Controversy, Ethics, and Bull Running: Why I ran with the bulls, why you may not

In travel, just as in life, one has to make choices. Last week I chose to run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. You may think that doing so makes me crazy… and cruel.  Because while bull running and bullfighting have their roots in Spain, their continued existence also make them a controversial part of Spanish tradition.

You may think that I am a bad person for participating in an event that many consider tortuous and barbaric, and if so, that’s okay.  Because here’s the truth: the bulls that run every morning during the 10-day San Fermin festival are goners by nightfall. Six of the 15 bulls that run are set to spar with a matador in the bull ring at 6:30 in the afternoon, until only the matador is left standing.

I knew all this and my girl crew and I did it anyway. Why?

pamplona bull run 2

There was the selfish reason: Yes, I wanted to test my mettle and push my personal limits by doing something as unthinkable and fear-inducing as running amongst a herd of  wild bulls.

And there was the selfless reason: Yes, I wanted to show other female travellers that they, too, could engage in such a potentially dangerous, daunting, male-dominated task- and that they could do it smartly and safely.

But there’s also something else. Something I was unable to verbalize or articulate before I arrived in Pamplona.

In brief: I am someone who longs to witness, experience, and understand the culture of “the other”.

Bullfighting and bull running are a significant and important part of Spain’s culture.  Tourists may flock to San Fermin, but the event is still inherently and overwhelmingly Spanish.

It is their culture and tradition and as a traveller and an observer, I respect it. I also, selfishly again, want to indulge in it first-hand, bite into it and taste with all my senses like I would a ripe fruit. As such, I don’t judge them, at least not until being there, seeing it, feeling it for myself.

Also, I’m not going to be a hypocrite.  I eat beef and a whole host of other animals that are mass-produced and mistreated before they make it on to my plate.  I use makeup and hair products that have been tested on defenseless animals, wear leather shoes made of cowhide, scarves made of rabbit fur, and gloves made of lambskin (all of which are often produced via brutal, disgusting methods). Flat out: my current practices indicate that I’m not particularly fussed about animal welfare.

I’m simplifying the issue, of course, but the result remains the same: I chose to run with the bulls last week. And for the record, as terrifying, brutal, and mentally exhausting as it was, and as heartless as it may be to say it, I enjoyed the experience. But I’m torn.

This is not a justification, but an explanation that will hopefully encourage examination and reflection on where we draw the line when it comes to animal cruelty.  Because I would imagine that not many of us are free from reproach. I would love to hear your thoughts on the issue.

Where do you stand when it comes to animal cruelty, bullfighting/bull running, and social responsibility?  Do you think that culture, tradition, and necessity/practicality override animal rights?

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  • Reply
    July 18, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    I’m currently in fits about all things ethical and socially responsible. I wanted to get a wedding band with a black diamond, but then I wonder how I can live with myself for buying diamonds? Can I? And if I consider that and then get the diamond anyway, what does that say about me?

    I don’t eat meat – and I make sure that if IC does it’s organic and free range…but does that make your choice wrong? of course not.

    • Reply
      July 19, 2012 at 7:53 am

      You may want to investigate conflict-free diamonds. I don’t know much about the organization that promotes these diamonds/mines but their aim is to restrict (eliminate) the current trade of “blood” diamonds.

    • Reply
      July 20, 2012 at 6:43 pm

      Ooh, the diamond debate is a good one as well. Culturally, us North Americans value our diamond engagement rings, but at what expense?

  • Reply
    July 18, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    I must admit I don’t understand the want to participate in something like this mainly for personal safety reasons but also the animal cruelty aspect. But I don’t judge you or others who have/want to.

    I am a meat eater as well although just. I don’t care for meat that much and since my partner is a veggie I eat less and less of it all the time. However, I think in terms of being/acting socially conscious it is not a case of all or nothing. Every day we are confronted with choices. One by one we can make the choice to do the more socially conscious thing or not. We justify to ourselves the reasons for it (or not). So while you say you don’t want to be a hypocrite as you eat meat, use products tested on animals etc so then running with the bulls isn’t that different I still think otherwise. We can justify something being more of a necessity (food) and something being purely entertainment (bull run). Just saying there are many ways to look at it the situation. I am glad you’ve opened up the debate. I’ve noticed people on your face book page blatantly say they are against this so I am intrigued as to what comes up in the comments here.

