Patricia Pellen

Gal Caballero
A female bullfighter weighs in as Montreal's Feria controversy heats up
by Jacquie Charlton
Photo by Studio Farine

In the small French town near the Spanish border where Patricia Pellen lives, bullfighting is a serious business. And for the men and the few women who practice it, bulls are eminently worthy foes. Pellen, a 23-year-old caballero (or equestrian bullfighter) who will be performing at Montreal's upcoming Feria, says that in a bullfight, bulls aren't humiliatingly exhausted for sport and entertainment.

Au contraire: they're brave, powerful and quite cunning contenders. "There are people who think a bull is diminished by this sport, belittled. But it's not like that at all. It's a fight that is not at all unequal."

But talking Canadians into understanding the nuances of person-bull combat is another matter, she admits. "When I heard we were going to Canada I thought it was a joke," she says.

And already, the bullfight, scheduled for the Big O August 21, has stirred up anger among animal rights activists here, garnered overwhelmingly negative res-ponses from callers to a Pulse phone-in show and left Montreal's SPCA in the sticky position of fending off accusations that it is collaborating with the enemy. Clearly, the bullfighters are going to have a bigger fight on their hands than they ever expected.

Velcro armor

The bullfight will be conducted Portuguese-style, without bloodshed. The bulls will wear velcro jackets, and the banderilleros used to stab them will be fuzz-tipped instead of pointy--equipment developed for Californian bullfight fans some years ago.

The Montreal SPCA's involvement in the bullfight in particular has shocked animal rights activists and spokespeople from other Quebec SPCAs. The local SPCA, which helped to successfully block a proposed bullfight last year, says it is this year joining with the promoters to make the fight more humane. For its troubles, the organization will receive 25 cents for every ticket sold to the event.

The SPCA maintains that after the eight bulls undergo their ordeal at the Big O, they'll spend the rest of their lives in a pasture on an Eastern Townships farm.

"The SPCA is anti-bullfight of any sort," says Montreal SPCA director Pierre Barnoti. "Our highest hope is that it won't take place. But we said, 'Give us the bulls. We'll find a farm on which they can retire.'"

Other animal rights activists, however, say the SPCA's presence in the plans impairs its credibility as an animal rights organization. "You don't see Greenpeace getting money from [forestry conglomerate] MacMillan Bloedel," says Andrew Plumbly of Global Action Network. "It would be seen as buying them off--paying for their silence and endorsement."

Plumbly also questions the feasibility of keeping the bulls on a farm for the rest of their lives, a commitment, he says, that would cost about $1000 per bull per year.

Culture? Bah!

Animal rights activists like Plumbly are against bullfights not only because of the physical hardships they say the bulls undergo--including having to endure pre-match starvation, vaseline rubbed in their eyes to blind them and a force-feeding of epsom salts to make them unbearably thirsty--but also the psychological implications of using animals in entertainment. "The animal is going through a terrible ordeal in the name of entertaining someone; giving someone a laugh to watch an exhausted animal running around a ring--I have a problem with that," says Plumbly.

Plumbly claims the bullfight has not received any formal support from the Portuguese community and that the only people who will attend are those who "get off on violence and dominating animals."

As to the cultural questions, he says, "Slavery used to be a part of our culture. So was beating your wife. We have moved on, thankfully."

Says Pellen, whose father was a bullfighter: "The Spanish tradition is shocking. When I was a child, I closed my eyes when the picador stabbed the bull. It really wasn't a pretty sight. But with the Portuguese bullfight, people have no reason to complain."

Suzanne Thomas, a spokesperson for the bullfight promoters, denies the use of vaseline and epsom salts on the bulls, says they are not starved, and insists they are well-treated every step of the way. "How come they don't say anything about the rodeo?" she adds rhetorically.

She gropes for an explanation of the bullfighting magic caballero Pellen hinted at: "If you read Hemingway you'll see it's really an art. The relationship between man and bull is like a kind of love."