“Toro de la Vega, Becerradas de Algemesí, Toro de Coria, Toro Embolao de Véjer... 3,000 festivals across Spain revolve around treating animals with cruelty and even killing them. It is the kind of savagery that can only be categorically repudiated, and that makes us the world paradigm of animal cruelty,” says Chesús Yuste, a Spanish parliamentarian and coordinator of the parliamentary association for the defence of animal rights APDDA, in an interview with Equal Times.
The recent decree banning “the killing of fighting bulls in the presence of the public at popular and traditional bullfighting events”, passed on 19 May by the regional government of Castilla-León, has placed the debate between pro-animal rights and the pro-bullfighting lobby back on the agenda.
The ban applies to the Toro de la Vega tournament, but the town of Tordesillas has vowed not to take it lying down.
The APDDA, founded at the end of 2007, had 60 members from all parties until the chambers of parliament were dissolved ahead of fresh elections. It connects animal welfare groups and associations with the representatives of the people throughout Spain in the Congress of Deputies. An example is the recent forum held between animal rights defenders and parliamentarians, during which the documentary Febrero, el miedo de los galgos (February: The Fear of Spanish Greyhounds) was shown in parliament.
The documentary deals with two of the major issues in terms of animal rights in Spain: hunting and abandonment. The hunting season ends in February and “thousands of Spanish greyhounds are abandoned, hung or thrown alive into wells, like rubbish; the majority are no more than three years old,” says the dog charity SOS Galgos.
National Geographic reported on the situation a few months ago, describing cruel practices such as hanging dogs that perform badly from a tree with the tips of its paws just touching the ground, leaving the dog fighting for survival.
The APDDA also gathers the demands of animal welfare groups and presents them as parliamentary questions. And now they have moved on to Non Legislative Proposals. “That is how we secured Spain’s ratification of the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals. At the moment, we are working on the reform of the Civil Code to have them declared ‘sentient beings’. Only Catalonia has done so here,” explains Yuste.
Since 2009, European Union member states have been obliged to consider animals as ‘sentient beings’ in their national legislation, according to Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty. But under the exceptions – religious rites, regional customs and cultural traditions – events involving bulls are exempt.
Animal welfare and political manifestos
The situation is grave but, according to Yuste, something is changing. “All the political parties’ manifestos mention animal welfare. The Penal Code reform – severely criticised for its harshness on other matters – defines and widens the scope of animal cruelty offences,” he points out.
For Yuste, the next step is to secure sentences ensuring that offenders are sent to prison. “Until the first polluting employer was sent to jail, judges were reluctant to pass sentence. The same will happen with animal abusers. Although there have already been two sentences, they were owed to the ‘will’ of the judge.”
Education is also crucial. “Empathy with animals needs to be worked on as part of the school curriculum, and we will ask the next government to do that,” he pledges.
Although it has not yet secured a seat in parliament, the success of the animal welfare party, PACMA – a member of the network of animal welfare parties in the European Union – in the last elections is another sign of the change underway. “We defend animal rights because we want a fairer world for all,” says Silvia Barquero, who has been the party’s leader since 2013.
Barquero, who describes the party’s election manifesto as “very comprehensive” covering “animals, the environment and social justice” welcomes being considered “the electoral surprise” and the coverage given to them by the media. “The party was founded in 2003, spurred by the animal rights movement. All the party’s members come from there,” she explains. “We were considered as freaks, as a wasted vote, in the beginning. It has been a very difficult journey, but Spanish society values us now,” she says.
“There are people who want to vote for us, but vote otherwise because of the social emergency. That’s why securing 220,000 votes for the Congress and over a million for the Senate in the latest elections in such a difficult context, and with forces like Podemos offering a response to the serious disgruntlement, represents a huge achievement. There is a segment of the population that understands that defending animals does not exclude defending social justice,” says the PACMA representative.
“This is by no means an easy country for the animal rights movement, which is what makes the change seen over the last 15 years so surprising. We have progressed a great deal in terms of electoral results in places such as Andalusia, where the use of animals is deep rooted. The outlook is very positive, although there is a rural Spain that does not accept the concept of animal welfare that is fast developing in the cities,” says Barquero.
