Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke used to rodeo, so he knows all about bulls and horns, and how you can get the latter by messing with the former.
Thus, those who challenge these large, angry snot-spewing animals assume the risk of injury. The animals themselves should be exempt from the pain. Which is why he began investigating the Portuguese bloodless bullfights in Stevinson and elsewhere in his county.
Warnke recently received an email from San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore, who passed along a tip that some folks involved in bullfighting in Merced County were breaking the law by altering their gear to puncture the animals’ hides. That is illegal, but has been happening for years in Stevinson, Moore told him.
Unlike in Mexico and Spain, where many of the bulls are killed in bullfights, the Portuguese bullfights here are legal only because they aren’t supposed to hurt the animals. Velcro or similar material is attached to the ends of the spears called bandeiras, which the bullfighters stick to fuzzy pads on the bulls as they pass by. The point is not to harm the animal, and not to draw blood. Except that some do, Warnke said. Acting on the tip from Moore, sheriff’s investigators confiscated bullfighting implements that had spikes and nails hidden by the Velcro material.
These bullfights are a big and important part of the Portuguese culture and heritage here in the Valley. The events test the bullfighters’ courage and skills, whether fighting the bull from the ground or on horseback, and these events are a major part of festa celebrations. Both sheriffs said they appreciate and support the culture and its traditions.
“Bloodless bullfighting is a Portuguese tradition,” Moore said. “They are very good people – the salt of the earth.”
The lawmen said their intent isn’t to shut down the bullfights – only to make sure they are done legally.
But it appears some bullfighters are no different than athletes in some other sports. They try to gain an advantage by whatever stealth means possible. Some baseball players cork bats, doctor baseballs with spit and other substances, nail files – you name it. In the NFL, New England’s Tom Brady is facing a suspension for deflating footballs to get a better grip in the cold weather.
I can think of two cases of boxers either altering the padding of their gloves or their hand wraps, and one fighter – Luis Resto – went to prison for doing both in the 1980s.
No doubt, bullfighting is a dangerous sport. Bullfighters risk getting floored, trampled, hooked and gored. Advantages are advantages. In the bloodless bullfighting, the spikes or nails in the bandeiras are intended to penetrate the exterior padding, go through the hide and into the shoulder muscles, weakening the bull. Warnke said investigators found holes in some of the pads.
“But we didn’t find blood on the pads,” he said.
Moore, who first encountered this problem at the bullfights in Thornton, north of Stockton, several years ago, said that is because the puncture wounds are more likely to bleed beneath the hide, not so much on the surface.
“We’d had complaints about it from an animal welfare group,” Moore said.
Which, surprisingly, Warnke has not received since announcing his investigation.
“Not a word,” he said. He did hear from people on both sides of the issue.
“There’s nobody in the middle on this thing,” he said. “They have strong opinions one way or the other. I’m either the hero or the S.O.B. But I didn’t get elected to not enforce the law.”
Warnke said he met Thursday night with about 30 people that included members of area Portuguese Pentecost associations, which stage the fights, along with bull owners and others.
“It went well,” he said. “Some came clean with what they were doing. The nails cause injury. We can’t have that.”
They promised, he said, to stop using the nails and altered bandeiras, and hurting the bulls. And to ensure compliance, he plans to do what Moore implemented several years ago after learning about the animals at the bullfights in Thornton.
“We reacted to the public early on,” Moore said. “We found a couple (of spiked sticks), but they were confiscated and hadn’t been used.”
Moore began treating the events similar to the way professional boxing is regulated. Fight cards can’t go on unless there is a ringside physician in attendance and either the referee or athletic commission official inspect the hand wraps and gloves before a fight.
“We have a veterinarian on scene and an animal service officer who conducts inspections (of the bullfighters’ equipment),” Moore said.
Warnke said he will institute the same in Merced County, and will be there in person Monday during the bullfights in Stevinson.
“There will be a veterinarian of my choosing to prevent any kind of influence,” he said. “We’ll keep that out of the mix.”
Because his office oversees the county’s animal control division, he’ll assign officers to monitor the bandeiras and other gear as well.
Thus, the bloodless bullfights will go on as usual in Merced County, no sharp or pointy objects allowed.