    • Reply
      July 20, 2012 at 6:42 pm

      I agree that there are many different ways to look at the situation, and think that we should try to examine it from all sides. 🙂 For every person who says that eating meat is a necessity, there will always be a vegan to demonstrate that it is not. For every person who says that a bull run is recreational, there is another who will say that it is rooted in tradition and primarily cultural event that has a deeper significance for Spaniards. I used the examples of wearing/using/eating animal products because it is so easy from this perspective to be in the wrong. But as I said in the post, where do we draw the line?

  • Reply
    Sarah Thériault
    July 18, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    I do frankly think you’re crazy for doing it but more from a personal safety view than a cruelty view. Whether you ran or not, those bulls would still have been killed. It is a long held tradition and not one that will be changed because a few people disagree with the practice-I think we can see that in all cultures across the world. I do think it is horrible and pointless for those animals to be raised just to run one day and die but it’s not my place to judge your reasons for wanting to run. I would never do it but I’m a big scaredy cat 🙂
    Also, I am a big fan of steak, leather shoes, my pony hair ballet flats and most other animal products. We have been killing, eating and using animals since before we stood upright so it’s not something that will be changed easily and must be a personal decision. I think you’re brave and crazy for doing it but to each his own 🙂

  • Reply
    The Rowdy Chowgirl
    July 19, 2012 at 3:05 am

    You make some really good points here. It’s a complicated issue, and it’s hard to even articulate all the reasons one decides to run with the bulls. There certainly is danger and cruelty involved. It’s not necessarily a justification, but the bulls are eaten after they are killed, and they definitely have it better than any of the American factory-farmed animals that people don’t think twice about. We all have to make our choices and draw our own ethical boundaries where we see fit, and that’s not a simple process.

    • Reply
      July 20, 2012 at 6:21 pm

      Couldn’t agree with you more! It’s not simple at all, it really took me a while to be able to articulate why I did what I did, and without hesitation.

  • Reply
    July 19, 2012 at 6:55 am

    Thank you for writing this post Oneika! I am one of those people who do not agree with bull fighting and running which I guess is why I haven’t really commented on it. It is strange because it didn’t make me hate you, judge you or think any less of you, I just wish the whole practice would stop.

    Social responsibility and animal welfare is a hard one. I’m really struggling with it at the moment and I guess I’ll have to make a decision soon one way or the other.

    • Reply
      July 20, 2012 at 6:01 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Emm! I think that the key is that we can all understand each other without imposing value judgements, at least not without trying to be objective or understand where the other person is coming from. I’m also struggling with it, as you can see from my post. 🙂

  • Reply
    July 19, 2012 at 8:31 am

    It hurts me to hear anyone say they are not “fussed” about animal welfare, only because it’s a cause so dear to my own heart. But we are each free to fuss about different things, and I’m not the type to sit up here on a soapbox and preach about why this or that is bad or cruel. You are a smart, informed girl – you knew what went on with the running of the bulls (or when you buy meat or animal skin accessories…), and you chose to do it anyway. That’s your choice, but it certainly wouldn’t be mine. Cruelty has no excuse or justification in my book, whether it be for sport, food, or fashion.

    • Reply
      July 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm

      Thanks for weighing in, Crystal, I know that you are really passionate about animals. “Indicate” is the key word in my statement that I’m not particularly fussed about animals. I am a huge cat lover and dog lover and could never imagine doing any harm to my furry friends… But at the same time, I’ll run with bulls, eat chicken, wear leather, etc etc. It’s strange because it’s almost as if I have a hierarchy of animals, where I consider domesticated pets more… I don’t know, “important”? “treasured”? “valuble”? than your average cow, chicken, bull. Why is that? The answer is still one that I’m trying to contemplate.

      Another thing I’m contemplating: is bull running any more acceptable because it is a culture-driven event as opposed as one designed for tourism?

  • Reply
    July 19, 2012 at 9:41 am

    I find myself torn on so many issues including this one. I eat meat, I wear leather yet I feel awful when I think about the actual animal. In fact, I can’t eat any animal that actually looks like the animal (a steak is fine as it looks nothing like a cow.) How terrible is that? Sometimes denial is the easy way out.

    I went to a bullfight this year and I didn’t feel great afterwards – I wasn’t ready to get out my protest signs but I knew I would never go back.

    Life is full of complicated choices.

    • Reply
      July 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm

      I think it’s really easy to distance ourselves from the abuse that happens to the animals we eat, simply because they look so different when it’s on our plate. I don’t think it’s intentional, though.

