Running of the Bulls (So What if it’s Tradition?)

From a young age we are taught to respect traditions, the term is used to describe activities that have been passed down from generation to generation; it’s used to describe ‘the way things are’. Traditions have a cultural importance and need to be upheld, they add to the unique tapestry of the world by helping countries as well as communities define themselves. They belong to the past and the present.

But what happens if a tradition no longer has a place in society? Do we keep them as we always have or can we break the cycle?

Because we are taught to be respectful and accepting of other people’s traditions we often feel it is not our place to challenge or question the status quo when it does not feel right to us (I’m guilty for this at least). It’s a catch-22 situation: we don’t want to offend anyone but on the other hand, our passivity aids the opposition, “If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity” said Einstein.

I’d like to think most of the world’s traditions have rightfully earned their celebratory status in the world of culture, but I cannot understand – in any conceivable way – why, or how, the Running of the Bulls is able to have a place in today’s world. To those who are not familiar with this practise it involves hundreds of people running in front of a group of bulls that have been let loose down designated stretches of narrow streets in a town. But what less people know is that it ends in a savage bullfight.

It takes place in several regions but the most famous Running of the Bulls happens in Pamplona during the week-long festival of San Fermín which draws in over a million visitors every year.

Running of the Bulls in Pamplona

It attracts people from all over the world, who see it as a passage of courage, a medal of bravery, or the ultimate injection for an adrenaline junkie. But the truth is, there’s no courage to be found in a cruel event that takes advantage of frightened animals being mocked and provoked by a roaring crowd of people. Can you imagine how distressed you’d feel if you were taken out of your natural environment and plunged into a pit filled with bulls stampeding chaotically around you? You’d do anything to try and survive wouldn’t you? And just when you thought the worst was over, you are dragged into a ring and stripped naked before being forced to fight for your life against an animal that could wipe the floor with you in a second. But it doesn’t. Instead it sadistically decides to gauge you with its horns repeatedly until you die a slow and excruciating death.

A scenario like this is almost impossible to imagine because it never would happen to me or you, but that describes the exact fate of those poor and defenceless bulls. After the run, they finish up in the bullring where they are brutally speared by men on horseback until eventually, their spinal cord is cut and some kind of solace can be found in this, the final strike that ends their abhorrent misery. Make no mistake: this is murder.

Photo credit: Markkula

Photo credit:

So why does this continue to take place every year? There’s only one word to explain it, and it is ‘tradition’.

As I mentioned earlier, tradition has become synonymous with respect and people use this as an excuse for partaking in the Running of the Bulls. It can be seen as a form of cultural immersion and therefore justified, but a recent poll found out that 72% of Spaniards had no interest in bullfighting yet it still persists. This static makes interesting food for thought – whose ‘tradition’ are we therefore feeding if Spaniards are turnings their back on it? The tourism industry’s, that’s who. All those that financially benefit from the hoard of visitors who wish to partake in this ludicrous bloodsport.

No matter how important traditions are, or how important tourism is for a community, they should never precede the welfare of humans, animals and the environment.

One travel blogger, who has first-hand experience of a bullfight is Lizzie from Wanderful World, she’s written a short yet candid reflection of what she witnessed and how she felt. She begins by saying: “Bullfighting, for me, was a mix of emotions. I know it is such a huge part of traditional Spanish culture, which is why I made the decision to go and see one”. This comment brings light to everything I’ve tried to communicate thus far – until we stop looking at Running of the Bulls and bullfighting as a tradition it will continue to attract people because it’s steeped inside a discourse of respect, heritage and culture. These are all positive traits that should usually be encouraged, but like most things in life, there are exceptions to rules and this is one of them. Lizzie also goes on to say,

Looking back through my photos readdressed the horror and disgust I felt at the sport tenfold, particularly the close ups I had taken of the bleeding bulls. Why was I documenting something so horrible? Then I thought about it. I didn’t know what to expect beforehand, as I expect many people who have never seen a bullfight do, so I hope they offer those who are unaware of the tradition an insight into it.

Be part of a different Spanish Tradition

If you would like to experience a different Spanish tradition, then why not get stuck into La Tomatina? – the world’s biggest tomato fight! Both fights end up in a sea of red, but there’s a huge difference, one is a sea of blood and the other is a sea of vitamins. One fight ends up in death, and in the other, nobody gets hurts.

See how much fun it looks:

Photo credit: Flickr/Ivett5
Photo credit: Flickr/Ivett5

For more information about the Running of the Bulls and animal cruelty please visit the Peta website, and read about Running of the Nudes in Pamplona for inspiration! These people are the ones with true courage.

A travel & culture blog specialising in Scandinavia and the Arctic, peppered with the rest of the world in between.

'Running of the Bulls (So What if it’s Tradition?)' have 25 comments

  1. January 18, 2014 @ 5:00 am Colleen Brynn

    Yeah, this totally breaks my heart. As much as I love Spain, this is a side of it I will never understand or get on board with. I actually had a good debate/discussion with a Spanish guy about the bull fighting 2 years ago in Segovia. It was interesting to hear his side of things even though I don’t agree and never will. I think it’s just so tragic. I hate to think of animals being treated like this, especially for sport. Having said that… la tomatina would be fabulous. I would love to do that one day.


