Every year during Fiestas de Quito, celebrations commemorating the founding of the city in 1534, there are nine days of bullfighting at the Plaza de Toros in the northern part of the city. A public outcry led by animal rights groups resulted in a law this year imposing referenda on killing in the ring. The legislation demands each municipality in Ecuador resolve the question: “Regarding the prohibition on killing animals in spectacles, do you agree that, in the municipality where you live, the spectacles that have as purpose the killing of the animal should be banned?” Many municipalities have outlawed the practice of killing in the ring, but some, such as nearby Ambato, have voted to continue the tradition.
Unlike the recent law in Catalonia that bans bullfighting completely, Quito has hitched itself to legislation that satisfies no one, least of all the animal it is purported to protect. After a half hour of public torment the bull is maneuvered out of the ring and some time later is killed behind closed doors. This increases the bull’s suffering because he must wait in pain.
Bullfighting arouses strong opinions. For some it is barbaric and should be eliminated. Others say it’s an art form demonstrating courage, skill and elegance in the face of deadly brute force. Some go further, imparting to bullfighting basic verities of existence, inner truths about our nature, bloodlust elevated to the realm of the transcendent, the mystical. Watching the bullfight we watch the history of our race in its elemental form, including the ritual of sacrifice.
Quito’s sad compromise gives us the worst of all possible worlds and mirrors a dilemma of contemporary life. We want to believe in the mythology of progress, that ours is a developing moral sense on a steady upward trajectory. Killing the bull in private, removing it from “spectacles that have as purpose the killing of the animal,” reinforces this illusion. In eliminating the spectacle we eliminate one more of our moral shortcomings. We are a kinder, gentler species, moving inexorably beyond our brutish origins.
The turnout at Quito’s Plaza de Toros is testimony to this dilemma. The stands are two-thirds filled and the normal full-throated participation is muted and at times even confused. The ritual of violence, cruelty, grace and courage demands the fulfillment that Ecuador’s law so clumsily denies, the spectacle of public killing. Instead the ritual becomes a sort of strange prurient absurdity, a blood exercise in hypocrisy. It assigns that part of our nature we wish to deny to the day’s proliferating rooms of secrets, cleansing our view but disturbing our sleep.
Ecuador’s bullfighting legislation is the little man in an antiseptic room in front of a computer screen firing drone missiles at faceless people thousands of miles away. It is the carefully groomed technocrat making decisions ruining the lives of millions. It is the shining face of government with its soothing, hopeful words.
Our dilemma is that we can’t decide. As a result we degrade ourselves with foolish excursions and blind effort, hoping for success. This leads to half-baked compromises and solutions, like Ecuador’s law, leaving us confused and stunted, in the realm of nightmare. Those who think they are liberated or superior delude themselves. The bull is tortured and robbed of its life in darkness. The bullfighter is stripped of dignity and purpose. An ancient ritual loses its meaning. The spectator is rendered dumb. At least in bullfighting answer is clear: ban it completely or allow it to continue in its full sanguinary splendor. If only the solution to our own dilemma was so simple.
RICHARD WARD lives in New Mexico. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org