  • Reply
    July 19, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    I think you bring up the greatest point–this is a lesson in understanding a different culture. I have more disdain for close-mindedness than animal cruelty. While I prefer that animals don’t die in cruel ways, I also respect traditions of humans, including eating beef, which I partake in like you!

    • Reply
      July 20, 2012 at 5:44 pm

      I think that understanding and tolerance are a balancing act in a world like ours, when ideas, cultures, and traditions are so different from country to country!

  • Reply
    July 19, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    I can “engage in such a potentially dangerous, daunting, male-dominated task- and that they could do it smartly and safely” without shedding animal blood. I think you could have too, just you needed to be more resourceful. I’m saddened by this post of yours.

  • Reply
    July 19, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    Good point raised here, we all are in a way hypocrites when it comes to animals…I am a respecter of cultures, views and opinions of others, so I never judge.

    • Reply
      July 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm

      I think that when something is so intrinsically linked to a culture and way of life that it’s very difficult to cast judgement.

  • Reply
    July 19, 2012 at 7:59 pm


    I feel the same way about travel, I “want to indulge in it first-hand, bite into it and taste with all my senses like I would a ripe fruit.” I am concerned about how we stewards of the earth and the animals therein treat both earth and animals. However, I am not a fanatic about things. I do eat meat and wear leather goods and for years did so without much thought. I am slooooowly becoming more conscientious about such things and have a long way to go.

    That being said, I do plan on running with the bulls next year and experiencing that wholly Spanish tradition.

    Lady Littlefoot

    • Reply
      July 20, 2012 at 5:42 pm

      Same here, and it’s strange. I balk at the thought of people torturing cats or dogs, but don’t blink an eye when it comes to eating force-fed chickens…

  • Reply
    July 20, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    I’m so glad you wrote this post, and wrote it so thoughtfully and honestly.

    The issue is a complicated and complex one, and something we come across often as we travel. I don’t think I would ever run with the bulls (both because I don’t have the cojones and because I don’t like how the bulls are treated), but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stop and doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place in that particular society.

    What I think is most important to remember is, like you said, you can’t be a hypocrite. I eat meat. I try to eat as much organic meat as possible, but you know it’s not always going to work out that way, and it doesn’t stop me from eating it. It’s so easy to be judgemental. I care quite a bit about animal welfare, and I’ll admit that it would probably stop me from diving head-first into some cultural practices while travelling, but it’s a personal choice, just like you said.

    I’m a (crazy) dog lover, and it broke my heart to see little matted strays roaming the streets of Havana, Lima and Panama City to the point where I was borderline distressed and starting to get judgy. Now, while this example is totally different from yours, it’s a lesson in cultural/societal differences, and part of what comes with travelling.

    As I said, I wouldn’t be up for running with the bulls, and I would NEVER ride an elephant in Thailand, but I actually think those are different issues. The bulls is a cultural tradition, and from what you say, is mostly attended by locals, whereas riding elephants has become something solely for tourists, and I just can’t handle that. Tourism shouldn’t perpetuate and encourage animal cruelty (see also: dancing bears).

    Good discussion, Oneika, and well written. I’m glad you are so open and honest with us and yourself, and that you’re not afraid to talk about this. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply
      July 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm

      Thanks so much for weighing in, Lindsay. It’s funny that you bring up the elephant riding in Thailand, because most people wouldn’t think twice about riding one.

  • Reply
    Adeola Adebayo
    July 20, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    I’m glad you were very objective about this. And I know this post must have taken some thought, as you do not usually write anything remotely controversial. So thank you for writing it.
    I am an aspiring scientist, and one of the characteristics of a scientist is objectivity. When you remove all sentiments, you see things a bit clearer, as they are, not as they should, could, or ought to be.

    With that in mind, I believe that many of us (us being a relative term here), do not fully understand, the food chain and where we are on the food chain. We (humans) are omnivores, not solely carnivores and not solely herbivores. Evolution and Nature has worked it magic so that it is the best fit for man. Cellulose, a key component of most plant food, is actually not easily digestible by humans (think fiber, goes right through you, aids in digestion but is not digested itself), but it is easily digestible by herbivores because of the many stomachs they have (3-4). I could go into other reasons why human is an omnivore (jaws, salivary glands, intestine…) but why do that. ^..^

    Also, you’d be surprised how much PLANT (in CAPS because we conveniently forget this important fact) and animal products, goes into everyday human items, from your basic hair wash, to cosmetics (think algae, sea weed….), to clothing (including yes shoes), to accessories like belts and some scarves. Yet, we find it blindingly appropriate to allocate cruelty blames on one but not on the other. Again, the key element missing in this judgement is Objectivity.
    Back to the food chain, if any one cares to really know, we are in fact at the very top of the chain, which means, technically and scientifically speaking, everything below the chain is accessible to human. The question is the manner in which we access these resources. I believe that humans should be HUMANE to anything and everything beneath them. Key word is HUMANE.

