It has been mooted about for awhile—ever since it was first announced that season 5 of Game of Thrones would film in Spain—that one of the locations that was under consideration was the Andalusian town of Osuna. Full of history, Osuna features some noteworthy buildings—the University of Osuna building was declared a monument, and the Colegiata church across from it is a noteworthy example of Renaissance architecture—and the arid landscape so common in Andalusia. It seems, on the face of it, an excellent location for filming scenes for the new season.
But speculation turned to one particular possible site for filming in Osuna: the Plaza de Toros of Osuna. Built in the early 1900s, it is a substantial bullring, capable of holding 6,500 specatators and has one of the largest diameters of any bullring in Spain. Many saw photos of it and immediately pronounced it a perfect location for a key sequence from A Dance with Dragons which many speculate will be part of this season. What we saw, however—and what, we think, a few others have seen—was a building whose sole reason for existence was the long-held tradition of the bullfight. Bullfighting has been romanticized by many notable persons over the years—Hemingway is an obvious example—and it continues to be a significant attraction in parts of Spain, particularly Andalusia.
Reports from Spanish language media and fan sites appear to confirm that the bullring will be used, and the mayor of Osuna is quoted remarking that the publicity the show will bring to their town “could not be bought”. Even the official Facebook page of the bullring has remarked on the rumors regarding the filming of Game of Thrones:
This may be good news for Osuna, but it’s not great news for anyone who is concerned with the welfare of animals. Bullfighting is much uglier than the romantic image often presented. Many travellers to Spain have taken in the bullfight out of morbid curiosity, or out of respect for the history and tradition, and found themselves shaken, even disgusted, by the inhumanity of it. Most focus on the brave figure of the matador with his cape, and the life-or-death dance as he challenges the bull to charge, and revel in the grace and skill involved. The death of the bull, in the popular imagination, is an afterthought, perhaps the result of a single perfect blow that instantly kills. Nothing, alas, can be further from the truth. Before the matador faces the bull, it has already been abused by the mounted lancers called picadores, who will taunt it from horseback and whenever it comes close stab at it with their lances, aiming for the hump of muscle about its neck. After them are the banderilleros, who nimbly dodge the bull’s charges as they stick barbed spined into that mass of muscle that the picadores injured.
Why there, you may ask? That area is heavy on muscle and nerves… and by repeatedly injuring it with steel blades and barbs, the bull’s ability to swing its head unpredictably becomes greatly curtailed. The bloodshed that follows pleases the crowd, but it also helps give the matador even more safety than he would have had.
When the matador comes on, the bulls are hardly fresh any longer. The matador comes on with his cape, and once he’s done enough, he attempts to kill it with a single thrust of a sword through the heart. Often, the blow misses its mark, and the bull slowly dies by choking on its own blood; images of bulls vomiting blood copiously are not uncommon. Generally, and inelegantly, his assistants then taunt it with capes, leading the bull—with two feet of steel inside of its body—swing its head and body back and forth, letting the sword cut away at its internal organs and speeding up its collapse from blood loss. In the end, often an assistant finishes the bull with multiple stabs of a knife into the head. From start to finish, about 20 minutes of such activity takes place.
You can watch a full bullfight below, to see the various steps of the process:
All of this is to say that bullfighting is an extremely inhumane bloodsport, one in which has seen the deaths of millions of bulls (and far, far fewer matadors) over the centuries. It has seen a decline in Spain, has even been banned in Catalonia, but the sport continues. Indeed, the sport continues in Osuna itself, where the annual fair in May features bullfights. Sometimes, as during the past fair, one might say the bulls get their own back, but that ignores the basic problem of abuse of an animal for sport and entertainment. A bullring is a space intended for the deliberate abuse of bulls, and three months ago the sands of the ring were spattered with the blood of bulls, just the latest victims of a long, long stream of victims going back to antiquity. Often, counter-arguments will question why one should care about bullfights and not, say, inhumane conditions at slaughterhouses. Fair question, and the answer is: of course we should care about inhumane conditions for animals anywhere.
But Game of Thrones does not film in a slaughterhouse. It is filming in a bullring, and making it a probable tourist attraction in years to come. Has the production paid to use the location? We don’t know. But Andalusia, and Osuna, courted the production precisely because of the expectation that it would be a net-profit for them when the money put into the economy by the production plus the increase in tourism expected (an increase seen by Northern Ireland and Croatia, to name two other filming locations), and the production is surely aware of this.
As we researched bullrings and bullfighting in Spain, we recognize that there are a number of organizations opposed to bullfights and have campaigned tirelessly for their end. Many are the broader, animal protection societies that are well known—the Humane Society, PETA, and World Animal Protection—as well as more bullfighting-specific movements, such as Bullfighting Free Europe. We sent a query to World Animal Protection, informing them of what’s known so far about the production’s use of the bullring, and we received this statement:
World Animal Protection is strongly opposed to bullfighting which, fortunately, is in decline in Spain. With fewer spectators than ever paying to watch this outdated and cruel ‘sport’, hiring out active bullrings to television and film production companies is another way for the sport to subsidise itself.
We ask TV and film production companies not to rent active bull rings, as this indirectly funds bullfighting; there are more and more of non-active bullrings available for hire instead.
We believe the production has made a mistake in using the bullring. While it likely makes a great deal of sense from a purely fiscal, production viewpoint, but it does so at the peril of ignoring the ethics of using such a location. By lending the added attraction of the Game of Thrones name to the bullring (and perhaps even by paying for its use), David Benioff, Dan Weiss, Frank Doelger, Carolyn Strauss—the excecutive producers—and the executives of HBO are tacitly in support of bullfighting. Given HBO’s past issues with animal welfare in relation to Luck, we hope that they will reconsider before filming in Osuna is due to take place in October. A no longer used bullring, as World Animal Protection suggests, would be a more ethical venue for filming.
What can fans do to get HBO to reconsider? Talk about the issue among yourselves, and let people know about it by posting, mailing, sharing, tweeting—whatever you can do. And finally, let HBO and the production know about how you feel, through social media or contact addresses. Who knows? It may help.