Margaret and Dick   


August '07: Tempest in a bullring
Hot news from the Midi Libre, our daily newspaper.
Bulls forbidden in local festivals.”  “Disappointment and anxiety for all.”
“Movement and assembly of cattle, sheep and pigs are forbidden, because of the risk of spreading hoof-and-mouth disease.  The traditional abrivados, encierros, and other Camargue-style events may not take place in regional festivals.”
The news caused an uproar this week in the south of France, where the tradition of pitting man vs. bull is long and strong.
Authorities in England detected two farms infected with hoof-and-mouth disease, a deadly and extremely contagious illness.  There is considerable traffic of animals for meat across the English Channel, and recent animal transports from England to France had not yet been traced.
In the region next to our Aude, the town of Castres was preparing for its village festival.  “But no bull has yet pointed its horn,” read the newspaper account.  The mayor preferred to follow the ban scrupulously for the moment, though reluctantly.  “All our festivals revolve around the bulls.  Economically, it’s a catastrophe.”
A highly-ranked (and now unemployed) bullfighter, was “disgusted.”  Another was incredulous:  "You must be kidding!"  Henri Itier, president of the Federation of Camargue Bull-contests added:  “We have forty bull events a day in the Camargue region.  Aside from the contests, the entire economy is affected:  restaurants, cafes…  Without the bulls, the village festivals become just school fairs.  How can they demand a national block on our events when there is not one case of hoof-and-mouth disease in France?”
A tsk-tsk at the British, whose habits of animal husbandry are demonstrably inferior.
At the town of St Just, the six-day festival had just begun.  The mayor shrugged.  “I am not concerned.  No one in the chain of command has informed me.  No fax, no mail, no phone call.  It is evident to me that this does not concern us, since there is just one bull farm in town, and those bulls don’t travel outside of St Just.” 
Only one type of bull event was allowed to proceed under the stop order:  The Spanish-style corrida, which ends with the death of the bull.  As long as the bull does not come out alive, there is assumed to be no risk of spreading disease among the cattle population!  But we are not in Spain, and the fatal corrida is rare.  
The most common bull event at village festivals near Limoux is the toro-piscine (“bull-pool”).  A swimming pool is placed inside a small bullring.  Young men (who else?) enter the ring and attempt to get the bull into the pool.  It’s usually the men who end up in the pool, or just as often they leap over the fence to escape.  Although the bull’s horns are covered by rubber tips, there is plenty of potential for damage.  Unlike the solemn corrida, this bull event is extremely funny.
The banned events were unfamiliar to me, so I went looking on the internet to understand the vocabulary of the Camargue bull contests.  The Camargue is a marshy flat area on the edge of the Mediterranean, stretching between Montpellier to the west and Arles to the East.  Extensive grassy areas support populations of grazing horses and cattle.  Like the American “wild west”, men on horseback are common, as is the desire to prove manhood by taking risks.  Think of a rodeo where bulls are king.  The tradition of man-vs-bull in the Camargue dates back at least 600 years.  Smaller, faster, and feistier than Spanish bulls, the Camargue bulls are treasured by their fans and owners and live long lives.  
A red ribbon is pinned into the fur on top of the bull’s head, a white ribbon-decorated cones are placed over the horns.  In the bullring, the man’s challenge is to pull off a ribbon without being gored.  The man has no sword, no cape, and no protection, just a comb attached on his fingers to help grab a ribbon.  The man has to reach boldly out, yet be ready to leap over the fence when the bull charges.  The crowd cheers and music from the opera Carmen blares at an act of bravery by either man or bull.  
Other events fill the day.  During the abrivado, men on horseback herd the bulls from their pastures down village streets to the ring.  The spectacle is free but dangerous.  The crowd, in a rush of adrenaline, pushes close as the bulls pass by.  The return from ring to pasture, called the bandido, is riskier since the bull is more excited and the crowd is less sober.  The encierro, a race of crowd and bulls let loose in the streets in the evening, is even crazier.
The next day, the Midi Libre newspaper announced a relaxation of the restriction.  The bulls can come out as long as they have passed a veterinary exam just before the event and remain isolated for ten days afterwards.  Henri Itier was not satisfied.  “It is better but not enough.  We organize over 860 contests this summer.  If we have to isolate each bull for ten days, how will we honor our commitments?”  At Quissac, the festival begins today, they run four or five contests per day, and there won’t be enough bulls if a bull can’t work more than one event in ten days!

And one day after that, everybody relaxed.  The ministers of Agriculture and Health, after consultation with the professionals impacted by the ban, decided that bull contests raised no risk of hoof-and-mouth contamination.  There have been no cases in France, and the cattle in transit from England were mostly just passing through to other countries.  Not our problem (!).  “Whew,” breathed the leader of one bull event.  “It’s almost like the end of a war.”  Another war of words has ignited, blown up, and cooled down, with most real issues overlooked. 

Let the fiestas begin! 

Photo of Toro-Piscine is courtesy of
photographer:  Eric Despujols
Photos of bulls with horses and Camargue bull event are courtesy of
photographer:  Thierry Chatel

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