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The anti-bullfighting campaigner Jordi Casamitjana discusses the bullfighting industry that had been operating in the United States for decades

There are nine, not eight, as many people think.

If you count the Basque Country as a separate country — as nationalist Basques would — then it would be ten. No matter which criteria you use, it is more than eight. There used to be more than 25, but with time, one by one, they all, thankfully, progressed out of it. 

Unfortunately, in Europe, there are now at least three: Spain, France, and Portugal. In America, at least five: Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador. But the one most people miss is also in America, in the north. The United States of America is the 9th bullfighting country in the world today. 

I do not mean countries where bullfights may occasionally take place. I mean bullfighting countries, which is to say countries that have had an active bullfighting industry for at least decades, composed of bullfighting bull ranches (where special breeds of domestic bulls used for bullfighting are bred and kept), bullfighting schools (where people, often children, learn to be bullfighters), active permanent bullrings (where bullfights still take place), and bullfighting aficionados (who attend bullfights, paying an entrance fee, and often organise themselves in fan clubs). If you have all this inside a single country, then you are a bullfighting country (and this is why I mentioned the Basque Country because they have all this inside their territory too).

You may think that I got this wrong. You may think that bullfighting is illegal in the United States, so there cannot be bullfighting bull ranches, bullfighting schools, permanent bullrings where bullfights are still staged every year, and bullfighting aficionados who religiously attend them. If you thought that, you were wrong. Not only you can find all these things in the US today, but you could also have found them any day in the last few decades — at the very least, five decades.

The US is the ninth bullfighting country, and most people don’t know it. Most Americans don’t know it. Most anti-bullfighting people in the world don’t know it. Most animal protection organisations in America don’t know it.

I have known this for 16 years, and although I have been telling people about this for ages, I think it’s time to talk about it again.

What Is Bullfighting?

Photo By Alfonso de Tomas via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 396114796)

Do you know how many types of bullfighting there are? Are rodeos or bullbaiting any of these types? Not quite. To understand why I claim that the US is a bullfighting country, I must first explain what bullfighting is.

After having studied the issue for years, I finally came up with the following detailed definition of bullfighting: the activity of organising and performing spectacles where bulls or cows are stressed, exhausted, injured and/or killed (under the pretext of entertainment, cultural celebration, skills competition, or artistic expression) by specially trained people (called bullfighters), in enclosed arenas (called bullrings), not emulating American cattle ranch management practices, but performing specific ritualised acts, with or without the use of purpose-built stabbing weapons, following official rules first formulated in the 18th century.

If such spectacles are emulating American ranch farm animal management practices (such as moving the animals around, subjugating them by mounting on them, capturing them with ropes, immobilising them for branding, milking them, etc.), whether they are real traditional cowboy practices or pretending to be, they would be classed as rodeos, coleo or charreadas (depending on the country) instead of bullfighting. If they are performed in the streets by the general public (such as the famous running of the bulls in Pamplona) they are normally called encierros, vaquillas, or fiestas rather than bullfighting. If instead of people, animals such as dogs are forced to attack the bulls, then this is called bullbaiting (England used to be the number one bullbaiting country in the world, but it was banned in 1835).

Bullfighting (in Spanish called toreo, corrida de toros or tauromaquia, in Portuguese tourada or corrida de touros, and in French corrida) involves colourfully dressed professional performers (generally called in Spanish toreros or matadores, in Portuguese toureiros or forcados, and in French toreadors, raseteurs, or écarteurs ) who publicly perform in a bullring executing various formal moves to appear graceful and confident while avoiding the horns of the bulls (or cows), who are trying to defend themselves from this team of attackers by charging against them. The word “fighting” is only used in foreign translations (like in English or Dutch) as bullfights are not really fights between two opponents, but ritualised public mockings or executions — where the bull never wins, and only rarely do some of the executioners die for trying to kill a fully conscious bull with swards. 

Bullfighting is traditional in several countries and has developed into several distinctive styles over the centuries. All forms, though, are based on stressing, exhausting, injuring and/or killing bulls (and sometimes cows). The Iberian styles are composed of the Spanish style and the Portuguese style. In turn, the Spanish style is divided into the ‘Classic’ Spanish style (where a team of bullfighters on foot will use several weapons to hurt six bulls for 20 minutes each, and eventually kill them in the arena with a sword or a dagger) and Rejoneo (the same, but the bullfighters are on a horse). 

The Portuguese style involves bullfighters both on foot and on horses but performing different acts (including wrestling the bull) still using some weapons (although fewer), but the bull is killed outside the arena out of the view of the public. The French style, in which the animals are not killed, is composed of the Course Camarguaise (where bullfighters compete to snatch rosettes or tassels off the bulls’ horns), and the Course Landese (in which bullfighters try to dodge charging cows who are tied with a long rope). Although each of these styles is typically performed in the country from where their name comes, they can be performed in others (for instance, in the south of France, you can see both Spanish and French-style bullfights performed every year, and in Latin American countries you normally see the Spanish-style bullfights).

Bloodless Bullfights

Photo By Drazen Zigic via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 1754238413)

In some jurisdictions, modifications of the rules of each style have been necessary to bypass animal protection legislation that would have otherwise banned them, and this is when the American style was invented. US bullfights, also called by those who practice them “bloodless bullfights”, are essentially a variation of the Portuguese style of bullfighting, but where the weapons have been modified to reduce the harm they inflict. Theoretically, the banderilhas (brightly coloured decorated sticks with sharped harpoon metal points that are thrust into the bulls’ backs in the Iberian styles of bullfighting to make them bleed and feel pain when they turn) are supposed to have a Velcro end in bloodless bullfights. They would then be pushed onto a cloth mat placed on the bull’s back, so they remain stuck there with the Velcro without penetrating deep into the animals’ flesh, as in the Iberian styles — however, I said theoretically because, as you will see later, this may not be what it seems. But like in Portuguese bullfighting, the bulls are still killed in bloodless bullfights, albeit not in public in the bullring, but later that day in a slaughterhouse.

The American style was first developed in California in the 1980s, but it has been practised in other states and other countries. For instance, when in 2011 the country of Ecuador had a referendum about bullfighting, some regions kept it, but in others, only bloodless bullfights were allowed since (such as in Quito). In Spanish-speaking countries, bloodless bullfights are called Corridas Incruentas (cruel-less bullfights), and in some places, they are trying to emulate more of the Spanish-style bullfighting than the Portuguese style.  

In any event, even in the so-called “bloodless bullfighting” and the French stiles, the bulls or cows are always stressed and exhausted on purpose, and sometimes hurt and injured (on purpose or accidentally), so we cannot say that bloodless bullfights are cruel-less bullfights (I have written about this as an Ethologist). Indeed, Professor Nedim C Buyukmihci, V.M.D., Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Medicine of the School of Veterinary Medicine of the University of California-Davis, sent me this statement:

“As a veterinarian with several decades of experience, including with animals such as cattle, I believe that so-called bloodless bullfighting is inhumane and should not be permitted. Although the individuals may not suffer the same physical harms inflicted during traditional bullfighting, the individuals still suffer. Cattle are by their nature ‘prey’ animals. Being subjected to ‘bloodless bullfighting’ would elicit a deeply ingrained predator-avoidance response and result in considerable fear. Such treatment also appears to violate the principles of animal welfare put forth by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the largest professional veterinary organisation worldwide, which states that animals ‘should be cared for in ways that minimize fear, pain, stress, and suffering.’”

All types of bullfights, rodeos, bullbaiting, and fiestas with bulls are cruel and make animals suffer. They are all forms of exploitation of animals for entertainment, religious, cultural, or artistic excuses, and they all should be banned anywhere in the world (as they would certainly already be if the subjects of such spectacles of torture — were ridiculously elevated to cultural pieces of art — were human beings instead of non-human animals).

The Plain Sight Secret in California

Steve Hindi from SHARK and Jordi Casamitjana in 2006

On 26th December 2006, I arrived at Elburn, Illinois, without a voice. After being completely soaked by tempestuous rain in Sant Francisco, I caught such a cold that the constant cough had erased my voice completely. Despite this, I had work to do, so I would have to find other ways to communicate. I had already met Melissa Gonzalez and Dr Kartz from In Defence of Animals in San Rafael, and I had told them about the fully functional bullfighting industry I had discovered in California, their patch. Surprisingly, they did not seem to know about it. So, it was time to visit the most anti-bullfighting animal protection organisation in the US I knew, SHARK (Showing Animals Respect & Kindness), run by the dedicated activist Steve Hindi. He then lived in Elburn, so I flew to Chicago and took a very expensive taxi drive to that town (because the airline had lost one of my bags, so I had to spend more time than expected at the airport dealing with it). Steve had single-handedly stopped Pepsi advertising in bullrings in Mexico, so he knew a lot about bullfighting. He told me that he did know a bit about the so-called “bloodless” bullfights, but he had not done anything specific about them yet — he was now focusing more on rodeos. However, he gave me lots of footage of classic Spanish-style bullfighting he obtained in Mexico, which was great for my campaigning.

I tried to galvanize all these animal protection organisations into action because this was one of my roles during my three-month anti-bullfighting tour through seven American countries. It was a bit bizarre that a Brit had to go there to tell them what was happening in their own backyard — I used my British identity in the US and Canada but my Catalan identity in Latin America — but I had become an expert in bullfighting (even going undercover in several countries to learn about the industry), so perhaps this could explain why I knew so much more about it. 

