A little more than a year ago I remember blinking myself awake to startling news: “Escaped bulls in West Baltimore captured after hours-long standoff.” This was the headline of an article written by Wyatt Massey in my hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun, on July 22, 2016.
Now, I had been away for some time. My wife and I lived in Shanghai, China, but we had recently returned to our native city for the birth of our first child, Magnes, a month earlier in June. But this was news that was hard to reconcile with the image of the Baltimore I knew. Bulls from a 19th century German slaughterhouse running down Pennsylvania Avenue?
To be fair, as the article reminded me, and I vaguely recalled, this had not been the first bovine incident in Charm City. In June 2014 an escaped steer had trotted down North Avenue before being shot dead in Mid-Town Belvedere. Still, the idea of all these cattle in such close approximation to urban development seemed anachronistic, a nod to a time that had long since passed.
I was reminded of this recently when I attended my first bullfight in Mallorca, Spain. The debate surrounding this Spanish tradition has been raging for years, but it ramped up this past October when a constitutional court in Madrid overturned a 2010 ban against bullfighting in the Catalonia region of Spain, finding that bullfighting had protected cultural heritage status in Spain and couldn’t be banned.
Whatever your opinion about the grandeur or savagery of bullfighting, calling it a “fight” is hardly accurate. In six bullfights over the course of roughly two and a half hours one day in Palma, the largest city in Mallorca, every bull was put to death, and no matadors were harmed, implying a dominance of man over beast. As the crowd tries to hush everyone quiet for the last silent dance with death, a quick jab into the bull’s back humbles the animal into a state of submission already accentuated by the four or five barbed sticks, banderillas, stuck in earlier to slow down the animal, who is bleeding from the shoulders. All that is left is for him to die, which he does by reeling onto his side, legs kicking. When the cart and horses arrive to haul the dead bull away, his ear is cut off and presented to the matador as a trophy to give to a deserving fan. Right on cue, the band wades into a familiar celebratory brass heavy melody. The cheering people stand waving white flags and white napkins. Women toss handbags or paper fans for the matador to touch and toss back. As he circles around the bullring blowing kisses, he throws his arms and hands like a maestro conducting his final sonata sans baton.
Such displays seem to be ending soon in Mallorca, however. In late July, the parliament of the Balearic Islands voted to institute a series of laws that would restrict the practice of bullfighting in Mallorca, Ibiza and other islands popular with tourists. The new rules would not allow bulls to be killed, limited the fights to 10 minutes, and banned alcohol and sharp prods, among other measures.
Across the Atlantic, there is nothing quite as dramatic happening with regards to slaughtering bulls in aging urban slaughterhouses. It is significant, however, that as new developers have tried to open in urban areas they have been met with resistance. After a proposal was made for a slaughterhouse in Westport this past winter, for instance, the president of the Westport Neighborhood Association, Keisha Allen, wrote a letter to city officials, according to an article in The Sun, citing her concerns about the proposed slaughterhouse’s close proximity to homes, its ability to attract pests and its impact on traffic, which would block development of the area.
In the end, whether it is an old slaughterhouse in Baltimore or an aging bullring in Mallorca, our tolerance for these traditions might well be determined by our ongoing appetite for sensitized violence in the name of convenience or ceremony.
Matthew Kasper (Matthew.Kasper@saschina.org) is a Baltimore native currently living in Shanghai, China. He teaches English literature there at the Shanghai American School.