    That being said, I do not disapprove of and I respect any one who’s made a personal choice to feed or utilize one and not the other, or anyone who uses both. Thank you Oneika, for this post and sorry for the longish (^..^) response.

  • Reply
    July 20, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    I personally think it’s a horrifying and cruel tradition, but I don’t judge and I always support women acting brave!

    • Reply
      July 26, 2012 at 6:05 pm

      Thanks for your support, Andi!

  • Reply
    July 21, 2012 at 9:08 am

    Umm…. hm. Good question. I’m not a supporter of bull fights, but I haven’t formed my opinion on the bull run except that it’s cool you’ve done it.

  • Reply
    Mrs. Pancakes
    July 21, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    Interesting topic…honestly there are greater and worse things out there..hope you had fun!

    • Reply
      July 26, 2012 at 6:03 pm

      I certainly did! Thanks!

  • Reply
    July 21, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    Takes some guts to open your decisions up for scrutiny. I’m happy that you ran with the bulls. I would not have run with the bulls. It may have more to do with crowds and goring than what happens to the bulls or how terrified they are during the run, but everything gets sewn up together in the end. At least you went into the running informed enough to be conflicted.

    Although I’m less interested in the animal rights issue than the cultural implications of bull running, I would say that I eat fish but not meat. My reasons for not eating not-fish meat are less empathetic than political, which really makes the fish eating pretty inexcusable. The fact that I rarely eat fish doesn’t make it any better. There’s people in the world, even commenting here, who are more hardline about the consumption of animals. Those same people would probably smash a mosquito if it was buzzing around their head. I do. We kinda have to draw lines because life and the world is incredibly complex, more than we could ever truly grasp. So we’re all a little full of shit.

    Your appreciation of the tradition of bull running (and presumably bull fighting by association) is another tricky waltz. We can all defend aspects of culture which might prove controversial, and I’m guessing that where we stand on those issues relies on our personal sensitivities. Is it okay for seafaring people to continue hunting whales? It’s a cultural tradition. So is genital mutilation. Child brides. Honor killings. Beheading. Christmas. Personally I can do without any of those things (I’ll let Christmas slip because I’m a hypocrite and it makes my mom happy to see me once a year) and I don’t care how many hundreds or thousands of years ‘your people’ have been doing something terrible and inexcusable. I don’t respect that kinda culture.

    Speaking of which, my mom’s family is of the Asian. So eating fish is a cultural tradition for me.

    • Reply
      July 26, 2012 at 6:02 pm

      “We can all defend aspects of culture which might prove controversial, and I’m guessing that where we stand on those issues relies on our personal sensitivities. ”

      You’re right on the money with this comment. I think it really depends on your personal boundaries and sensitivities as you say. I love animals… but not to the point that I thought twice when it came to running with the bulls. This is appalling to some, but it’s the simple truth, ugly as it may be. I welcome debate and stand by my choices, which is why I wrote the post. 🙂

  • Reply
    Reg of The Spain Scoop
    July 22, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    There is more to San Fermin than bulls, but running with them is participating in the bullfight in a sense – in that, as you mentioned, they are running to their almost certain doom. I’ve been to a bullfight, and because of it, I don’t support any bull related ‘festivals’ in Spain, and am pround that the ‘sport’ has been banned in Catalonia, where I live.

    In the end, I personally believe bullfighting is something we’ll look back on years from now and feel ashamed of. There are many things that people were doing in the 1940s 60s and 70s – so recent history – that are now considered barbaric. I think this will go on that list sooner or later. Eating meat and hunting, are not the same as fighting an animal for fun. There is necessity and there is entertainment – bullfighting is the latter. Also, as a local here I’d remind readers that there are many cruel animal festivals in Spain that involve bulls with fire crackers on their horns, throwing donkeys off bell towers and tearing up a tied goose, etc. I don’t see the cultural value and quite frankly nor do many Spaniards. Time will tell what happens with bullfighting, but if you’re considering running or seeing a fight, inform yourself first, or you may end up like me, feeling sick and horrified by the whole thing (I really didn’t know what to expect at the bullfight – stupid, I know).

