San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Improvisados, not matadors, at Tico bullfights

The mighty bull has long been a part of Spanish culture. Indeed, Mediterranean countries share the concept of man versus bull. Bullrings, bullfights in which bulls are harassed and killed, and the running of the bulls in Pamplona attract local populations and tourists alike.

Spanish culture underwent changes when it arrived in the New World, and with population centers spread out, each region adopted its own style in food, customs and dress. Mexican bullfights are similar to those of Spain, but in Costa Rica they are a different sport completely. In 1860, a government decree legitimized bullfights as part of festejos populares, or community festivals. Tico bullfights, or corridas de toros, remain a part of festivals to this day.

A Tico bullfight is in a class by itself. The bull is not killed, and these days the bulls are professionals, raised and destined for the bullring. Some bulls, such as El Malacrianza and El Chirriche, are better known than ministry heads here.

Nor are the bullfighters professionals, not by any means. The ring is open to all, although security personnel now weed out any who pose a risk, either for being under the influence of alcohol or drugs or uncooperative with organizers, and wannabe cowboys are given safety instructions.

Each bull is in the ring an established length of time, about 15 minutes. Their horns are shaved or covered to protect people and animals. A hundred or more improvisados or “improvised cowboys” may enter the ring trying to get the bull’s attention, sometimes running in a big circle around the bewildered animal. When he does charge, the cowboys run to the barriers and somersault to safety. It is a game of man versus bull, and sometimes woman versus bull, that audiences come to see. Getting butted or horned by a bull can result in injury, and professional bullfighters in the ring rush to help the fallen and get them to the Red Cross station. Occasionally a bull rips off someone’s shirt or pants.

During the summer months, corridas de toros are a part of many small-town carnivals. A moveable redondel or ring goes from town to town, and bulls are supplied by ranches that breed the animals for bullfights.

Everyone wants to see cowboys from their own neighborhood take on the bulls. One local cowboy who got hurt in the ribs, leg and arm and cut a foot at a community bullfight said he did it for the “rush of adrenalin” and because it is a tradition he wanted to experience. Besides, his cousins and brother were also in the ring to give each other courage. A young woman who did it for the challenge noted, “Those bulls are a lot bigger close up.” No matter where corridas de toros are held, there is never a shortage of improvisados.

Not everyone likes bullfights, even mild Tico ones. According to Angélica Ortega of the National Association for the Protection of Animals (ANPA), the fights represent cruelty to the animals even with time limits and stricter regulations.

“We are against any type of entertainment than involves animals,” she said. “Tico bullfights represent a form of violence. They use cattle prods, the improvisados pull tails, they tease and mistreat the bulls. The bulls are trucked around and endure heat and thirst.”

“Bullfights may be part of the culture here, but they should be discontinued. There are other sports people can enjoy,” she added.

And they are losing popularity with the public, even in Spain, always proud of its bullrings and matadors. The provincial governments of the Canary Islands and Catalonia have prohibited bullfights (in the latter case effective in 2012). There are also provincial laws that ban bullfights on TV or for children. One TV station in Portugal has banned coverage of bullfights.

Much of this reaction against bullfights is due to increased awareness of animal rights and pressure by animal welfare groups, but some is due to commercial reality. The public has lost interest. A 2006 Gallup poll showed that 72 percent of Spaniards have no interest in bullfights. Interest was viable only among men over 45 years old, and even among this segment only 33 percent were interested. For the younger generation, between 15 and 24 years old, less than 20 percent were interested in bullfights. Fútbol, or soccer, has claimed the audiences in Spain – perhaps luckily for the bulls.

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