Slow slaughter at the bull fight

Chin jutting matador, Madrid, Spain
Chin jutting matador | Photo by Lauren Girardin

It ends with an old man crouched over a short-handled hoe, scooping sand soaked with coagulated blood into a woven basket, the kind you might see eco-minded people using to carry fresh vegetables home from the farmers’ market.

It begins with a two-year old bull being led to its romanticized death-by-stabbing in Madrid‘s famous bull ring, Plaza de Toros de las Ventas.

Bloody back of a bull, Madrid, Spain
Bloody back of a bull | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Our friends the Baron and Baroness declined our invitation to join us at the corrida, or bullfight, saying “If there’s something like a tailgate, we’d be game for that. Otherwise we’ll pass.” So Todd and I are by ourselves, close to the action in fifth row seats.

The matadores at tonight’s fight are foreign noviados, or amateurs, which could mean dull face-offs between a inept matador and bull, or the goring of an inexperienced, clumsy matador.

Either way the bull dies.

First blood comes from a pincdore, a lancer on horseback, who makes a shallow wound along the back of the bull’s neck, causing the bull’s head to lower so it’s easier for the matador to stab later. The bull attacks back, rearing against the blade, desperately trying to take down the heavily padded horse and rider.

It’s around this point that the bull starts to cry out. It’s a low, desperate moan that echoes off the hard surfaces of the bull ring.

Second blood comes as three successive banderilleros, or flagmen, puncture the bull’s back with stubby blades attached to fuzz-covered dowels, looking disturbingly like those hors d’oeuvre toothpicks with the plastic fringe wrapped around one end. Embedded firmly in muscle, the blades keep fresh blood flowing, soaking the fuzz and running down the bull’s legs to the ground.

Supposedly, this is done to anger the bull so that he will charge with enthusiasm, making the fight more exciting. In practice, the bull seems weakened and – allowing for some anthropomorphizing – resigned to the death that, at this point, must be all too obvious.

How long can we keep watching the fight before we’re totally grossed out? How long can you keep reading this story before you’re grossed out?

In bright pink socks and a skintight outfit that spares no genital detail, the matador enters the ring like a hero come home from war. As again and again the matador tries to get the bull to charge, there’s an enormous amount of chin jutting, cape snapping, lapel flapping, full of posturing and swaggering.

Scooping blood soaked sand, Madrid, Spain
Scooping blood soaked sand | Photo by Lauren Girardin

The bull’s tongue dangles from his mouth. He’s panting and bleeding. It’s time for this to end.

Third blood comes when the matador stabs the bull in the back of the neck with a long thin sword. If the sword enters deep enough in the right spot, the bull’s legs will buckle, his head will lower, and he’ll die. Sometimes, the sword stabs too shallow or off the mark and the matador needs to try again, leaving pulsing, raw muscle visible through the bull’s cut hide. Sometimes, the sword pierces a lung and the bull coughs up blood – painful but not enough to kill instantly. Once the bull has collapsed, the matador strides off the field to applause from the crowd.

We’re not done. That’s not the final blood. A burly man walks over to the bull and unceremoniously stabs him in the back of the head with a dagger, jiggles it around the brain cavity, and yanks it out, perhaps putting a boot on the bull’s head for leverage before strapping the bull to a team of horses that drags the body from the field.

In the end, an old man enters the ring carrying a short-handled hoe and a woven basket. He does this six times tonight, collecting the blood of the six bulls that die.

Travel Photos from Madrid, Spain

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.