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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Running With the Bulls in Pamplona

In Pamplona, northern Spain, five runners were gored, two seriously, and six received other injuries at a packed running of the bulls at the San Fermin festival on Friday, July 10, 2009. Dead is Daniel Jimeno Romero, who was gored in the neck and lung by a 1,130-pound bull named Capuchino. Romero's death was the first in almost 15 years for the Pamplona spectacle. Since 1910, 15 people have been killed in Pamplona.The bulls used in Friday's run, from a ranch called Jandilla, have a reputation for being fierce at San Fermin. They hold the record for the most gorings in a single run — eight, in one day in 2004. Evidence of the festival's beginnings comes from as far back as the 13th century when it seems the events took place in October as this coincided with the festival of San Fermin on October 10th. But most of the more modern traditions are said to have come from practicality. The purpose of this event is the transport of the bulls from the off-site corrals where they had spent the night, to the bullring where they would be killed in the evening. "In1591, residents merely had to herd the bulls to the bull-fighting arena. At first, only the drovers were used to lead the bulls, but at some date, the butchers guild, who had the responsibility of buying the bulls, began to join in with the drovers and began to chase behind the bulls and heifers up to the bull-ring from Santo Domingo Street- the starting point of the run." ( As time passed the event became more and more popular and some people began to run in front of the bulls at some time in the 1800's. Originally, only a few daring souls ran with the bulls but the adrenaline rush of running in front of a 1,500 lb. bull led to much greater popularity. Even youngsters began to jump among Miura bulls, the largest and most famous of Spain's fighting bulls, to show off their bravado although, now, those less than 18 years-old are forbidden from running. And, participating in the run while tipsy is also against the festival's rules, but alcohol violations are common. It has become Spain's best-known festival and many Spaniards consider it to be a defining tradition. This ancient tradition was popularized by American novelist Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 classic novel The Sun Also Rises. Today the festival attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world. Spectators lucky enough to find a vantage point can view the events live. Many fight crowds for the flavor of the events. And, still others follow them on national TV. The San Fermin festival begins proper at 12 mid-day on the 6th of July when a firework, the "Txupinazo," is ceremoniously set off from the Town Hall in the Plaza Consistorial. Thousands gather for this moment when sprays of corks explode into the air and champagne drenches the packed crowd. The streets are filled with singing, cheering and revelry while the whole population of Pamplona and their visitors tie around their necks the distinctive red, San Fermin scarf and commence partying - continuing this non-stop high until the 14th of July. Everywhere can be heard the festive music of the traditional brass bands known as "charangas" who play continuously as they tour the streets, plazas and bars livening up every minute of every festive day. The first actual bull running is on July 7, followed by one on each of the following mornings of the festival, beginning every day at 8:00 am. Runners begin the event singing three times, "We ask Saint Fermin, as our Patron, to guide us through the encierro and give us his blessing." Unlike bullfights, which are performed by professionals, anyone may participate in an encierro.

The encierro, meaning "to be closed in," involves many hundreds of people running in front of six bulls and another six steers down an 825-metre (0.51 mile) stretch of narrow streets of a section of the old town of Pamplona.

Injuries are common to the participants who may be gored or trampled, and to the bulls, whose hooves grip poorly on the paved or cobbled street surfaces. Whenever a bull gets separated from the herd, it can be very dangerous because it becomes disoriented and often attacks anything, or anyone who attracts its attention.

Although deaths are rare, the historical evolution of the bull-running seems to have made it an ever-more dangerous activity. The number of risky situations (such as the pile-ups) and the number of injured seem to increase as time goes by. Until the double row of fencing was set up, it was even dangerous for the spectators, as it was not unusual for a bull to break through the one line of fencing. On most occasions only a super-efficient ambulance service saves the lives of those gored as the loss of blood is mortal by necessity.

Observers say foreigners — especially, for some reason, Americans — are most likely to be injured. "Americans come here with the image of The Sun Also Rises and just don't realize how dangerous it is and how easy it is to trip up," Daniel Ross, an American vice consul in Spain, told the New York Times.

Participants report running with the bulls is mad, frantic and magic all at the same time and it's over very quickly. Many say the feeling afterward is quite amazing. Some spectators are shocked while others are incredulous. Locals and experienced runners take it all in their stride and re-commence partying. First time runners and those who have had a narrow escape or even a near death experience are found wandering or sitting quietly no doubt sharing a few grateful moments with Saint Fermin himself.

The nightly bullfights, which take place at 6.30pm, are also noisy, colorful affairs. However, tickets are quite limited and vary in price.

Mr. Jim Hollander, a veteran news agency photographer, has photographed the Fiesta de San Fermin — eight days of revelry, procession, bullfights and most famously the several-minute surges through the streets of man and animal. His work at the fiesta is chronicled in his book Run to the Sun (Master Arts Press, 2002).

It may seem like torture to humans, Hollander says, “but what the bull sees is aggravation. He bleeds a bit and then he dies, but he has a chance to go down in the history books.” People still talk about great bulls from decades ago. “To see the art of it, you have to get past seeing the blood. The bull is going to die in a bullfight. That’s the conclusion. It’s how the bull reacts. It’s how the bull acts as a bull, as a representative of his species.”

Others contend that respect for bulls within Spanish culture is a different form of respect from people who treat animals like humans--the power of the bull is respected.

So, why do people run with the bulls? Nearly everyone who runs is male. And many of them do see it as a kind of macho rite of passage. Is there a time in every man's life when he has to test his mettle and tempt the hand of fate? Some evidently do seek the thrill and do it to defy death. Others contend running is part of the culture and part of the religion. Many simply believe the event continues because of the revenue it generates. Contrary to common belief, polls show most Spaniards have no interest in bullfighting. And in Catalonia, nearly 200,000 people have signed a petition asking the regional parliament to ban the ritual. Yet, Pamplona resident Ramon Moreno, in his mid-30s, has been running with the bulls since he was 13. "Yes, it's crazy," he says. "But if you've been fed this with your mother's milk, then this is what you do." Here is one participant's simple view of the entire spectacle: "The bull runs, chasing people, and the people that are being chased will get a royal beat-down if they do anything like pull on the bulls' tail or (God forbid) try to get on top of the bull. The Spanish seem very respectful of the bulls, and they don't like anyone to mess with them. The rules are simple: The bull gets to chase you, and you get to run. Nothing else." Ernest Hemingway: "Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honor."

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