On July 9, American author and bull-runner Bill Hillmann was gored by a bull.
It was not Hillmann’s fault: a first-time runner, freaking out, pushed him to the ground while he was attempting to do what the very best runners do and lead a suelto, or loose bull, which had been separated from the herd and had its dominant herding instinct replaced by the offensive one that makes bullfighting possible, into the ring.
Hillmann, who in the interest of full disclosure is a friend of mine, showed what Hemingway once called grace under pressure and is already on his feet again and planning his next run. He has no desire to track down the first-timer and give him a piece of his mind. He has rather seized upon his goring as an opportunity to issue a spirited defence of Pamplona’s encierro, or bull run, and the role that it plays in his and others’ lives.
The US media has been surprisingly receptive to this. The Washington Post even ran a piece that Hillmann dictated on the front page of its weekend ‘Outlook’ section. But many others treated his goring as a joke or a comeuppance, primarily because Hillmann recently contributed to an e-book entitled Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona. That he did survive them hasn’t really occurred to the journalists who thought they smelled a delicious irony, but given the matter at hand, and the knee-jerk responses it so often elicits, this is hardly surprising.
What we’re talking about here is a politics that not only privileges the suffering of animals over the suffering of people, but actively encourages and desires the latter. At best, this is profoundly hypocritical.
With the e-book getting mentioned so often in the press—to the unfortunate detriment of Hillmann’s well-received debut novel, The Old Neighbourhood, which he hopes to publicise in Australia later this year—it was inevitable that its sales would, if not soar, then at least spike. This is a good thing, as it’s a good collection, with some of the best Spanish, Basque and foreign runners offering precisely the sort of advice that first-timers like the one who pushed Hillmann to the ground should be given before they run, but rarely are.
But the book’s Amazon page, along with the countless articles about Hillmann’s experience, have also become targets for the sort of uninformed comments that goring’s like this one—or the seven others that occurred in Pamplona this year—always seem to occasion. “May many more follow the co-authors experience!” one so-called reviewer commented before giving the book the obligatory one star. “Go bulls!” quipped a fierce wit on the New York Daily News’ piece about the incident.
I am no stranger to this sort of thing. When I explained my own reasons for running with the bulls in a Sydney Morning Herald piece late last month, the suggestion that the bulls are terrified animals on the defence because of people like me was a common refrain. “I hope you get gored” was another one.
Such comments represent a significant, and often deliberate, misrepresentation of these animals and their nature. (Alexander Fiske-Harrison, the e-book’s editor and a co-contributor, has addressed this head-on in numerous articles and speeches, most notably his talk at the 2013 Edinburgh International Book Festival.) This is not uncommon outside of el mundo del toros, either, but rather exists everywhere in the discussion about our relationship with animals. Call it the Disneyfication of that relationship: a sentimental tendency, particularly in Western societies where we like to kill our animals behind closed doors, to ascribe to animals an innocence—an inherent cuddliness—in no way borne out by behavioural science or even anecdote. Call it a wilful denial of certain animals’ natures in the rush to condemn our own.
As Fiske-Harrison argues, the life of a fighting bull is longer and more natural than that of the far greater number of animals raised for beef—78.2 per cent in the US are raised on factory farms, for instance—and the bullring is in many ways a far better place to die than on the assembly line.
This last part is particularly important. Comments like those aimed at Hillmann and others represent an increasingly commonplace anti-humanism that is as troubling as it is infuriating. It starts with well-meaning concern for animals—which I share—quickly abandons logic and any need for in-depth research (it is remarkable how many falsehoods still circulate about what happens to the bull before it enters the ring) and winds up calling for human heads, sometimes very literally. (Fiske-Harrison, who fought and killed a three-year-old bull for his book about the bulls, Into the Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight, received death threats for doing so.) There is something doctrinaire and even evangelical about this: it assumes an Original Sin, our being human, and urges self-flagellation as repentance. (Failing that, the idea’s proponents are more than willing to spearhead an Inquisition…) Overland’s Jeff Sparrow has previously noted that “I think that you can make a legitimate case […] for a politics that privileges the suffering of people over the suffering of animals.” What we’re talking about here is a politics that not only privileges the suffering of animals over the suffering of people, but actively encourages and desires the latter. At best, this is profoundly hypocritical.
Sparrow—who I don’t think would especially like being enlisted to bolster an argument in favour of bullfighting—was writing about his experience researching slaughterhouses for his book Killing: Misadventures in Violence. It is interesting how closely his piece resembles Fiske-Harrison’s discussion of the ethics of bullfighting compared to those of factory farming practices. As Fiske-Harrison argues, the life of a fighting bull is longer and more natural than that of the far greater number of animals raised for beef—78.2 per cent in the US are raised on factory farms, for instance—and the bullring is in many ways a far better place to die than on the assembly line. (It is interesting, by the way, how no Westerners ever seem to speak out on behalf of the the millions of Spanish pigs that get slaughtered every year in the production of jamón ibérico, primarily because no one ever sees it happening.)
“Let’s say what we mean,” Fiske-Harrison writes.
[A]nimals are bled, skinned and dismembered while conscious. It happens all the time, and the industry and the government know it. Several plants cited for bleeding or skinning or dismembering live animals have defended their actions as common in the industry and asked, perhaps rightly, why they were being singled out. […] Anger may not be a pleasant emotional state [for the fighting bull], but one would be hard put to call it suffering. Raging against the dying of the light is an infinitely preferable alternative than going gently, or dangling upside down with your face peeled off.
Bill Hillmann did not deserve to get gored any more than an abbatoir worker deserves to get strung up, improperly stunned into half-consciousness and flayed alive, though some would doubtless say that both deserve whatever they get. But these are also the sort of people who would tell you that a Spanish fighting bull is really a docile, even gentle creature that, like Disney’s Ferdinand, wants only to smell the flowers and attacks only because he’s scared. They are the sort of people who would deny the animal’s true nature the better to condemn those who choose to exploit it, whether by running with the animals in the streets each morning or passing them with a cape in the plaza each afternoon.
People like Bill Hillmann ultimately have far more respect for these animals than those who would condemn him.
Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent.
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