The Beauty and Moral Ambiguity of Bullfighting

"When you come home, it's like you've been to the moon because there's no point in telling anybody. They don't understand."

Roc Morin

Roc Morin

All photos by the author

The first time a young bull scuttled past her, Wena Poon told me, "the sand sprayed like little gold pieces, flicking against my leather boots. And, it's like pssshhhh, magic, and you see its glossy body just glide past you. I got so lost in the beauty of the sound that they had to shout to snap me back, before it charged again."

"They have surprisingly soft, delicate feet," Coleman Cooney added. "Feeling an animal go past you like that—it's a remarkable sensation. And when you come home, it's like you've been to the moon because there's no point in telling anybody. They don't understand."

The three of us were practicing torero de salón on the baseball diamond of a middle school in Alpine, California. Cooney, founder of the California Academy of Tauromaquia, was "running the horns" with his student, Poon, a Singaporean novelist. She lured him, rippling her capote as she taunted, "Ha!" Cooney held the ayuda (sword) like horns above his head. He charged in slow motion into the magenta cape that Poon swept away in a graceful veronica arc, always just out of reach.

All photos by the author

"The basic technique of torero," Cooney explained, using the Spanish term for bullfighting, "is that you want to have one part of the cloth closer to the animal than your body. To the animal, I'm a shape, and this capote is part of me. They are going to charge whatever is closest."

A matador may have fought in a thousand matches, but whenever a bull rushes into the arena, it is always for the first time. The lidia, or bullfighting sequence, only works if the bull is naive. The matador must learn to exploit the animal's instincts.

"The bull rapidly learns the distinction between tools in your hands and the intelligence behind it," Cooney noted. By the end of the approximately 15-minute-long lidia, the bull has been pierced in the shoulders by lances and colorful barbed sticks called banderillas. At that point, Cooney continued, "99 percent of bulls understand full well that you, the human with the two legs, is the engine of this disaster. That's when they become incredibly dangerous. And yet, their reactions are so quick, that even when they've made that realization, they can still be tricked into charging the fabric. You can even see the regret in their expression sometimes: Ah, I did it again. I fell for it again."

Throughout the lesson, the instructor shifted effortlessly between the mind of the matador and the mind of the bull. "If there was truly something cruel about bullfighting, it would be the separation of the animal from the herd and releasing it into an enclosed area," he said. "That really freaks them out. So even animals that are not brave will charge because they are afraid. But a portion of these animals are truly courageous. You feel it in the way they charge. The bull is charging from a position of strength. He's saying, 'You're disgusting. I hate you. I'm going to clear you from the face of the earth.'"

Modern bulls are bred to be brave. "They charge from birth," Cooney maintained. "I've been charged by an animal still covered in placenta. They can walk almost immediately, and their first reaction to danger is to attack."

Fighting bulls are also bred to be fixated on movement. So much so, Cooney insisted, that "you can actually torear with your bare hand. It's very hard, because it's a very small target, but you can do it."

We practiced all afternoon swinging the capote, making concentric circles in the dirt with hypnotic repetition.

"My greatest challenge with adult students," Cooney observed in a soft critique, "is that they tend to do all kinds of extra motions. Most of the training work for me is just to eliminate extraneous motions. Children don't have that problem. Still, with enough time and money, I can make just about anybody into a bullfighter."

Most of Cooney's students have been wealthy amateurs. There was the man who wanted to kill a bull on his honeymoon in France. There was the CEO who had his secretary trained as well, so that he would always have someone to run the horns for him. There was an Irish adrenaline junky who, after years of training, progressed to fighting professionally in Spanish arenas.

Wena Poon was an anomaly. The novelist had been commissioned to write a fiction piece about a female bullfighter and needed to train in order to understand her protagonist better. "I had all these typical urban hipster preconceived notions about bullfighting," she confessed, "but until you put yourself in the arena, it's so easy to misunderstand. If you watch a bullfight on TV, you wonder why the matadors are always spitting. You think they're just trying to be macho, but when I was actually in the ring, I realized that they have to spit. Your mouth fills with sand every time the bull makes a pass."

"I didn't notice you spit," Cooney remarked.

"I spit very discreetly," Poon demured, "because I'm a girl."

The novelist's admiration for toreo came unexpectedly. "The first time I went to a bullfight, I cried," she admitted. "I wrote to my editor, 'This is so depressing. There is nothing beautiful about seeing a splendid animal reduced to a punctured carcass.' But my editor insisted that I go again, and I did, and I was hooked."

"What changed?" I asked.

"When you see a man injured right before your eyes, and he's pale with blood loss, and he continues to finish the fight... I was sitting right there in the front row seats. I could see every emotion go through his face. I grew up in Asia, and I'm female, and Buddhist, and a member of PETA, but as a human being I could just feel everything."

Cooney looked like he'd just been slapped in the face. "You're a member of PETA?"

"I just contribute money," Poon replied.

"So do you advocate for the extermination of all domestic pets in the United States?" Cooney retorted. "Because that's their official position."

"PETA is the only organization that actually does anything to help animals," Poon maintained.

"I have a cousin who fumigated [PETA president] Ingrid Newkirk's house for termites," Cooney japed. "She's a rank speciest."

"You need to change the enemy from within," Poon told him. "You need to show them that you're rational."

"What's the best, most rational case that bullfighters can make?" I asked.

"Well, first they need to admit that it hurts," Poon replied.

"No," Cooney interjected. "Science tells us that prey animals have high endorphin content in the bodies. When you're watching TV, and you see a lion eating a zebra, that zebra is in shock. Its body is filled with shock hormones."

"We can't say for sure," Poon acknowledged. "But when you deny that it's cruel, they see you as barbaric."

"Cuisine is cruelty," Cooney said. "Unless you're an absolute vegan, you're participating in cuisine. And I'm glad you do, because it makes human life more rich."

"When I was writing the novel," Poon said, "I was searching for the source of the discomfort [surrounding bullfighting] on both sides of the issue. Ultimately, I think we're all fundamentally uncomfortable about our power over animals. We don't know how to deal with this power. So we choose to negotiate a relationship with animals: how they're raised, how they die, how they get eaten. You go into a grocery store and there's a constant dialogue about our stewardship over animals. Look at all the different kinds of eggs you can buy—eggs with a guaranteed square footage of 150 square feet per animal..."

"But it's not sincere." Cooney asserted. "It's a sham. It's a question of making yourself feel good. The people in your organization sincerely believe that they have an extra capacity for caring, and that people like me are somehow handicapped. I think that, on the most basic level, they just don't want us to have fun."

"I have a horse, and I care for the horse like it's my daughter," Poon offered. " And I would love to be in a fox hunt. I think it would be a really fun community event. But I also hope the fox gets away. I think we have to be comfortable with moral ambiguity, and most people aren't."

"You may not like the bullfight," Cooney concluded. "You may find it abhorrent or deeply disturbing, but the one thing you can't do is dismiss it. You can't dismiss its unearthly beauty. You can't dismiss its power."

The discussion meandered as the sun slipped lower and our shadows lengthened. The capote and muleta sat neglected, leaning up against the chain-link fence. The practice had ended too soon. We walked back together to the parking lot and parted ways. I shook Poon's hand and then Cooney's, realizing that I still had never seen the bullfighter's eyes. The instructor prefers to keep a low profile behind a permanent pair of shades and a ski hat. Perhaps he suspects there are animal rights activists who would love the opportunity to do to him what he does to bulls.

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