December 4, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Partly cloudy 13°C

Sentient beings

Anti-bullfighting protests have been common in Madrid in recent years.
By Shaula Villadoniga
Published: 2016-11-27

n late October, the Spanish constitutional court ruled that a ban on bullfighting in Catalonia was unconstitutional, citing it as part of the "common cultural heritage" of Spain. The court said the practice could be regulated and its rules changed but not banned.

The Catalan Parliament had decided to ban bullfighting from the region in 2010 following a citizen petition signed by some 180,00 people. Among those who campaigned for the ban was Dirk Verdonk, Head of Programmes of the Dutch office of the international NGO World Animal Protection and author of a new book on animal rights. He was in Rome recently and we discussed the bullfighting issue. These are excerpts from our conversation.

The lifting of the Catalonia ban must represent a major disappointment. It certainly does — foremost with the animals in mind, and also given the efforts that have been invested. The animal protection movement in the region has worked with incredible tenacity. But feelings of frustration are not the priority. We need to find legal means to ensure that bullfighting does not come back to the region. We also need to address the issue at a national level.

As you know, Spain is going through a political crisis and will probably have a minority government or face a third round of national elections. Basically the question is: will the country fall back in its timeworn groove of old style conservatives alternating with socialists, or will the upheaval caused by the Podemos movement succeed in carving out a new political constellation and a new political climate. In the latter case, this would provide a window of opportunity to either prohibit bullfighting or to discourage it to such a degree that it will dwindle away fairly soon.

Dirk Verdonk: "Bullfighting is not coming back to the region…"

I'm glad you mentioned the national level, because I wondered what's really at stake here, bullfighting or the political power struggle between the regions and the state, between the wish of many people of Catalonia to become independent or at least exercise a high degree of autonomy, and the efforts of Madrid to retain or regain control? The answer is obviously both. Yes, this is about the autonomy of Catalonia being curbed and about political forces way beyond the specific issue of bullfighting. But don't make the mistake of some political commentators who say it is not "really" about bullfighting.

In the most concrete sense it is. Over the past five years this ban has prevented the torture of many animals. That is extremely important. We live in the EU, which in its founding treaty recognizes animals as sentient beings and demanding of welfare. To my mind it is outrageous that institutionalized cruelty such as bullfighting still exists as a "cultural' exemption."

At the same time, it's no coincidence that bullfighting is in the midst of the struggle between Catalonia and Madrid. Though polls consistently show that a rather large majority of Spaniards turning away from bullfighting, even ashamed of it, there's an influential and very vocal minority, well represented at high levels, that continues to see it as part of the Spanish identity. For them, the Catalan ban represents not just the end of a practice, but also the very rejection of being Spanish.

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