To be honest, though, it was not difficult to find out about the American bullfighting industry based in California because it was not hidden. It was all very open, and I discovered it via the internet. In 1957, the California legislature expressly banned bullfighting, but it created a religious exemption within the statute. The law prohibits the promotion of, management of, and participation in any bullfight — including a bloodless bullfight — except those bloodless bullfights held in connection with religious celebrations or religious festivals. As a result, in the 1970s, Portuguese-Style bullfighting began to be performed in some parts of Central California by the growing Portuguese community there.

I identified at least nine towns/cities that had permanent bullrings for such practices, all in the California Central Valley (specifically the San Juaquin Valley east of San Francisco), and it appears that in 2006 they already had a stable bullfighting industry that would provide them all that they needed (bullfighting bulls, bullfighters, bullfighting impresarios, and paying bullfighting aficionados). At the time, I also heard this industry was trying to expand in other states, such as Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, and others. The Californian municipalities I found that had active permanent bullrings were Gustine, Escalon, Artesia, Tracy, Stevenson, Thornton, Laton, Tulare, and Landing of Turlock. There were also mobile bullrings that went to Portuguese festivals in other towns.

It was in 1980 when the Portuguese American bullfighter Frank Borba invented the new style he named “bloodless bullfights”, to bypass the concerns of animal protectionists who claimed all bullfighting was illegal (as they did not buy the religious excuse). This modified Portuguese style (with some components of Spanish style too) involves not killing the bull in public (although he can be killed in private) or making the bull bleed in the arena, but “only” harassing, stressing, and exhausting him (like in rodeos). However, apart from this, it tries to emulate as much as possible the versions in Portugal and Spain where the bull is indeed injured. The bullfighters in these events dress in the same way because they are the same bullfighters who would be fighting bulls in other countries, injuring and/or killing them there (so, it is not that they disagree with hurting and killing the bulls). 

A few years later, in 1999, the son of Borba, also a bullfighter, developed a mini–North American bullfighting industry, with several permanent bullrings, bullfighting bulls’ ranches, bullfighting schools, etc. Bulls for fighting (toros de lidia or toros bravos) were bred in California on ranches of the Balboa family itself, which first crossed Mexican bulls with Californian cows. There were also at least two bullfighting schools, such as the California Academy of Tauromaquia, founded by Coleman Cooney in San Diego and with 175 students in 2006, or the Dennis C. Borba Bullfighting School in Escalon, CA. At the time of my research, there were already several “accomplished” American bullfighters, such as Dennis Borba, Rob Smets, Frank Newsom, Fred Renk, and Dennis Johnson. Additionally, the industry had also many aficionados who attended the bullfights every year, supposedly local people of Portuguese descent. 

Animal protection legislation would forbid Spanish-style bullfighting in all US states due to the injuries inflicted on the bull in public and the way of killing him, but anything less than making the bull bleed in public might be allowed as rodeos are also allowed in several states. In a way, rodeos are keeping the American bullfighting industry alive, as those animal protection groups that do not think can tackle rodeos for being “too big” of a subject would then ignore bloodless bullfighting too. 

Because of this lack of scrutiny, when I was talking to all those animal protection groups in the US, there was already a fully developed unchallenged bullfighting industry in California that qualified the United States as the ninth bullfighting country in the world. Unfortunately, that industry is still alive today.

The Bloody Bloodless Bullfights

ACI Agent confiscating banderilhas with hidden spikes in a 2009 bullfight in Artesia

When I returned to the US in 2009 during my second anti-bullfighting tour through America, nothing much had changed as far as bloodless bullfights were concerned. The industry in California continued alive and well, and some bullfights had also been performed in other states (like some in Las Vegas).

However, something significant happened just after I returned to the UK, where I live. One animal protection organisation called Animal Cruelty Investigations (ACI), based in Los Angeles, decided to look into the issue and discovered something that did not surprise me at all. In two separate investigations, one in a bullfight in Artesia on 23rd May 2009, and another one in Thornton one week later, ACI discovered that the banderilhas, that in theory only should end in a tip of Velcro that would stick to the cloth of the same material placed on the bull’s back, had a real metallic sharp spike hidden underneath. When the bulls were examined by Andrew Stewart, the animal welfare officer investigating the event, he discovered that a bull had punctures under the cloth, and he was bleeding. The agent in Artesia confiscated the banderilhas and stopped the event.

The agents in Thornton were less lucky because when they did the same, together with local police officers, they were attacked by the bullfighting aficionados, who flung the bandarilhas into the bullring so the investigator could not obtain them as evidence (two arrests were made for assault). David Casselman, attorney for ACI, said at the time, “under the guise of religion, they put Velcro on the back of the bull, put 3-inch spikes under the (Velcro-covered) end of the banderilla … then stabbed the bull repeatedly to agitate it. Why? To make it violent. To add to the entertainment of the sport.”