    • January 20, 2014 @ 8:49 pm admin

      Discussions are always healthy to have so we can see both sides of the coin, but some things are inexcusable and animal cruelty is one of them. As you said Colleen, it’s tragic and I just can’t see how it can be justified under any light.

      On a more positive note, I’d love to do La Tomatina too, it looks awesome!


  2. January 18, 2014 @ 3:57 pm Ola

    I absolutety agree that the word ‘tradition’ isn’t any justification for such cruelty, though many people use it for it. And I agree that we all should speak up against it even though at the beginning it may seem hopeless.


    • January 20, 2014 @ 9:10 pm admin

      Hi Ola, I’m glad my message came through in this post and that you agree with it. It can be difficult to speak out, especially when you’re part of a minority (in this case I’m sure we’re part of the majority but the sound of the crowd applauding with excitement seems to overpower the more reserved opposition).

      For a quieter life, sometimes I can be guilty of turning a blind eye to things, but that’s not always the right attitude to have in situations where vulnerable people or animals depend on us to speak out.


  3. January 18, 2014 @ 4:38 pm Alvaro

    Interesting. I happen to think that bull fighting no longer qualifies as ‘tradition’ as it is a blood sport in the decline. Also, Spain appears to have turned the corner on the subject because areas that were popular with bull fighting are no more and there are even areas of the country were it is outright banned (Catalonia).

    I would argue that the concept of tradition and culture is fed by industries that directly benefit from the spectacle ( hotels, livestock farmers and all othe local industries that benefit form the income generated by the festivals).

    In a more personal note, I fought with the morbid curiosity of the festival and thought about doing it but at the end decided to face the nasty side of it and could not bring my conscience to ignore the cruelty at the core of the festival.

    Bull fighting will continue for a number of reasons but but very few if any will be able to stand on the concept of tradition. It will continue to be popular until the money that keeps it going (tourist dollars)dry up and then it will cease.

    I would encourage those wanting to see it to search for videos and watch them to see if you can truly stomach what bulls go through. If you find yourself still seeking blood, watch an MMA event or boxing; our morbid need for blood spirt should not be at the expense of our conscience or another species.


    • January 20, 2014 @ 9:47 pm admin

      Hi Alvaro, I agree with you that tourism now drives the upkeep of Running of the Bulls (hence that 72% of Spaniards have no interest in it). It’s very promising to read that its popularity has declined, but this highlights that the tourism industry therefore glorifies this bloodsport to encourage more visitors. And they do still use ‘tradition’ as an excuse or marketing tool, even if Spaniards now reject it themselves.

      The tourism industry should turn their attention towards festivals like La Tomatina for their fun and vibrancy, plus a whole load of people drench in tomato juice makes for a damn good photo! (Why the hell anyone would want to take a photo of a bull speared to death is beyond me).

      In general, Spain has soooooo much to offer in terms of culture and natural beauty that it doesn’t need to continue this horrible bloodsport in order to attract visitors who want a unique experience of some kind.

      You’ve made a good point re: watching videos of bullfighting first – it’s a good way to stop anyone wanting to partake. Thanks for your insightful thoughts on this subject.


  4. January 18, 2014 @ 7:17 pm Mike

    This is an amazing post, Shing, and I loved it! I’m an animal lover and I see a soul in all of them. That’s just me. Your words nailed it right on the head, “But the truth is, there’s no courage to be found in a cruel event that takes advantage of frightened animals being mocked and provoked by a roaring crowd of people..” Thank you for this, our friend 🙂


    • January 23, 2014 @ 10:35 pm admin

      Like you Mike, I see so much of ourselves in animals, and well, we are animals! We are all sentient beings, so why do that to an animal when we wouldn’t do it to another human being? It’s barbaric.


  5. January 20, 2014 @ 1:26 pm Lizzie

    Shing, I completely agree with all that you say here. When I was in Spain I decided to go to see a bullfight because, well, it’s ‘tradition’. But nothing prepared me for what I would see or experience. Hearing the bulls’ pained moans crying out across the ring and people actually clapping at this was heartbreaking. I found myself getting angrier and more and more upset watching the matadors prance around dragging out the inevitable and had to leave half-way through because I could not believe what I was seeing. The worst bit is watching the bulls fighting back, trying everything they can to stay alive. But, of course, they have no chance. Watching the life leave something is never going to be easy, especially when the bulls are so vibrant and alive when they enter the ring.

    I wrote a post about this on my blog, too, but words never to it justice. I hope it’s banned one day, I really do. I struggle to see how anyone can think it’s acceptable.


    • January 25, 2014 @ 10:06 am admin

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience and horror of seeing a Bullfight Lizzie. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the camaraderie of activities that ingest a lot of adrenaline, or which belong to an act of tradition. To counteract this we need more pieces written against it, like the very honest and emotive article you wrote – I should include a link to it in this post actually. Because I feel many people go to the Running of the Bulls and even Bullfighting without actually knowing what really happens, and if they did know they wouldn’t go. It’s a cliche, but ignorance is bliss.

