging these so called traditions to continue. In today's day and age it really doesn't take much to work out that taking part in such activities or going to a bull fight to 'see what it's like' or 'because you have to see a bull fight when you're in Spain' is somewhat stupid and by doing it you are as good as stabbing the bull with the lance yourself.

What we always say as part of our animal-tourism campaign is if you wouldn't do it at home, don't do it when you are overseas - i.e. don't leave your morals at home. To clarify this further, an example - if you live in Telford and Telford was hosting a bull fight, it's pretty unlikely that you would pay your hard earned money to attend, watch it on TV, or bring your kids or partners to see it, so doing it in Spain isn't right either.

The second angle is typically seen as the one that is hardest to tackle - the attitudes of the Spanish people. The Spanish government is trying to hang on to its 'culture' by spending EU subsidies on bull fighting (yes - your tax is helping to pay for this - remember that when you see your next take home pay cheque, some of which went towards the estimated €130million subsidy this year) and is also trying to get 'cultural status' for bullfighting to distance itself from the ever increasing animal welfare concerns that puts it on the periphery of EU practices.

However, what I will call the 'Denia Reality' is that many Spanish people seem to completely not care about bull fighting one way or another.

Whilst there certainly was some happy bull tormentors at the makeshift bullring each evening, many seats in the stands were empty, whereas the bars and cafes, the funfair and the promenades were packed with tourists and locals alike. And this wasn't just a one-off, it was like this every night. This is a scene that is replicated in bullrings around Spain every night - hence why it is subsidised.

Despite the posters in the local shops, there seemed to be a complete lack of local interest in the bull elements of this fiesta, and as if to reinforce this outside of the town, even the national news only showed 10-20 seconds of generic bull running clips of Pamplona each night, by far the most famous bull event of the year in Spain.

So, from seeing this and speaking to locals it appears that in Spain, bullfighting and bull fiestas are not big news. (This is backed up by recent surveys which showed that at least 70% of Spanish people are opposed to bull fighting).

Half of this is good, half is bad. The good half is that it seems no one will miss it if these fiestas are replaced with different spectacles; the bad half is that the heritage and symbolism of bulls in Spanish culture is strong enough for people to accept these fiestas still. Aside from the imagery in marketing and tourism, driving round the region you can see that most towns even have a large metal bull on the top of a big hill overlooking the town.

One positive, and by no means the best solution, but a step in the right direction, was an event at the bullring called 'Recortadores' where 'stuntmen play tricks, perform stunts, and do dodges' with live bulls but, as the material clearly states - 'without injuring the bull'. Whilst I'm not advocating any kind of attractions that purposely agitate and torment animals, this is certainly better than habitual slaughter.

Perhaps this is the middle ground for the interim period between now and a Spain without bull cruelty, a Spain which currently kills an estimated 250,000 bulls per year in bullfighting?

Why do we need a middle ground? Well, what clearly isn't working as planned is outside organisations like ours just preaching about the cruelty of these events and trying to drive change solely from the outside. Educating tourists does help and does have an impact, and this is something all of us can help with, but alone it just isn't enough. What we need to do is to recognise the importance of the bulls in Spanish culture, but also to get the many Spanish who seem to be on the fence about or against bull fighting to come off it and speak out.

We need to do that by getting them on side and not alienating them by just preaching about cruelty, but instead to show that their 'macho' tradition is actually counter-intuitive. In fact, these outdated traditions are making Spain the laughing stock of Europe. It's fair to say that in the 70s when package holidays started to grow in popularity the common image here in the UK of Spain and its people, driven in no small way by the character Manuel in Fawlty Towers, was that of a simple and somewhat backward nation.

If we could show that by continuing these senseless traditions that Spain, a country steeped in history, culture, tradition, the arts and outstanding natural beauty, still after all these years continues to be seen as Europe's backward cousin, then things will begin to change.After all, change always comes from within - we've seen this just recently with the Arab Spring.

So, People of Spain: Say no to these embarrassingly un-macho and old-fashioned barbaric practices. We'll do all we can at this end to support you and bring the focus back to all the magical and positive parts of your endearing culture.