The habit of killing

By Olivia Rose-Innes

Customs like bull-killing aren’t just hard luck for animals. Hanging on to old outdated ways can be very bad for us too.

Embarrassingly enough for a South African journalist, I don't know too much about ritual Zulu bull-killing. But I am somewhat qualified to comment on a closely related, far more infamous custom.

Curious foreigners seeking the “real Spain”, or another tick on their Genuine Life Experiences list, make a significant financial contribution to that country’s still highly popular sport/entertainment/art-form: la corrida de toros, or, less romantically in English: the bullfight.

My justification, when I forked out 29 Euros for a ticket to the bullring in Guadalajara, central Spain, was the journalistic imperative of witnessing one’s subject-matter first hand. No idle whim or tourist lark in my case; this was Work; this was me taking a moral and emotional body-blow for my readers.

 I was also showing off my open-mindedness to my host – a gentle, thoughtful Spaniard who had gone to great trouble to explain and share his culture with me.

He spoke ardently of la corrida’s place at the heart of that culture, of its unique, strange beauty, of how it helps people come to terms with life and death. That this is not just the matador’s moment but the bull’s, where he too can become the best he can be: a noble, courageous creature, for whom the spectators feel great respect.

That the magnificent, specially bred Iberian bull, which leads a princely life pre-corrida, wouldn’t exist otherwise. That the matadors risk their lives. That the Spanish view of death and relationship with animals is different to the Anglo-Saxon. That this has been going on for hundreds of years, and is an intrinsic part of Spanish culture and identity.

So I went to the bullfight. Which I would describe thus (with as much of that other journalistic imperative – objectivity – as I can muster on this topic):

A sentient mammal in the prime of life, with a highly developed nervous system and no choice in the matter, is forced into a frightening, glaring, roaring space where for 15 minutes he is confused and tortured, and then killed, by members of another sentient species. His grace and vitality are progressively stripped from him until he is dragged, a dead lump, from the ring. Then repeat: five more times, five more bulls, five more deaths.

I expected to be shocked, and I was, but – and this is the point I really want to make here – not all that much.

The death of empathy
The ring, the ranked crowds, the pageant of violence and death have obvious parallels with the gladiatorial arena. But there is also a sense of tragicomic absurdity, of a holiday atmosphere reminiscent of more modern circuses. In fact my five-year-old self at Boswell Wilkie kept surfacing, raging at the sad indignity of the performing lions, wishing one would refuse the fiery hoop, and strike.

However this crowd – families with kids, pensioners, couples on dates – was not raging, not baying for blood. They could have been supporting their home team at the Saturday afternoon match: enjoying a well-worn tradition, tucking into drinks and snacks, spiritedly shouting their approval or disapproval of the performance.

Growing accustomed. A boy in clown festival costume at the Guadalajara bullring.(Photo: Olivia Rose-Innes)

When the matador tossed one of the bull’s severed ears into the crowd and a girl two rows down from me caught it, there was no sign of either disgust or unseemly relish. She giggled as if she’d caught a baseball instead of a body part, popped it into her bag for safe-keeping, and flirtatiously held up her bloodied hand for her boyfriend to photograph.

They weren’t enjoying the bull’s suffering; rather, it just didn’t bother them.

Even for me, a foreigner and an animal-rights softie into the bargain, it was all somehow… familiar.

Before this, my first exposure to a flesh-and-blood matador and toro, I’d seen their image reproduced in countless paintings and photos and cartoons, on a billion souvenir plates and mugs and fans. This strange duo, the man and beast locked together in their death dance, is as emblematic of Spain as a pair of flamenco dancers, and, viewed enough times, in this stylised way, the image becomes acceptable, harmless.

It almost starts to seem, like a plate of roast beef with all the trimmings does, as if it’s part of the natural ordinary order of things, as if it’s meant to be.

A custom is that to which we have become accustomed. It’s an act we’ve repeated so many times for so long we often aren’t sure why or how it started, but we don’t really care. Because we like it. It feels right. It feels like home.

Over the centuries a practice becomes so layered with all the meanings and trappings we’ve added to it, its essence is obscured and we no longer see it for what it really is. One reason that the Ukweshwama Zulu bull-killing ritual is so shocking to those for whom it has never been a tradition, is that it’s new to us – we haven’t grown up with all the significant associations, so we simply see an animal being maimed.

And all the matador’s skill and bravery and his sparkling suit do not change the base fact that a helpless creature, who knows nothing about our peculiar human desires for him to become a symbol of nobility in death and whatnot, suffers and dies.

To witness such a spectacle is only tolerable if you have ceased to believe fully in the animal’s pain and fear. Unfortunately the bull aids in this trick of arrested empathy because he does not scream or cry or beg for mercy; he does what he has been bred to do: he fights.

It’s well-documented that cruelty to animals is bad for people; serial killers and genocidal regimes frequently rehearse on animals before they graduate to humans. But customs that involve the elaborate and systematic suppression of empathy and compassion, coupled with an insistence to “do things as they’ve always been done”, could be bad for the world in other far-reaching ways too.

World leaders are converging on Copenhagen for another (some would say desperate) attempt next week to avert planet-wide calamity. A calamity we’re facing because we’re stuck in our old ways of selfishness and consumption, of doing things as we always have because it suits us, of failing to engage with what’s happening beyond the ambit of our personal lives, of suspending empathy for others – human and otherwise – because it’s more comfortable not to care.

We are now all responsible, like it or not, for what humanity gets up to; the world is not an amusement park where some can pay for rides through other people’s quaint but harmless ways. The fact that something "has been going on for hundreds of years" is not a good reason to continue doing it: it’s an excellent argument that it’s high time for change.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, December 2009

Judge Nic van der Reyden has ruled that the Ukweshwama ritual will go ahead as scheduled this Saturday, 5 December. The ritual involves killing a bull with bare hands to give thanks for the first crops of the season.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, 7-18 December 2009, nations will hopefully put in place political agreements to effectively reduce emissions and slow climate change. 

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