Bullfighting – the “shame of Spain,” “an anathema to our customs” – scoffed at the beliefs of animal protectionists “at the very heart of the civilized world”; during the first fifty years of its existence, the SPA never ceased to rail against the introduction onto French soil of Spanish-style bullfighting, a form of bullfighting in which the bull is killed. An understanding of the history of moral protests against bullfighting requires an appreciation of both the heterogeneity and the evolution of the underlying reasons and motives of such protests. An evolutionary perspective is all the more necessary because the codification of bullfighting went through many changes over time. In order to avoid anachronisms, we should therefore carefully identify the “victims” of bullfighting, whose suffering provoked the indignation of its opponents. It is clear that, at first, the fate of the bulls was in no way regarded as a cause for concern, even by animal protectionists. The stabs that the bull inevitably received did not allow it to have any claims to the status of victim, which initially, in the minds of the animal protectionists, was reserved for horses.
The bull is destined to be eaten, as it is established in advance that his meat will feed men. It is true – and it is a health argument which the Protection Society should add to its list of arguments for stopping these combats – it is true that, because of the states of fatigue and overexcitement of the animal preceding its death, there is a risk that its meat will not be palatable, or even healthy. It is therefore distributed among members of the lower classes, who eat it at their risk and peril: but it is nonetheless true that in a certain way it fulfills its destiny when it dies in the arena. The stabs which it receives are not deep wounds and are only intended to agitate the bull. Furthermore, the animal is almost invariably killed outright thanks to the remarkable skills of the matador.
Until their final hour, the victims of the cruel games – stags hunted with hounds, pigeons used for shooting, fighting cocks, and bulls used in corridas – have all “lived their lives.” This is emphatically not the case for THE HORSE. The real victim of the arena only yesterday worked our fields, transported the stones used to make our houses, and was our companion on the front. He worked in the town and in the countryside, he toiled, he suffered, he grew old in the service of men, he lived side by side with us, he gave us his all. And now, today, for the depraved delectation of the spectators in the arena, the picador will put a blindfold over his right eye, to remove any chance of him being saved. He will use him as a shield, and he will be offered up, a living target, to the bull’s horns. In this regard, it is worth recalling that for many decades the picadors’ horses were equipped with absolutely no protection against the often deadly attacks of the bulls so the goring of horses was a common sight at bullfights. The SPA, whose membership included many horsemen, often of aristocratic stock, felt that they had no choice but to take a stand against the ill-treatment of this particularly noble animal: “the sad fate reserved for the horses which participated in these bloody celebrations had attracted the attention of the society for some time.”
In fact, the description of the suffering of the picador‘s mounts, their cries, and their desperate attempts to flee as they tripped over their own guts, as well as the horrified accounts of spectators, constituted a sensitizing device which was frequently mobilized in order to provoke emotional reactions of shock, disgust, and revulsion, which would lead to calls for the immediate prohibition of bullfighting. The dismounted picador walks away, and the bull, distracted for a moment, wastes no time coming back to the horse, laying in the sand, and goring him once more. So the real martyr, the principal victim, in this bloody spectacle is the horse. “It was during a bullfight, I was in the front row of the terraces, two meters away, against the fence. A picador had come to lean against his old black horse. One of the horse’s eyes was blindfolded so that he could not see the arena. The other eye which was on the side of the horse next to me was uncovered, gentle, vaguely concerned, vaguely sad. Suddenly, the bull charged, and with a soft thud, its horn went straight through the horse’s belly and made a knocking sound as it made contact with the fence. The horse did not budge, did not cry out, the skin on his bony neck just wrinkled a little. But his eye, the eye which was looking at me, was getting bigger, swelling horribly, and, as the bull dug his horn deep into the belly of the creature who was dying in stoic silence, I could see in his eye the horrible surprise that man could be so cruel and ungrateful.” This is what bullfighting is like – this is the fate that horses used in bullfighting sometimes suffer; sometimes, because, more often than not, they suffer an even worse fate. In fact, the horse is sometimes not killed outright. Life clings to him and, despite having been gored, the animal has to continue to provide entertainment for the crowd.
