Seal hunt inhumane? How about a bullfight?
The hypocrisy of the European Union's ban on Canadian seal products
My suitcase was just about full and I was ticking off my packing list before heading off for a couple of fascinating weeks in Europe.
It was mid-March and I knew the temperatures in Germany and Spain might be on the chilly side from time to time. I had scarves and warm sweaters and I was looking forward to sporting a pair of stylish new gloves I had been given for Christmas.
Trouble was, those black leather beauties had a seal-fur cuff. I decided to leave them at home for fear they'd be snatched from me at customs.
The European Union, as you're probably aware, bans all seal products from Canada. Last year, the World Trade Organization appeals process upheld an earlier ruling that the EU's seal regime is "necessary to protect public morals." There are exceptions for European travellers who buy seal products in other countries, but I didn't want to take a chance.
The ban has always seemed to me to be a hypocritical policy, but never more so, than after an unforgettable day in Madrid — a bullfight at Las Ventas Bullring.
When I travel, I think it's important to try and understand the culture. Sure, taking in good food, wine, museums and architecture is all part of the experience in a new country, but there's nothing like immersing yourself in a long standing tradition to give you a feel for the culture.
We had seen an amazing flamenco performance in Barcelona and now we were entering a huge stadium in Madrid for a much different Spanish spectacle. We parked any sort of judgment we might have had at the gate and took our seats among the other 25,000 people who had come out to the event.
Fandino and the others wore what looked like black ballet slippers, bright pink tights and some of the most gorgeous and flamboyant embroidered costumes I had ever seen. At that point, it seemed like such a piece of theatre to me. Once the first bull was released from its dark holding pen, it didn't take long to realize that the drama we were about to witness was not staged in any way.
Fandino's cuadrilla was made up of one sword servant and five other men. The five were essentially, as far as I could see, a team of tormentors. It was their job to wear down the raging bull before the matador came in for the fight. There were three banderilleros who each planted two barbed sticks in the bull's shoulders.
The two picadors were mounted on horseback with sharp lances. It was their job to encourage the bull to attack the horse so they could get close enough to jab the mounds of muscle in the bull's thick neck. (The horse, by the way, was covered in armour on one side and blindfolded.)
By the time Fandino took his place in the ring, the bull was dripping with blood. Fandino tested the bull's savagery with a large pink and yellow cape before reaching for the smaller red muleta. He tucked his sword underneath. The red cape signified the final stage of the fight called the "tercio de muerte" or "the third of death."
The rules say the matador must, at that stage, kill the bull within 15 minutes. After dozens of passes under the hidden sword and cries of "Olé" from the cheering crowd, death was imminent for the bull. Fandino revealed the sword, aimed it straight at the exhausted animal, lunged forward and dug the blade in deeply between the bull's shoulder blades.
Fandino's cuadrilla re-emerged with yellow capes as the bull staggered and struggled to stay alive. There was one final, lethal act from a banderillero with what looked liked a dagger and a quick blow to the bull's head.
Seconds later a team of men and horses rushed into the ring, tied ropes around the bull and its horns and dragged it, lifeless, out of the stadium.
In that moment, some might have been disgusted; others would have probably expressed anger and outrage, but what I felt overwhelmingly, after seeing that first bull die, and others after, was complete confusion. How could any government in the European Union consider a regulated seal harvest in Newfoundland and Labrador inhumane?
Our Spanish neighbour in the stands that day, made us feel right at home. He explained the stages of the fight and told us about the breeding of the bulls. He fed us smoked sausage and bread and introduced us to his friends and family. The reporter in me considered asking him about how he felt about the seal hunt and whether he thought it was fair to kill bulls for entertainment while Newfoundlanders and Labradorians killed seals as part of a livelihood.
I didn't ask those questions. You see, I was only there to observe their culture and learn a bit about their traditions. I didn't feel I had any right to make him and his family feel shame for their involvement in a weekend bullfight. I wouldn't consider calling for an end to bull fighting in all of the arenas in Spain. So, why then, does the European Union feel it has a right to ban seal products as a way of indirectly shutting down the seal hunt?
To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about bullfighting. After all, I had just seen one fight, on one day and I know so very little about the history and what everyday Spaniards think. I might not be ready to take a position one way or the other on this tradition, and who am I to judge, but I'm pretty sure I know where I stand on hypocrisy.