Eric Sakach, a senior law enforcement specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, told to Los Angeles Times the following: “They’ll tell you that the padding on a bull’s back is enough to keep from puncturing the bull. But it’s only an inch to an inch-and-a-half deep. It does hurt the bull. Is it enough to kill the bull? No. Is it enough to make the bull mad? Yes. And it’s completely not in keeping with the law.”

Jose Avila, the editor of the Modesto-based Portuguese Tribune, said to the Los Angeles Times that the bulls fight for about 15 minutes each and then go off to a slaughterhouse. They are therefore killed (like in Portugal) and not returned to the herd (as in French-style bullfighting), because they could not be fought again, as they would have learnt from the experience and become more dangerous — so much for “bloodless” bullfighting, right? 

From this “revelation”’, the advance of “bloodless” bullfights across America seemed to stop temporarily and some of the bullfights that had been programmed in other states were cancelled, but once presumably the banderilhas were modified again, the bullfights resumed. Jane Garrison, a spokesperson for ACI, called on the district attorney to prosecute the Kern County-based company that supplied bulls for these events, but I am not aware of any prosecution that did take place on those incidents. 

I contacted Jane recently, and she was not aware of any either (ACI has disbanded since then). I do not know if the spikes under the Velcro have returned, though, as I don’t know of further investigations being made to check this out. I have contacted Steve Hindi from SHARK, and the long-time anti-rodeo activist Eric Mills from Action for Animals-Oakland, but they were not aware of any either. 

Bullfighting in the USA Today

2019 Tracy Press article about Bloodless bullfights

I wanted to check if bullfights continue today in California and other states, and I found out that they do. On Facebook, I found a bullfighting poster for a bullfight in Artesia scheduled for 29th July 2019 ($25.00 per ticket). In a 2021 article titled “Bloodless Bullfighting, A Portuguese Tradition Kept Alive In Central Valley” I could see a video of how they were still at it. I then found a video posted in April 2022 of bloodless bullfights from the 3rd Annual San Joaquin Valley Portuguese Festival in Turlock, hosted by the Carlos Vieira Foundation. An article from July 2022 says that the FoodMaxx Arena at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds in Turlock hosted a sell-out crowd for Portuguese Bloodless Bullfights. Another article from 11th June 2022 is titled “Tracy’s bullfight tradition continues”. I found a TikTok video of a 2022 bullfight at Stevenson. There is even a website named Bullfighting in California, advertising bullfights (there is one advertised for 1st January 2023 in Buhach, California). And, expectingly, they have a Facebook page too. 

The attempts to spread into other states have not stopped either. In 2013, there was a petition trying to stop bloodless bullfights in Mississippi. I found a 2017 article titled “Controversial ‘bloodless bullfighting’ comes to Denver Saturday”, describing a bullfight in Colorado. I also found an article from February 2022 titled “Bloodless bullfights return to Santa Maria”, in Texas, and another one from February 2020 titled “Bloodless Bullfights will Continue in La Gloria, Texas.” If all these bullfights are still happening, it means that bullfighting bulls are still bread in the USA — indeed, I found an Instagram account of one of the ranches where they breed them. It seems that the bullfighting industry in the US is still alive, and it continues to expand. 

The good news is that the California Academy of Tauromaquia website is no longer active, suggesting that the school may now be closed (in 2013 there was a petition to close it), but I could find some websites advertising bullfighting classes in Texas. Also, some states have passed laws that now specifically ban bloodless bullfighting (such as paragraph 828.121 of Florida statutes that states, “It shall be unlawful, and punishable as a misdemeanour, for any person to conduct or engage in a simulated or bloodless bullfighting exhibition.”). Rhode Island has banned them too.

Perhaps it may be time to shut down the industry by investigating the American bloodless bullfights again (checking the banderilhas, and documenting what happens to the bulls before and afterwards), passing new states laws that ban it, ensuring no bullfighting schools are operational, and preventing bullfighting bulls to be bread, imported, or moved between states (a federal law about this would be handy). And if there are private companies which are advertising or sponsoring any bullfighting event, it would be good if their customers are made aware of what they are doing (as Steve Hindi did with Pepsi). Portuguese anti-bullfighting groups may like to help too.

Cutting the supply of performers, animals, and sponsors of the industry perhaps will starve it and it will not survive for much longer, but if we leave it unscrutinised and unchecked it will carry on as it has been for decades, which I find it both disappointing and depressing. 

Something US animal protection organisations outraged with animal cruelty happening overseas should consider.

Especially those in California.

👉 Act Now to Ban Bullfighting in Galicia: https://drove.com/.2DVj

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.