We then witness double treason. The horse – who was raised with care by men, has worked alongside men, is used to men’s voices which he has quietly obeyed, and has trusted men – still does not comprehend the tragic event of which he is the victim. He cannot believe that the person who was his master could be capable of such a despicable act and once more he turns, mutilated, losing his blood and his guts, to men, and once more, he is betrayed. Recourse to such a sensitizing device was bound to have an effect. Firstly, these initiatives certainly helped stir up the emotions which were needed to fuel collective mobilizations and the sense of moral reward for the activists opposed to bullfighting. Furthermore, as sensibilities evolved, criticism of the fate of the horses used in bullfighting seemed to have convinced the majority of aficionados themselves that the treatment of these animals was scandalous, and called for reform. Now that horses were afforded protection from being gored by the bull, opponents of the corrida were robbed of an argument that had, throughout the 19th century, been central to their cause.
Several decades went by before the status of the victim would be claimed on behalf of the bull itself, as the suffering it experienced came to be part of the sensitizing devices used by antibullfighting campaigners. Today it is not rare for the activists to take the sensitization process regarding the horrors of the corrida a step further, by inviting the public to imagine things from the point of view of the bull. Such an attitude, which accords the bull the status of a victim worthy of compassion – which would have been inconceivable to animal protectionists. For now, we should note that in the 19th century, while opponents of the corrida were certainly angered by the ill-treatment of horses in bullfighting arenas, their principal concerns were over the emotional states of some of the aficionados in the crowd. This should come as no surprise: opposition to all styles of bullfighting, not just Spanish-style bullfighting where the animal is killed, was very much part of the wider movements to control popular violence which has been analyzed. We have already mentioned that the very first British animal protection campaign – expressly undertaken to combat the brutality of the masses – was conducted in 1820, and sought to suppress bullbaiting, which was reasonably common in England at the time. Like their English counterparts, members of the French SPA were steadfast in their opposition to any regional and popular traditions liable to whet the appetite of the working classes for cruelty and violence: “as regards cockfighting and bullfighting we have every reason to be surprised […], that the efforts of the society, the decrees handed down by civil servants, and the successive edicts of the Interior and Agriculture Ministries have obtained so few results.”
Bullfighting in the South of France and cockfighting in the North were equally subject to condemnation because of the large gatherings of common people that such deadly fighting spectacles could attract. The SPA could not “remain indifferent to these forms of entertainment in which defenseless animals die, after being cruelly tortured for the amusement of crowds who have come looking for excitement”. Once more, the scandal being denounced here was less to do with the suffering inflicted on animals than the worrying predispositions and uncontrollable urges these activities were suspected of provoking in those who enjoyed watching them. Tolerating spectacles of this kind would have involved ignoring one of the most powerful rallying calls of the earliest animal protectionists, namely the need to avoid the spilling of blood in public, “hide killing in order not to put the idea of killing into people’s heads.”
Bullfighting was presented as “the worst school of cruelty and nothing more than a succession of acts of torture. How can it be, when all over France bylaws forbid the slaughtering of animals in public places, in front of children, that there are those who call for the legalization of such bloody, scandalous performances?”. Once again, the accusation was that cruel spectacles performed within arenas contribute to violence and delinquency, which threatened to break out on every street corner:
And here is the crime that you, lovers of bullfighting, want the law to leave unpunished! It is indeed the moment for such tolerance! When crime rates are steadily rising, when most assassins and criminals are between the ages of 17 and 20, when carrying a knife is becoming more common, you want these hateful, bloody, sickening, and demoralizing spectacles to be allowed to take root in France, and declared legal!
