This article originally appeared on VICE Spain
By his own admission, Juan José Padilla should be dead. Over the past 25 years, he has become one of Spain's most famous bullfighters—easily recognizable by the eye patch he started wearing after a bull's horn pierced through his head. Twice. The accidents dislodged his left eye, fractured his skull and made him deaf in one ear. The eyepatch he started wearing in and out of the bullring subsequently earned him the nickname " El Pirata" (the pirate). Other fights, he has survived being gored in the throat, thigh, and chest.
For every fan who think of him as a hero, there are a few others who consider Padilla the face of a sport responsible for killing thousands of bulls a year, and a symbol of extreme animal cruelty. Padilla believes critics have a right to their opinion, as long as they don't shout it at him in front of his family as they stroll the streets of his hometown of Jerez, a city in the southwest of Spain.
I caught up with Padilla to ask him about his near-death experiences, his love for bullfighting, and how he takes criticism.
VICE: Why did you become a bullfighter?
Juan José Padilla: I was seven years old when I stood in front of a bull for the first time. My father had always wanted to be a bullfighter and he shared his passion with us. My three brothers tried to be bullfighters, but they actually became bullfighter's assistants. There were a lot of cattle farms in the Cadiz region, where I grew up, so my father would take me there and I would fight the bulls.
How many bulls have you killed?
I would estimate that I have killed about 5,000 adult bulls in the 25 years that I've been working as a bullfighter—both in training and during my 1500 professional bullfights.
Have you never felt bad about killing an animal?
In our culture, we learn that bulls are born to be killed in the ring. Sometimes, when the bull has put on a good performance, I don't want to kill it. That happens a lot, actually. But the director of the bullfight will make me do it, there's no other way. That can be frustrating, but it's part of the job.
Do you like animals?
Yes, I love animals. I have pets at home. I see the bull as a collaborator—a special animal that I admire and respect. The bull is my life and my world, and I admire its courage. Because of that courage, a bullfight is a race and a show. The show wouldn't exist without the race.
Do you ever get scared when you fight?
Bullfighters are always scared before a fight. First of all, we are risking our lives and secondly, trying to put on an artistic performance with a bull is rather complicated.
You have suffered quite a number of injuries during your career. What does it feel like when a bull charges and rips you apart?
I feel understanding. Truth be told, I don't hold a grudge against the bull—he's just doing his job. The bull has to defend himself by fighting us. The price we pay for being bullfighters is the risk of getting pierced by their horns or sometimes even dying.
And what does it feel like when you kill a bull?
I neither feel happy or sad. I just feel like I have done my job.
After the fight, you get some part of the bull as a trophy—like the ears, or the tail. What do you do with those?
I'll either take them home to keep or give them to friends and family. They are a very personal symbol of pride. They remind bullfighters of our accomplishments.
How much do you get for a fight?
I can't publicly disclose how much I'm paid, but I can say that, unfortunately, the financial crisis has also had an impact on the world of bullfighting. It's getting harder and harder to attract an audience, which affects our salaries.
Would you go for a drink with someone who is anti-bullfighting?
Yes, why not? As long as this person can stay polite. I respect other people's views and I expect them to respect mine. I understand their position as long as they have a valid argument, and we can have a healthy discussion. But I have my own principles—I believe the show that we put on defends itself. When you participate, when you watch, you can feel it—the show truly lives and truly dies.