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As a country still steeped in a bullfighting culture and whose language has absorbed many of the expressions related to all the bull-related bull, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there are so many sacred cows in Spain.

These are not the four-legged ruminants revered by far eastern religions, but those controversial topics which are deemed sacrosanct in some countries, and where questioning their very legitimacy guarantees disapproving looks, or worse.

In Spain, you quickly learn when you’re dealing with a contentious issue. Usually, the person you speak to raises his eyebrows, sighs in resignation, and with a shrug of the shoulders announces: ‘it’s complicated’.

Take bullfighting. It too is a ‘complicated’ subject. A recent article in my paper about the decision by an Almería council to spend more than 357,000 euros to stage bullfighting events last year provoked such a vituperative response from the council that I thought I’d be next in the ring.

The council’s press spokesman was in paroxysms of rage, arguing that the article had grossly distorted the truth. Following a robust exchange of words, the truth slowly began to emerge. Roquetas had indeed spent some 357,000 euros, but in his view the figure was quite irrelevant. Once the number crunchers had done their work the local council had actually made a loss of exactly 96,474 euros and 72 cents. This, he said, was the real figure, except that the council had not ‘lost’ this money; it had “invested” it.

He could tell I still didn’t quite get it, so to illustrate the point he kindly gave me an example which went like this: “Imagine I hire David Bisbal (a well known Spanish pop idol, in case you didn’t know) for 100,000 euros. Out of that quantity I have to subtract 89,000 euros from ticket sales. This means my investment was 11,000 euros,” he announced, rather smugly.

Struggling with my admittedly limited knowledge of creative accounting, I responded that in my modest estimation, hiring the curly-headed one would have incurred a not-insignificant loss. “If you want to call it a loss…we don’t. To us, it’s an investment,” he insisted.

Apparently, it all comes down to the view that bullfighting has a positive knock-on effect on the wider economy in much the same way the Olympics had for London. Except that that’s not a good example, because as we all now know figures for retail sales in London fell well below expectations at the time.

Not to be put off, the council in Roquetas de Mar is hell-bent on proving it backed the right horse (or bull), and to do that it’s going to commission a report from Almería university on bullfighting’s economic impact. This will prove interesting as the university just so happens to run its own pro-bullfighting, ‘aula taurina’ course. I think you can see where this is going.

Traditions by their very definition are immune to rational enquiry. In fact, when you question a tradition you are often made to feel as though you had just asked a deeply religious man if you could take his rather saucy-looking 16-year-old daughter and pert-looking wife for a quick ménage a trois round the bike shed.

Tradition is inextricably linked to culture, but culture is not a rigid structure. It evolves continually as younger generations begin to question previously unshakable beliefs. And just as Morris dancing is of no interest to the majority of Brits, neither is throwing a live goat from a belfry to Spaniards (the first, totally harmless if utterly dull activity survives; the second, thankfully, is no longer practiced in the village of Manganeses de la Polvorosa).

When bullfighting’s embattled supporters feel cornered, as happens ever more often these days, they turn to all manner of arguments to justify their love for all things bovinae, especially if they have sharp, bloody implements sticking out of them.

First, it was a sort of last stand for the very survival of Spain’s cultural identity – as though Spain had only bullfights to offer. Then the emphasis shifted to species survival: end bullfighting and the unique ‘toros de lidia’ will become extinct because they serve no other purpose, the argument went.

Unfortunately, they forgot to explain what or who would inseminate the cows if such disaster should befall bull breeders, or how apparently commercially unviable species such as the Imperial eagle and the Iberian wild goat enjoy protected status without having to justify their existence.

The most preposterous claim has been to suggest that bulls actually feel no pain. It is not worth entertaining such nonsense with a riposte, but the latest skirmish revolving around the psychological make-up of ‘taurinos’ shows that even intelligent people are not immune to talking ‘toro’.

A well known Spanish philosopher, Francisco Savater, recently published a work entitled Tauroética on the ethics of keeping the ‘national fiesta’. In it, Savater argues that bullfighting cannot be considered cruel in the strict sense of the word because neither bullfighters nor the people who attended bullfights rejoice in seeing the bull suffer. It is an interesting viewpoint not wholly devoid of truth, but it begs the question as to whether human indifference to animal pain is any more morally justified.

We are left with the last but most powerful argument – one that is inextricably bound to simple economics. Bullfighting still generates large sums of money, and if pro-bullfighting lobbies are to be believed, it could be as much as 2.5 billion euros, helping to sustain up to 1,200 bull-rearing farms. Of course, no mention is made of the large state subsidies given to the regions and local councils for staging such events. In any case, the ministry of the interior’s own figures, which reveal that between 2007 and 2010 the number of bullfights plummeted by 34.5 per cent, cast serious doubts over bullfighting’s long term economic viability.

The decision by the conservative PP-led Government to broadcast bullfights after a six-year hiatus shows that the openly pro-bullfighting administration wants to make a case for the national fiesta – at any cost. To do that it has commissioned (that word again) a report to develop and protect the activity.

But one only has to refer to the Roquetas case to see how easily figures can be manipulated.

Just don’t mention the bull.

Richard Torné

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