In Pamplona, Spain, the most dramatic week of the year is the San Fermin festival (spanning July 7 to 14), a tribute to the patron saint of the Navarro region. While the schedule of events involves dazzling fireworks and a spirited singalong, it is best known for the encierro: the running of the bulls. It is a tradition with roots both practical and spiritual. On the practical side, it mirrors the original route by which bulls were brought through the city to the old bull-fighting ring. But it also evokes the martyrdom of Saint Fermin, allegedly dragged to death by a bull in the third century.
When the clock strikes 8 each morning during San Fermin, two rockets are fired off to startle the bulls and start the race. The bulls chase the white-shirted runners through the streets from the corral to Pamplona's bullring. Once the animals start arriving in the ring, a third rocket goes off, and when all are safely contained, a final rocket announces the end of the run.
If that was the extent of things, the encierro might not be as controversial as it is. But with fifteen runners having been gored to death over the last century, the race does have its critics. Others are equally concerned about the treatment of the bulls. There are definitely pros and cons worth considering—and some fascinating alternatives entirely.
What Makes it Controversial
- Between 50 and 100 runners are injured every year, with goring the least common but most life-threatening injury.
- The risk-up of a montón (pile up) is serious: This happens when a runner trips and falls entering the ring, causing a pile-up that can asphyxiate runners on the bottom.
- The noise and harassment by spectators is said to cause the bulls physical pain, and some have been known to die from stress after the race.
What its Defenders Say
- A double fence with 3,000 wooden parts outlines the route for the safety of the spectators.
- Experts with bullfighting experience (dobladores) take up stations in the ring to guide runners to safety and corral the bulls.
- 200 volunteer medical personnel line the route at 16 posts, each of which has at least one doctor and one nurse, and 20 ambulances are on hand at all times.
Worldwide Alternatives to the Encierro
- In 2008, Formula One cars completed the same route in tandem with 500 professional runners.
- New Orleans has a rolling of the bulls, with 400 roller derby women from around the country pursuing 15,000 runners.
- On Hampstead Heath in London, the “running of the bulls” is a pub crawl with human pursuers goading the group forward.
- A pig run takes place in Ballyjamesduff, Ireland, and exactly mirrors an encierro, but resulting injuries are few to none.
- In Rangiora, New Zealand, as many as 2,000 sheep are turned loose for the running of the sheep.
Perhaps you’ll discuss the controversy surrounding bullfighting when you explore Northern Spain & Portugal with O.A.T. There’s no controversy surrounding Spain’s passion for delicious food and drink, as you’ll discover in this short film: