Monday, 1 August 2011

Theatre of Blood

Readers who, like me, keep a keen eye on those goofy animal stories halfway down the Daily Mail homepage (stoner chihuahuas, anyone? Chocoholic fish?) will have noticed that bullfighting in Spain is to be 'developed and protected' in the face of well-publicised movements to institute a ban.

A statement made by the Ministry of Culture, which described corrida de toros as 'an artistic discipline and cultural product' reinforces the bloodsport's status as a symbol of Spanish nationalism, and comes as a direct response to last year's banning of bullfights in Catalonia.

The Catalan campaign against bullfighting was itself interpreted as a defiant reaction to the striking down of Catalonia's statute of autonomy in July 2010. The campaign - to extend animal protection laws to include the bulls and horses that are (ab)used in bullfights - was called Prou! - 'Enough!' in Catalan. The language issue highlights the political tensions between Spain and its autonomous communities: public use of Catalan was repressed under Franco and although its usage has been restored and encouraged since 1975 it is still a language that asserts difference from the Spanish mainstream.

Historically bullfighting is no less Catalan than it is Spanish, but corrida in the twenty-first century is posited as a kind of blood-soaked national anthem, and marketed as a tourist industry. Despite its cultural status, it does not necessarily mean much to ordinary citizens: most spectators of bullfights in Madrid are tourists, while in 2010 more than 60,000 inhabitants of Madrid signed a petition calling for a vote on banning them. The regional government's response was to declare the corrida protected as a part of Madrid's cultural heritage.

As is often the case, what should be a question about fundamental animal rights has been overshadowed by different political and emotional issues, in this case disputes about regional autonomy and national identity. Ideally EU animal protection laws would be stringent and comprehensive enough to protect all animals under its jurisdiction; the right to life should not be subject to cultural relativism. It is disgraceful that a tradition that involves the torture and slaughter of goaded and frightened animals can still be defended and even praised as an 'artistic discipline and cultural product.'

A country can embrace its history of warfaring, imperialism, slavery or head-shrinking, as the case may be - the  past should not be forgotten or censored, good or bad. The continued development and protection of a practice that is clearly in breach of internationally accepted standards of animal welfare cannot be justified or, I hope, sustained.

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