Running of the Bulls in Pamplona: Spectacle or Debacle?

This month sees the annual running of the bulls (encierro) in Pamplona. This is the most popular encierro  in Spain and the highest profile event of the San Fermin festival, which is held every year from July 6–14, in honour of Saint Fermin.  The first bull running is on July 7, followed by one on each of the following mornings of the festival, beginning every day at 8 am. Among the official rules laid down to take part in the event are that participants must be at least 18 years old, run in the same direction as the bulls, not incite the bulls, and not be under the influence of alcohol.

The origin of this event comes from the need to transport the bulls from the off-site corrals where they had spent the night, to the bullring where they will be killed later in the day. Youngsters  jump among them to show off their bravado. In Pamplona and other places, the six bulls in the event are still those that will feature in the afternoon bullfight of the same day.

A set of wooden fences is erected to direct the bulls along the route and to block off side streets. A double wooden fence is used in those houses where there is enough space for it, while in other parts the buildings of the street act as barriers. The gaps in the barricades are wide enough for a human to slip through, but narrow enough to block a bull. The fence is composed of around three thousand separate pieces and while some parts are left for the duration of the fiesta others are mounted and dismounted every morning. Spectators can only stand behind the second fence, whereas the space between the two fences is reserved for security and medical personnel and also to participants who need cover during the event

The encierro begins with runners singing a benediction. It is sung three times, each time being sung both in Spanish and Basque. The benediction is a prayer given at a statue of Saint Fermin, patron of the festival and the city, to ask the saint’s protection and can be translated into English as “We ask Saint Fermin, as our Patron, to guide us through the encierro and give us his blessing”. The singers finish by shouting “Viva San Fermín!, Gora San Fermin!” (“Long live Saint Fermin”, in Spanish and Basque). Most runners dress in the traditional clothing of the festival which consists of a white shirt and trousers with a red waistband and neckerchief. Also some of them hold the day’s newspaper rolled to draw the bulls’ attention from them if necessary

A first rocket is set off at 8 a.m. to alert the runners that the corral gate is open. A second rocket signals that all six bulls have been released. The third and fourth rockets are signals that all of the herd has entered the bullring and its corral respectively, marking the end of the event. The average duration between the first rocket and the end of the encierro is four minutes.

The herd is composed of the six bulls to be fought in the afternoon, six steers (castrated bulls) that run with the bulls, and three more steers that leave the corral two minutes later.

The length of the run is 826 metres (903 yards). It goes through four streets of the old part of the city (Santo Domingo, Town Hall Square, Mercaderes and Estafeta) and a section called Telefónica before entering into the bullring. The fastest part of the route is up Santo Domingo and across the Town Hall Square, but in the past the bulls often became separated at the entrance to Estafeta Street as they slowed down. One or more would slip going into the turn at Estafeta, but, with the use of the new anti-slip surfacing, most of the bulls negotiate the turn onto Estafeta and are often ahead of the steers. This has resulted in a quicker run.

The event attracts a large audience and the atmosphere is undoubtedly electric, vibrant and frenetic, but lets look at the other sides to this.

The Human Cost

Every year, between 200 and 300 people are injured during the run although most injuries are contusions due to falls and are not serious. Not all of the injuries involve taking the patients to hospital: in 2013, 50 people were taken by ambulance to Pamplona’s hospital,  nearly doubling the number in 2012.

Goring is much less common but potentially life threatening. In 2013 for example, 6 participants were gored, in 2012 only 4 runners were injured by the horns of the bulls – exactly the same number as in 2011, 9 in 2010 and 10 in 2009; with one of the latter killed.As most of the runners are male, only 5 women have been gored since 1974. Prior to that date running was prohibited for women.

Another major risk is runners falling and piling up at the entrance of the bullring, which acts as a funnel as it is much narrower than the previous street. In such cases injuries come both from asphyxia and contusions to those in the pile and from goring if the bulls crush into the pile. This kind of blocking of the entrance has occurred at least ten times in the history of the run, the last occurring in 2013 and the first dating back to 1878. A runner died of suffocation in one such pile up in 1977.

Overall, since record-keeping began in 1910, 15 people have been killed in the bull running of Pamplona, most of them as a result of being gored

Pamplona: The Bulls’ Perpective

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation is a UK-based animal rights charity. According to Sascha Camilli from PETA:  “Before the runs, the animals will be tormented with electric prods and sharp sticks and may also be debilitated by tranquilisers. They will slip and slide along the narrow cobblestone streets of Pamplona, goaded by hundreds of revellers, before they end up in the bullring. Once there, more than a dozen people will attack each one of the terrified bulls, taunting, beating and jabbing them with daggers for approximately 15 minutes – until the matadors take over to stab the exhausted animals repeatedly with a sword.

She adds “Anyone who attends the Running of the Bulls is supporting these cruel and bloody spectacles.”

Who was Fermin Anyway?

Fermin is said to have been the son of a Roman of senatorial rank in Pamplona in the 3rd century, who was converted to Christianity by Saint Honestus, a disciple of Saint Saturninus.  Saturninus  was the first bishop of Toulouse, where he was sent during the “consulate of Decius and Gratus” (AD 250). He was martyred (traditionally in 257 AD), significantly by being tied to a bull by his feet and dragged to his death, a martyrdom that was inaccurately transferred to Fermin and relocated at Pamplona. So there is no actual connection between St Fermin and the killing of bulls anyway.

What to do instead?

La Tomatina (Spanish pronunciation: [la tomaˈtina]) is a festival that is held in the Valencian town of Buñol, a town located 30 km / 19 miles from the Mediterranean, in which participants throw tomatoes and get involved in this tomato fight purely for fun. It is held on the last Wednesday of August, during the week of festivities of Buñol.


At around 10 a.m., festivities begin with the first event of the Tomatina.  The goal is to climb a greased pole with pork on top. As this happens, the crowd works into a frenzy of singing and dancing and gets showered in water from hoses. Once someone is able to push the pork off the pole, the signal for the start of the tomato fight is given by shooting the water hoses into the air, trucks full of tomatoes make their entry and the chaos begins, with tomatoes flying everywhere.  The tomatoes come from Extremadura, where they are less expensive and are grown specifically for the occasion, being of inferior taste. For the participants the use of goggles and gloves are recommended. The tomatoes must be crushed before being thrown so as to reduce the risk of injury. The estimated number of tomatoes used is around 150,000 or over 40 metric tons. After exactly one hour the fight ends with the firing of the second shot, announcing the end. The whole town square is colored red and rivers of tomato juice flow freely. Fire trucks hose down the streets and participants use hoses that locals provide to remove the tomato paste from their bodies.

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