José Enrique Zaldivar Laguía, Veterinarian,
Member of the “Ilustre Colegio de Veterinarios” of Madrid.
Just over a year ago, in February 2007, several media outlets reported on a neuroendocrine study of the hormonal reactions in bulls during bullfights. This study was carried out by a group of veterinarians from the Department of Physiology in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid.
Nobody – neither fans nor abolitionists of bullfighting – had questioned that the bull is subjected to real hardship in terms of both physical pain and psychological suffering, yet this study seems to indicate the opposite.
Before explaining why I question the study, I will examine what a bullfight consists of.
During the bullfight, and over a period of approximately 20 minutes, the bull is subjected to a series of suertes – ‘acts’. As soon as the bull enters the ring and has been led through a series of passes with the cape, it is subjected to the suerte de varas – the ‘act of the lances’. For this part, the picador – the lancer – uses the point of the lance, which is a sharp pointed instrument, 9cm long, divided into two sections: a pyramid-shaped point of 3cm and a length of steel wrapped in 6cm cord. This instrument is supposed to wound certain muscles and ligaments in the mound of musculature at the top of the bull’s neck. The aim of this act is to facilitate the work of the bullfighter in that, once these anatomical structures have been injured, the bull will not be able to lift its head. Unfortunately (in inverted commas) it is not like that. It is known that 90% of the stabs with the lance are made much further back, where the vertebrae are much less protected. In addition, as a result of illegal moves by the picadors, such as ‘drilling’ (twisting the lance into the bull like a corkscrew) or the ‘in-out’ (inserting and withdrawing the lance several times so that one lance has the same effect as having been used 7 times, and stops the bull from fleeing when it feels pain), the wounds are often much worse. The haemorrhaging caused by these methods means that the loss of blood can be up to 18%, whereas the ‘desirable’ (in inverted commas) amount is 10%. Due to these moves, one lance can produce wounds more than 20cm deep, entering the body in up to 5 different directions.
I should say that during the San Isidro Feria, which took place recently in Madrid, I was able to see 36 bullfights on television, and in only one case was the lance actually inserted into the correct area of muscle on the neck (1 in 36).
The next act is the ‘act of the banderillas’ (‘little flags’): these are wooden sticks with a 6-cm-long steel point, and six of these are stuck into the dorsal area of the bull. So that they don’t fall out, they carry a 16-mm-wide harpoon.
Next begins the work of the matador, who makes a series of passes with the cape. This is the only part of the bullfight that does not cause the bull physical pain, although it does impose an enormous physical and psychological effort.
The bullfight concludes with the estocada, the plunging of an 80-cm-long curved sword into an exact spot between the shoulder blades, causing the death of the bull. However, more often than not, the sword thrust misses this spot, where it has the desired effect of cutting the main blood vessels. Instead, it usually wounds the nerve cords lateral to the spine, disconnecting the thoracic cage and causing massive injury to the lungs. Blood can flow from the lungs to the bronchi and from there to the trachea, exiting via the mouth and nose, sometimes in huge quantities. On other occasions, the sword thrust is so low that it can perforate the diaphragm and even the stomach and liver. If this happens, the bull will die swallowing its own blood.
It ends with the descabello and the puntilla. The descabello is carried out with a sword similar to the one used for the estocada, but with a 10cm crosspiece; it consists of severing the spinal cord at the intervertebral space between the first and second cervical vertebrae. The puntilla is the ‘coup de grace’, ensuring the final death of the bull, and has the same aim as the descabello, but is carried out with a 10-cm knife.
In the study that we refer to, the hormone levels in the following different groups of bulls were analysed:
1-Bulls that have only been transported by lorry.
2-Bulls that go out into the ring but are sent back to the pens because of some physical problem, without going through any of the ‘acts’ described above.
3-Bulls that have been wounded with the lance and then sent back to the pens.
4-Bulls that have been wounded with the lance and banderillas and then sent back to the pens.
5-Bulls that go through all the stages of the bullfight and therefore die in the ring.
We believe that the biggest groups are 1 and 5, as the circumstances described in groups 2, 3 and 4 are relatively rare. I say ‘believe’, because the study has still not been published in a scientific journal, nearly a year and a half after being made public.
The study was based on measuring the following series of hormones:
1. ACTH: a hormone produced in the pituitary gland and a precursor to cortisol.
2. Cortisol: a hormone produced in the adrenal glands.
3. Beta-endorphins: hormones produced in various parts of the body.
The study also refers to two other hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which I won’t refer to here so as not to overly broaden my comparison.
ACTH and cortisol are the hormones involved in an organism’s response to stress. The more that is produced, the greater the stress. Once the stressful stimulus has occurred, orders are sent by the nervous system to release these hormones.
So what is stress? What is its purpose? And what health consequences does it have? Stress is defined as an ‘aggression against a living organism’ or ‘the combined biological and psychological reactions that are unleashed when an organism is suddenly confronted with a harmful agent of some kind’. It is also defined as: ‘a situation where an individual or one of its organs or systems demands higher than normal functioning, putting it at risk of illness’.
So we might expect that of the bulls analysed, those in group 5 (those who have been through all the acts of the bullfight and have died in the ring) would have more ACTH and more cortisol in their blood than the bulls in the other groups, and of course much more than the ones in group 1. In other words, the greater the hardship, the greater the stress caused.
However, according the study that we are looking at, that is not the case. According to this study, the transported bulls (group 1) and the bulls in group 2 have three times as much stress as the others, i.e. more ACTH and more cortisol. Equally, bulls from group 3 have more stress than those from group 4, and these have more than bulls from group 5.
