Attending the world’s largest and most famous cattle related festival in the world has been a goal of mine since the beginning of this project and this summer, thanks to the Culture and Animals Foundation, I finally had the good fortune to go to the San Fermín Festival to see witness the “Running of the Bulls”—called the Encierro in Spanish. I arrived in Pamplona a few days before the festival to do some research and see the PETA protest beforehand, so I had the opportunity to see the normally tranquil, quaint and orderly town of Pamplona transform into a city inundated by a white and red armada of hard core partiers from near and far, amateur or expert bull runners, tourists, travel agents, and street vendors. A million people visit the narrow lanes of Pamplona’s old city during the eight-day celebration honoring San Fermín (Saint Fermin) the patron saint for the region of Navarre of which Pamplona is the capital. Saint Fermin was the city’s first bishop and after being beheaded on a mission to France he became a Catholic martyr. The red and white outfit worn by festival goers is in honor of the saint—the white representing purity and red bandana symbolizing the Saint’s be-heading. The festival honoring Saint Fermin has taken place in Pamplona since the mid-1400’s.
In Spain, Fiesta Taurina (celebration with bulls) occur when public festivals incorporate events with bulls, including bull fights, bull baiting, and acrobatics with bulls—usually during a local saint’s day festival. Festivals like the San Fermin still occur in different cities in Spain and some involve bull runs, but the San Fermin is by far the most famous, in no small part due to Ernest Hemingway who wrote about the festival in newspaper articles and in the novel The Sun Also Rises. The festival originally occurred as a two day festival in October, but in 1591 was moved to the early summer to coincide with an annual cattle fair. The festival has since been lengthened to its current eight days of non-stop festival activities and partying. The tradition of running with the bulls started sometime in the 17-1800’s when drunk men would race with the bulls as they were being moved from the outskirts of town to the bullring in the early mornings before people were awake and moving around the streets. Fiesta Taurina originally took place in town squares until permanent bullrings became fixtures of Spanish towns and cities in the 1800’s. Pamplona’s bullring was built in 1844 and the current bullring was constructed in 1922. It is the 4th largest bullring in the world. Many people don’t realize the bulls that run in the Encierro in the morning will be killed in the ring later that evening. The bull run has become the centerpiece of one of the largest and rowdiest parties in the world.
The square in front of city hall is the gathering place for the bull runners in the early morning before the run takes place. Only the people gathered in the square before 6:45 are guaranteed a run with the bulls when the first rocket is fired at 8 a.m. and the bulls are released from their holding pen. There are several gates on the course that the officials use to control the crowds during the race. Many of the tourists that are on the course outside the square are cleared off the course and not allowed to run, which I am sure is a disappointment to many.
This July a little over 4,000 people a day that ran with the bulls the first two days of the festival. Friends I made at the festival said that waiting in the packed square after staying up all night inhaling stale urine, alcohol and body odor was possibly more grueling than the run itself—and these comments were made by members of the United States armed forces that had undergone survival training. At 7:45 the runners gathered in town square are taken to Saint Fermin’s shrine. The shrine is built into a stone wall on the 160 meter long hill on the first stage of the course. In front of the shrine they say a prayer to San Fermín asking for the Saint’s protection. You can watch a video of the invocation to Saint Fermin, here.
Bulls have shorter front legs than back legs and because of their confirmation, they can run uphill faster than on a flat surface. For this reason the runners wait at the top of Santo Domingo hill to start the run. The bulls run through the square in front of the city hall, up Mercaderes Street, and turn at “Dead Man’s Corner”—a sharp unexpected turn for the bulls that may make them lose their footing and create tense moments for the crowd of runners as the bulls may careen, charge or fall onto the runners at this unexpected sharp corner. They regain speed on the straight and narrow Estafetta Street and then take a left hand turn onto Telefonica the narrow alley and the even narrower Callejon tunnel that leads to the bullring. This is the most dangerous part of the course. By visiting www.sanfermines.com you can watch videos of the runs and see people diving under the partitions when the bulls enter the tunnel. A group of men will also huddle together at the entrance to the arena and wait for the bulls to jump over them. It is not surprising that the narrow entrance to the bullring is the part of the course where the most injuries and deaths occur as people put themselves in extremely dangerous situations with bulls that have been put in a very stressful and frightening situation. For a map of the run click here.
Because bulls can run up to 15 miles per hour (24 km/hour) and faster than humans, seasoned runners will plot out their course. To run in front of a bull’s horns for a brief burst of speed and then darts out without incident is considered an ideal run. For those that run along side the bulls, the rules state that it is off limits to touch the bulls but many runners put their hand on a bull if they are in close enough to do so. Seasoned runners hold a rolled up newspaper, which can be used to gauge distance or distract a bull’s attention, similar to a cape. There are six bulls and six oxen that run the course together. The oxen know the course and are there to give a sense of security for the bulls, which are less dangerous when running in a herd. Three more oxen are released two minutes after the run starts to pick up any bulls that might have fallen or gotten turned around on the course. The oxen are larger than the bulls and wear bells that hang from their necks. The sound of the bells and the clattering of hooves are part of the ominous ambience of the run. It happens that one or more bulls will outrun the oxen and surprise the runners who await the sound of bells to start sprinting. This is a dangerous situation. When a fighting bull is separated his instinct is to charge. Not all domesticated bulls will charge a person when isolated from the crowd, but fighting bulls are bred specifically to charge and are more nervous and more dangerous than many other breeds of cattle.