    Also, I’d go to San Fermin, I just would stay clear of all the bull stuff.

    Peace out!


    • Reply
      July 26, 2012 at 5:58 pm

      Thanks so much for commenting! It’s great to get a local’s perspective on the whole event.

    • Reply
      February 10, 2016 at 9:41 pm

      Certainly as a Spanish I do not think that bullfighting is “intrinsically” part of the culture as it is claimed.
      Bullfighting began as a method to keep army trained when there was no war or place to fight for. Then, it became an entertainment (someone would say that an “art” factor is involved). Despite being popular, there are many Spaniards who are against animal mistreatment and demand to ban the use of animals in any event where animals are involved (e.g. circus, bull running and so on).

  • Reply
    July 23, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    What happens with the bulls afterwards?

    I was just reading about bull fighting and apparently the bull meat is sold and eaten afterwards, which is good but I am torn because the last moments of the bull’s life is so terrible. I have participated in a lot of cultural activities that were questionable but somehow bull fighting is something I just cannot bring myself to go to.

    It’s such a personal thing and a very complex issue.

    • Reply
      July 26, 2012 at 5:51 pm

      Definitely personal and complex! I’ve never been to a bullfight, nearly did when I was in Pamplona though.

  • Reply
    July 24, 2012 at 2:35 am

    I will say that you are really brave to do something like that! As for the ethical part of it. I’ve personally have always felt it was a little cruel because I feel like the bulls were being taunted, provoked and made to just go crazy all for entertainment. Ive always thought the people who ran with the bulls were insane! lol. But hey, i’m sure if most people’s lives were put under a microscope we all would have something that the next person would see as unethical or something they would never do.

    • Reply
      July 26, 2012 at 5:45 pm

      Thanks for your comment! I agree that we can always cast stones, sometimes we have to agree to disagree. Everybody is different.

  • Reply
    July 24, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Hi Oneika,

    I have a photo of you waiting to open the “Policia Municipal” barrier in Mercaderes. You can see it here:

    Rod from Pamplona

    • Reply
      July 26, 2012 at 5:12 pm

      Wow these are great! Thanks!!

  • Reply
    July 27, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    I’ve been to bullfights before. I will probably go again if I can get tickets to see a good bull fighter. I can’t look when they kill the bull. I hate to admit it, but the best part is the music, the wine, and the crowd saying OLE everything the bull misses getting the fighter… it’s cruel and they have been banned in several places in south america. Im sure that in a few years it will be prohibited everywhere. It is cultural, but there are many things in many cultures that are wrong. I guess that I’m a hypocrite too… I love animals but i’m not a vegetarian and I buy leather products. (I cant even see fur after learning how they take it our while the animal is still alive…) About Pamplona: you are brave!!! and I dont run fast enough to even try to do something like that! I’m sure that it was fun!

    • Reply
      August 6, 2012 at 10:39 pm

      I m a little bit scared to go to a bullfight now!

  • Reply
    Emily in Chile
    July 30, 2012 at 2:17 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed it and that you came out unscathed! I also admire you for recognizing that your day-to-day behaviors indicate only a certain level of care for animals. I think a lot of people choose to be blind to what their eating habits, clothing choices and cosmetic use mean for animals. As a meat-eating, leather- and make-up-wearing person, I don’t judge those choices at all, but I do think it’s important to make them consciously.

    • Reply
      August 6, 2012 at 10:37 pm

      I think my whole point is that we are often quick to judge… when we aren t free from reproach ourselves!

  • Reply
    Shari in SC
    March 31, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    It’s not for me. I had a boyfriend that would get off on torturing cats. I saw it once and it was no longer my boyfriend. I think my line is drawn when it’s hurting anything just for the fun of it. Pain for sport isn’t for me. I don’t compare it in anyway with factory farming or wearing leather or anything else that’s not pain for entertainment. I think it lessens our humanity to watch something suffer and get off on it. Like a part of our heart has to be shut off to condone what we see and then justify it in our heads.

    But that’s my take on it. Some disagree. Some agree. The Spanish people will need to decide that one for themselves. As for me and my house, we will not partake.

    • Reply
      April 3, 2013 at 9:43 am

      Thanks for responding! This experience put me in a moral conundrum as well, as you can see. I respect your opinion and choices.

  • Reply
    Shari in SC
    March 31, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    I didn’t mean to call my ex-boyfriend an “it.” That should read “he was no longer my boyfriend.” Sorry.

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