What can be happening, if this study and its conclusions are correct, and we are to believe that they are, for everything to be the opposite of what we would expect? Can it be true, as the study tells us, that a bull that is subjected to a bullfight is a neuro-endocrinologically special animal, perfectly adapted to bullfighting?
What if I point out that, in order for certain endocrine responses (such as the release of cortisol through ACTH) to be measured, it is essential for the neuronal stimulus and the signal transduction in the nervous system to be intact? In other words, if a wound has damaged the nervous system, this type of hormonal response cannot be assessed, since it cannot occur normally. That being the case, what conclusion do you now draw?
We know from numerous studies and papers by veterinarians specialising in bulls that the lances used in bullfighting rupture the spinal processes and thoracic vertebrae, damage blood vessels that flow to the muscles that are important for movement, and sever or injure the dorsal rami of the spinal nerves. This can (and indeed does) cause temporary limping and leads to the reflex inhibition of the brachial plexus (the nervous centre that innervates the anterior extremities). We know that the lance stabs can cause major haemorrhaging in the spinal canal and can injure the upper part of the ribs. The deepest lance wounds can even perforate the pleura and affect the lungs, causing pneumothorax and consequent respiratory failure.
We know that the banderillas, through the force of gravity and the movement of the bull, cause damage to nerves, muscles and blood vessels. We know that the estocada also cuts through important nerves, and finally that the descabello and puntilla cut the spinal cord. We therefore know that the bull’s nervous system suffers significant damage during the bullfight, making a normal response impossible in terms of the release of ACTH and cortisol. It is therefore to be expected, and fits in with the conclusions of the study that we are refuting, that bulls that have only been transported or that go out into the ring and are then sent back without suffering physical harm have more cortisol than those that have suffered harm. It is not that they have more stress, just that their nervous system is intact, which, as I pointed out before, is essential for this kind of hormonal response to be taken into account and measured accurately. Did you know that in people involved in accidents with major spinal injuries, the hormonal response that would result in the release of cortisol is reduced or even absent? Can there be any more stressful situation for someone that thinking that they are going to spend the rest of their life in a wheelchair? Is there any more serious neurological damage that the severing of the spinal cord as in the descabello or puntilla? Don’t forget that the majority of bulls analysed had blood taken after death, in other words after having suffered the wounds previously described.
The other part of the study relates to the production of other hormones called beta-endorphins. We know that these are produced by the body in situations of stress and/or pain. Given that during the bullfight the bull apparently releases an enormous quantity of these, it is concluded that these beta-endorphins would be capable of cancelling out the pain that the bull is caused. We are told that the bull releases ten times the quantity of beta-endorphins as humans. But under what circumstances? No human being has been, nor ever will be, subjected to a bullfight. To make such assertions, the species compared should be subjected to the same circumstances, and this is not the case, nor ever will be. In addition, in the majority of cases, the hormone levels were measured in blood taken from dead bulls, so it is impossible to say at what point in the bullfight the hormones were released. Was it after the lance wounds, as the authors maintain? Or after the banderillas? And why not after the descabello or puntilla? Since a series of blood samples was not taken, for the time being, we cannot know. It would be necessary to stop the bullfight at various stages to know at what exact moment such a large amount of hormones was released as to minimize the animal’s pain.
I should also point out that properties are attributed to beta-endorphins that they do not actually possess. They are supposed to neutralise pain, whereas in fact the most we can say is that they alleviate it. What is certain is that they act as mediators, and most importantly they mediate pain and stress. I have not come across a single study that maintains that they neutralise pain, or that an organism can instantaneously stop feeling pain that is being inflicted on it due to their effect. And we are not talking about trivial pain; at least, I, as a veterinarian, cannot call the pain that bulls suffer in bullfighting trivial. A large number of studies in women during childbirth (where samples were taken sequentially) have shown that the higher the level of beta-endorphins, the greater the pain experienced. The women who said that labour had been unbearable were the ones that showed the highest levels of beta-endorphins, and, interestingly, the newborns that had suffered the most during birth were the ones that had the most beta-endorphins in their blood. And one important fact: women who had attended ante-natal classes, whose stress levels were lower, had lower levels of beta-endorphins.
How is it possible that levels of stress hormones like cortisol can be almost normal in bulls after the bullfight, and that other hormones, beta-endorphins, also mediators of stress, can be so high? In my opinion the answer lies in the integrity of the nerve structures, since it is known that when there is neurological damage, beta-endorphins can be released at the site of the pain, due to certain cellular mechanisms, without the involvement of the nervous system.
My conclusions in respect of the study that we have been looking at are therefore clear:
The hormonal responses in relation to stress are the ones expected, given the neurological damage that the bull suffers during the bullfight, and are caused by the lance stabs, the banderillas, the estoque, the descabello, the puntilla, and finally the exhaustion that the animal undergoes (general adaptation syndrome). This syndrome has been studied over many years and is still very relevant here. It means that in a situation were there is a threat to the body’s equilibrium, all organisms respond by trying to adapt. It can therefore be described as the body’s specific physiological response when faced with a demand or aggression, whether physical or psychological. What is certain is that when the aggression is repeated frequently or takes place over an extended period of time, and when the animal’s resources to achieve the level of adaptation are inadequate, it goes from the adaptation stage to the exhaustion stage, where hormonal responses to stress are impossible.
Hormonal responses to pain, i.e. the release of large quantities of beta-endorphins such as are found in the blood of bulls after a bullfight, are an organism’s normal response to great pain and stress, and have very little to do with its capacity to neutralise it; in fact, on the contrary, the hormone levels indicate the level of pain experienced, not the animal’s ability to cancel it out.
José Enrique Zaldivar Laguía,
Veterinarian,Member of the “Ilustre Colegio de Veterinarios” of Madrid.