And so with these COCKFIGHTS do we sink further down the scale of cruel games […]. The owner of the cock is not only preoccupied with taking care of the “material, but” he also educates the animal, but he also does his best to pass on his talent for wickedness, he nurtures the bird’s fighting instincts […]. The knife of the man is hidden under the feathers of the bird […]. It is a villainous pleasure. The thug is in his element, he looks for and finds his own instincts, he judges the attacks, the parries, and the low blows, he celebrates the victory of the strong. We should note that these familiar well-rehearsed arguments were initially not confined to bullfighting. Before focusing their campaigning efforts on the Spanish corrida, with picadors and the killing of the bull, 19th-century moral entrepreneurs expressed a wide-ranging aversion to any form of entertainment suspected of leading people to abandon the disciplined behavior and peaceful manners expected of them: the list of these activities included fights between animals, the game of burying geese up to their necks and then stoning them, as well as all the different styles of bullfighting.
As we have already noted, the belief that working-class violence must be repressed was one of the earliest and most commonly stated motives behind the campaigns of all the pioneering animal protection societies. However, moral protest against working-class games has another dimension, resulting from the country’s cultural and political centralism. We must work against kinds of abuse; we must combat and eradicate these rough manners, these violent habits, these deep-rooted traditions. The society would not be equal to the task which has been given it and would not live up to public expectations if it did not carry out its investigations outside the city limits, and extend its mission, in order to protect all the victims of the fierceness of a few people.
We should say immediately that although we have observed a great deal of progress it is also true that in certain localities people are unaware of the existence of the protection societies or the provisions of the humane Law. The temperament of Southerners, which is well known, seems to close their hearts to human feelings, to that loveable goodness and that universal love that we must have for everything that suffers.
During corridas, horses were ill-treated, and crowds were whipped up to dangerous levels of excitement; these practices seemed to be particularly welcomed by “those cruel people in the South of France.” We can understand why several generations of French animal protectionists prioritized campaigns outlawing bullfighting. With the rise of nationalism, protests against the corrida took on an even greater intensity. Imported from Spain, bullfighting with picadors and the killing of the bull provided an instance of foreign barbarity, and hence a means of highlighting, by contrast, the distinctive virtues of the French nation. To the long list of reasons to be repelled by this practice could be added its national origins: the indignation provoked was further fueled by the fact that it was regarded as a harmful foreign custom intruding onto French soil.
What is going on? Will some citizens, emboldened by the impunity they are enjoying, be permitted to break the law to the point that they can offer the public the kind of monstrous spectacle we criticize our neighbors on the other side of the Pyrenees for performing? Monstrous spectacles so at odds with the religious spirit they claim is theirs, and which, in any case, cast a shadow over our civilized mores.
The luxuriant flowering of fine disinterested feelings is the pride of our age, and, above all, the pride of our country. But who does not see that one of the foremost of these creations is the work of the Society for the Protection of Animals? Who does not sense that the love of animals is one of the best and one of the purest of these many admirable, patriotic virtues? The protection of animals is an integral part of our complete, rich and varied intellectual and moral heritage, which we will pass on to the 20th century, which is soon to dawn, but whose course is so uncertain!
We are aware that when we campaign against bullfighting, and all other cruel sports, we are campaigning for the improvement of the race, for respect for life, and for peace.” A variety of traditional sports involving bulls – courses provençales, courses landaises, taureau à la corde, bouvines, etc. – sometimes not fully codified, and associated with seasonal rural festivals, had been a matter of some concern to local authorities, who regularly sought to ban them, on the grounds that they were a threat to public order. During the Second Republic, the crowds which assembled for these festivals would turn into democratic mobilizations against the authoritarian regime, which was regarded as being distant and arrogant. The mobilizations were further fueled by popular anger at the harassment by those prefects who tried to ban these events. Contrary to a myth subsequently devised and promulgated by bullfighting aficionados, there was no suggestion at that time that there were definite affinities between the corrida tradition. In fact, the 1890s witnessed a turning point in the history of bullfighting, with key initiatives taken by protagonists on both sides of the debate.