For the leader of the PACMA, the work done by activists has been a crucial part of this process. “They are at the vanguard of the movement in Europe – Animal Equality is the best example – and they have developed a type of activism that has had a profound effect on society.”
“By using bullfighting as a flag, we project the image of a country whose values include cruelty to animals, and that is damaging for us. The Spain of the 21st century could export other symbols, it could opt for RD&I (research, development and innovation) and renewable energies,” she proposes.
The role of the media
The change is also being observed in the media: El País, el diario.es and El Español have a section on animals. But the first blog on animal welfare in Spain was that of Melisa Tuya. This journalist and writer coordinates the blogs of the world’s third most widely read Spanish language digital daily, 20 minutos.
This media outlet “was the first to withdraw advertising for bulls”, she points out, proudly.
“Some colleagues say I will never be taken seriously as a journalist if my timeline is full of dogs and cats, but this information is important. To keep abreast of the situation you have to been in contact with the animal welfare groups, to talk with those who are on the frontline, with more than they can handle, every day,” she insists.
“Traditionally, the media has always undervalued such news: it either covers horrifying stories, because they get traffic, or banalities that are not even checked on, something it wouldn’t do with other subjects. But the Internet has been fundamental. Now, the associations have tools and channels that they are putting to good use. And when their actions have an impact, we give them media coverage.”
On the subject of whether there is a culture of cruelty to animals in Spain, Tuya agrees with Chesús Yuste: “In Europe, before the Enlightenment, animals were subjected to cruel practices, which this wiped out. This historical opportunity was wasted here…the forty years of dictatorship and the legacy of that Spain that entertained itself with bulls and hunting also weigh heavily,” adds Tuya.
“The cruelty issue in Spain is very complex and requires complex solutions. The lack of funds and resources makes it impossible to apply animal welfare measures, especially at local level, as is the case withMadrid’s Zero Sacrifice Law. In addition, the legal ‘muddle’ in the autonomous communities creates chaos that gives rise to impunity. To give an example: Andalusia permits the training of hunting dogs by tying them to motorised vehicles, which is considered as cruelty in the rest of the Spanish state.”
“The real tragedy lies not in the stories of cruelty that make the news, but the day-to-day practices causing suffering among thousands of ‘sentient beings’, particularly those involving bulls, hunting and abandonment,” she explains. Some 140,000 pets are abandoned every year in Spain. That’s 400 pets a day. Over 100,000 of them are dogs, according to a study by the Affinity Foundation. The good news is that 44 per cent of these animals are adopted, and the number of adoptions has been rising constantly in recent years.
With regard to the future, there is optimism. “The first thing to go will be the bulls [the bullfights], because of the change in mentality among the new generations,” says Tuya. Indeed, according to a survey conducted by World Animal Protection, 84 per cent of 16-to-24 year olds in Spain said they were not very proud or not at all proud of living in a country where bullfighting is a cultural tradition. “There is a social majority in favour of abolishing all the barbaric fiestas in Spain, as well as bullfighting,” says Yuste.
It is not, however, going to be straightforward. After the banning of bullfights in Catalonia – but not other events involving bulls, such as the correbous (bull running) – the Community of Madrid responded by giving corridas the status of ‘Cultural Asset’ in 2010. Some months later, the then prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero referred to bullfighting as an “artistic discipline and a cultural product” and in 2013 it was declared “cultural heritage worthy of national protection”.
In 2015, a law was passed to class bullfighting as “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”, along with other manifestations reflecting the “idiosyncrasy and identity of the peoples”, such as flamenco or the Mediterranean diet, both protected by UNESCO.
The legislation contains precepts such as the “adequate dissemination, transmission and promotion of this intangible good among new generations and its fostering through education”.
The penultimate move in this tug of war was the historic pro-bullfighting demonstration in Valencia in March, led by international figures from the world of bullfighting: El Juli, César Rincón and Ortega Cano, etc. All are fully aware of the crossroads at which the “Fiesta” finds itself.
“The way forward with animal rights is through respect and empathy. The world is heading towards fierce individualism, but if people are capable of empathising with an animal, they will also feel concern if a neighbour beats his wife, if people lose their jobs or if someone flees from the war in Syria,” insists Barquero.
This article has been translated from Spanish.