Virus deals death blow to Spain's bullfighting season

Madrid (AFP) –


For Spain's majestic fighting bulls whose final hours draw thousands to bullrings every year, the blow has been deadly: with the virus decimating the season, many are now condemned to the abattoir.

Bullfighting has long been a lightning-rod issue, pitting animal rights activists who argue that the practice is cruel and should banned against traditionalists who say it should be preserved as a vital part of cultural heritage.

Whatever the ethical issues, bullfighting thrives only when there are huge crowds to watch the spectacle involving a burly, half-tonne beast whose upkeep is costly and whose lifespan is limited.

"It's a disaster for bullfighting," Juan Pedro Domecq Morenes told AFP from his Lo Alvaro breeding farm in the southern Andalucia region, who had bulls entered in five fights cancelled in the last few weeks.

The nationwide lockdown imposed to slow the spread of the epidemic, under which the nation's 47 million population has been forced to stay home, and the social distancing to come in the next few months have spelt disaster for the bullfighting season, which runs from March to October.

Everyone is out of work, from the bullfighters to the banderilleros who throw coloured darts and the mounted riders who carry lances. Both breeders and businessmen describe the shutdown as a catastrophe for a sector that puts on 20,000 events a year, both fights and street festivals.

But the viability of these prized animals as fighters is short-lived: to enter the arena as a "toro bravo" they can be no more than six years old -- or seven to join a street festival.

Raising a fighting bull costs a breeder between 4,000 and 5,000 euros ($4,400 and $5,500), but 90 percent of the investment can be recouped by selling him for a show.

- A blow for breeders -

But if the bull ends up being sold to the slaughterhouse, breeders will only see a 10 percent return on investment, a ruinous alternative but the only option if they don't want to keep on feeding an animal they can no longer rely on to turn a profit.

"Your income is reduced to nothing, there are only expenses and this is not like a factory where you can just stop production, because you have to keep feeding and looking after the bull," says Domecq.

He estimates that between 30 and 40 of his bulls will end up going to the abattoir.

For now, he has kept on eight workers at his farm, giving them alternative tasks like raising pigs, but if there is no fighting season, he believes he will lose up to 600,000 euros.

In a statement, the Union of Fighting Bull Breeders, which represents some 345 breeding ranches, said the industry could lose more than 77 million euros.

And it could have "a devastating effect" on bull breeding farms, which generate thousands of jobs both direct and indirect in sparsely populated areas of rural Spain, the union said.

- Lucrative business -

From a business perspective, the situation is "quite drastic", says Simon Casas, a former French matador who runs the bullrings in Madrid, Valencia and Alicante and is president of ANOET, a national association representing bullfight organisers.

He pointed to the impact on cities of the cancellation of large festivals with events involving bulls, like Valencia's Fallas festival in March, the Seville Festival in April or the axing of Spain's best-known bull-running festival in Pamplona in July.

Calling off bullfights, he said, would have a knock-on effect that would be "very significant economically because when you have bullfights, you have festivals and festivals provide the economic support for many important activities like tourism, restaurants, hotels".

For entrepreneurs in Spain's bullfighting business, the losses could stack up to as much as 700 million euros, said Casas who also runs the arena in the French city of Nimes.

- 'An armchair bullfighter' -

Given the crisis, the Breeders' Union has called on the government for both "direct assistance" and other measures like lowering VAT on the sale price of a fighting bull for celebrations, asking that it be brought down from 21 percent to just 10 percent.

But the most important thing, according to Casas, is that the banks provide liquidity in order to avoid "permanent job losses" thereby allowing businesses to "keep ticking over until the renewal of activity".

For now, the culture ministry has met industry representatives and told AFP it was working to adapt general support measures announced by the government to the needs of the sector, such as bank loan guarantees or subsidised temporary layoff schemes.

But Domecq fears that many breeding farms will simply disappear and breeders will need to "reinvent themselves" by promoting tours of the farms to show off the fighting bulls "as the cultural attraction that they are".

A sense of despondency is setting in all round with matador Cayetano Rivera Ordonez telling radio Cope that staying home had turned him into "an armchair bullfighter".

Casas said he felt lost with the season ruined and after temporarily laying off 500 staff at Madrid's Ventas bullring.

Despite everything, he remains hopeful.

Because in the end, when all coronavirus chaos is over, "people will need to enjoy themselves," he says.