      “Watching the life leave something is never going to be easy, especially when the bulls are so vibrant and alive when they enter the ring”… so true, and so sad and pointless.


  6. January 25, 2014 @ 3:09 pm beth teliho

    Heartbreaking. Absolutely tragic. Your post was spot on and so powerful. I read through all your comments, too, and I actually got teary eyed at the descriptions. Makes me ill that these things still go on in this day and age, but I agree with your one commenter that tourism money encourages it.

    Your blog is lovely! Looking forward to reading more!


    • February 1, 2014 @ 6:47 pm admin

      Hi Beth! Thank you for your comment, its good to read that you responded to this post in such a passionate way. It makes me feel sick too. Yes, Alvaro made a very true point about tourism being the greatest offender in this cruel spot, and this opens up many questions about the social and environmental impact which tourism has. As someone who loves to travel I often struggle with the impact I have on the environment…. we should all make decisions to lessen this impact.


  7. January 29, 2014 @ 7:56 pm Richard

    Have you read The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway? It’s a really good story set around the running of the bulls in Pamplona. I fancied going to that, and to a bullfight, when I read the book years ago. He also wrote Death in the Afternoon, a history of bullfighting which romanticises it all a bit. Not sure how he’d feel about La Tomatina, though!


    • February 1, 2014 @ 6:51 pm admin

      Hi Richard, I haven’t read The Sun Also Rises but I would like to, not only for Hemingway but to get a different perspective of Running of the Bulls. Hemingway is such a brilliant writer that he could probably romanticise a turd so it doesn’t surprise me that you fancied doing it after you read the novel. However, I hope you see it in a different light now…


  8. February 4, 2014 @ 1:11 am Mike | Earthdrifter

    The tourists fueling the Running of the Bulls are probably the ones I’d rather not run into.

    As some of the comments have stated, it’s economics. This is why animals are treated horribly so money can be made from their flesh, and it’s the reason wars are created.


    • August 26, 2014 @ 9:08 pm admin

      I wouldn’t want to run into those tourists either Mike.

      I know… money… the root of all evil….


  9. August 23, 2014 @ 11:03 pm Charlie

    Oh my gosh, I nearly totally freaked out at the last photo after having looked at the photo before reading the paragraph about tomatoes… and following on from the bleeding bull photo…

    The whole thing is really distressing for me to think about, and I find it really difficult to comprehend why a country would want to hold onto a “tradition” like this. Well written post, Shing.


    • August 26, 2014 @ 9:33 pm admin

      After not seeing this post for a while, and then reading your comment about seeing the photo of the people and the tomatoes I can see why you’d freak out! Sorry about that!! But at least you were hit by a massive sigh of relief afterwards 🙂

      I find it really distressing too but the more we know about it the louder the protests against it will become. Thanks for reading Charlie.


      • August 27, 2014 @ 2:36 am Charlie

        Yes, oh man, I was so relieved that they were tomatoes!!

        I certainly agree.


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  11. September 1, 2014 @ 12:49 pm Nina

    I’m Spanish and I have never been to a bullfight, nor do any of my friends. When I was little, bullfighting was on public TV every day and my dad never allowed us to watch. I think from very young I felt it was such a brutality that i couldn’t understand or explain. Still nowadays you will discuss this subject with grown up adults who defend it, but they will never come up with a valid argument. It’s all for the sake of entertainment and cruelty, a circus of the horror. And these poor animals like many others in different countries for the sake of tradition suffer an excruciately painful and cruel death. It should put shame into every Spaniard out there as this is not what this country stands for. I’m glad it’s in the decline though sadly it’s still very big in many south american countries and even in France. Bullfighting is not exclusive of Spain, but it’s an abominable tradition.


    • September 23, 2014 @ 9:16 am admin

      Hi Nina, sorry about the late reply. It’s really interesting to read a response from someone who is Spanish. I’m glad your father’s intolerance of the ‘sport’ probably played a role in your attitude towards it from an early age. I imagine it must have been quite hard to avoid seeing it when it is shown as a matter of normality on television. I strongly believe a large part of who we become as adults is shaped by our childhood and that’s why it’s so important to ban cruelty like this. We don’t want generations after generations supporting cruelty of any kind.

      Your comment also shows how bullfighting is marketed very much towards tourism. You and your friends have never watched it, and it’s a declining sport/tradition for Spaniards yet tens of thousands of people flock to Spain, and other countries every year to specifically celebrate this festival. The marketing has to stop. It’s inconceivably disgusting how people can market and celebrate the cruelty and death of animals. It makes me feel sick.


  12. September 22, 2014 @ 7:38 am Franca

    I love Spain but I really don’t like and don’t support this “tradition”, is it really necessary? I wish they would see it the way I do and stop making the animals suffer for nothing 🙁


    • September 23, 2014 @ 9:28 am admin

      I love Spain too Franca, but this tradition needs putting to death 🙁


  13. September 24, 2014 @ 2:43 pm Steve

    I am not a fan of this tradition. The problem is persuading the Spanish that this has to change. This I fear will take a long time. Thanks for the post.


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