There are four rockets fired during the run, which correspond to the position of the bulls on the course. The first rocket signals the gate being opened and the bulls being released on the field. The second rocket lets runners know that all the bulls have left the pen. The third rocket lets the crowd know the bulls have entered the bullring and the forth rocket assures everyone that all the cattle have been contained in the corals on the far side of the bullring. It takes the bulls three minutes or less to cover the nearly 900 meters on average, but every run is different and statistics of time, deaths, gorings and brave runs are reported on sites like www.sanfermines.com.
Both of the days I watched the festival the bulls ran the course quickly and without incident. No one was killed or gored, although the first day of the festival a Japanese man had his bandana hooked by a bull’s horn on the Telifonica stretch and into the tunnel and fortunately escaped from the very dangerous incident without serious injury. Photos of his terrifying situation took up two pages of the newspaper the following day. Fifteen people have been killed during the Encierro since 1922. No one has been mortally wounded during the run since 2009 but several people have been seriously injured. Two weeks after I left the festival there were still two people in the hospital from injuries sustained during the run. Of course the bulls are dangerous, but the sheer panic that people experience in the narrow cobblestone streets when the bulls speed by at close quarters make many runners lose their footing or push and shove the people around them. There is a code of honor amongst runners that is not always upheld and according to the runners that I interviewed it is every man for himself on the course. The streets are also very slick and I feared for runners without proper footwear. The old cobblestone streets are washed before the run to remove the multitude of trash that has accumulated from the night’s festivities and they do not have a chance to dry before the race starts. I have read that a coating is applied to the streets that provides more traction for the bulls, but I didn’t see evidence of that myself and the bulls still lost their footing in places, especially at Dead Man’s Turn.
While the Encierro is extremely dangerous, I was honestly surprised that more people weren’t injured. Bulls are powerful and bred to charge, but they don’t indiscriminately kill people. The bulls charge out of sheer duress, either when separated from the herd, when they feel threatened or when someone is in their way.
I attended the first and second runs of the festival. The first day, July 7th, the bulls ran the course in a swift 2.22 minutes. Surrounded by a constant crowd the bulls must have felt part of a human herd and while their speed made the race tense, they weren’t indiscriminately charging people. The bulls and oxen are always followed by Pastores, “herders” who wear green uniforms, carry long herding sticks and follow the bulls closely to keep them together, moving in the right direction and unmolested by the runners. Dobladores are ex-matadors or other bull fighting experts that are there to protect the public once the bulls have entered the ring. In the large open space the bulls are more distracted by people and the Dobladores use capes to guide the bulls toward the exit and away from runners.
After all the bulls are locked safely in the paddocks behind the bullring, the Vaquilla begins. The stadium is filled with people that witnessed the end of the bull run and the arena is packed with runners that completed the run or those who didn’t run but wanted to “play with young cows”—heifers—which is what the world vaquilla means in Spanish. Once the bulls have been secured, a heifer is released into the arena to charge the crowd and provide another adrenalin filled event for men that want to be charged by a young half-wild cow. Unlike the bulls that run in the Encinero the cows have balls placed over her horns to dull their impact.
I was unaware of what a Vaquilla entailed and I arrived at the arena a few minutes after the run, so I was unprepared for what I witnessed. The stadium and arena were packed with men—all in their white and red uniforms. The cow was either charging at the crowd of men in the arena or looking around bewildered as men jumped in front of her, daring her to charge. If she didn’t charge, the crowd whistled loudly, announcing her to be a coward. The Doubladores and Pastores were there to keep each cow from being molested, but there were still half-crazed men jumping at the cows and trying to pull at their horns or tails. When this happened the Pastores would start beating at the men with their herding sticks. When they decided a cow had had enough, they would release an ox into the arena to collect the cow. Then they would release a fresh cow into the arena.
I was surprised by the effect this event had on me. In a way, it made me more upset than watching a bullfight, which I didn’t expect. The sheer volume of people in the ring and the mob mentality of the men in the arena, spurned on by the yelling or whistling audience, made me feel that at any moment the mob would turn on the cow and start ripping her limb from limb. For the first time in my life I felt the like the veil of reason and control that humans exhibit the majority of time would be lifted and the group would become a feral and uncontrollable pack of primates ready to take down their prey. I imagine this might have been what the cows felt like as well. Each heifer’s initial instinct to charge turned into wide-eyed bewildered fear as she recognized there was no escape amid the mass of people. Without the Doubladores and Patstores beating the crowd back from the cows, I truly felt like the mob would turn against the heifers. There was something primal happening in the stadium, a wild and dark feeling that is repressed through culture and social customs, but can be triggered through the momentum of a collective group.
Leaving the Vaquilla I felt that the Catholic “saint’s day” festival of Saint Fermin was actually a remnant of ancient Greek and Roman festivals honoring Dionysus, the god of wine, winemaking, music, ritualized madness and ecstasy. All of the elements were there: the wine flowed freely in people’s mouths and sprayed over crowds. Music was a constant throughout the festival– provided by parade marching brass bands, pumped out of speakers through open pub doors, windows and patios and in public squares live concerts played throughout the night. The Encierro, he ritualized madness of people running with bulls, mobs confronting charging heifers, matadors fighting bulls on foot and on horseback (more on that in a later post) and the ecstatic partying that happens throughout the days and nights of the festival. Instead of the bulls being the main event, the Encierro is just another expression of ritualized madness that occurs during the festival.