The Running Of The Bison

(If this video cannot be seen in your region, you can see the longer version here, or the dramatic closing seconds of it here.)

Although I am something of a beginner when it comes to running on the streets of Pamplona – eight times and counting – I do know a little something about bulls and a little something about animal behaviour – I’ve fought the former and studied the latter. So I was sent this clip from the recent BBC TV series Frozen Planet, I thought what a useful study it was of running bulls such as is done in the streets of Pamplona every July for the past half-millenium.

One thing I observed while studying footage of the Spanish toros bravos, the Spanish fighting bull, in Pamplona – there is no time to study when running – is that they have a three-stage stampede psychology. I know that this is generating a theory with very little testing, but it seems to hold.

First, there is the sort of head-down stampede, which is personified by the large bull-bison at the end of this footage, and also by the young and females of the herd under attack from the wolves. This I believe is the mindset of the majority of bulls run in the streets of Pamplona: stick to the herd, keep going straight and ignore distraction – or jump over it, or knock it out of the way. What is more, fighting bulls have not seen a man on the ground before, and have no evolved instinct to fear man in particular – unlike with wolves, the ancestral enemy of bison and aurochs, the forefather of all ‘cattle’ from the toro bravo to the black and white Frisian-Holsteins, which is why most attacks on humans by dairy and meat cattle are when they are accompanied by dogs. As far as the bulls of Pamplona in this state know, the strange bipeds are running away from the same threat they are, like zebra and antelope stampeding alongside African buffalo. Knocks and jabs are merely to clear the path or chivvy a fellow stampedee, not put down a foe.

However, you can also observe in footage of the encierro in Pamplona, and in those bison catching up with the herd whilst passing the wolves attached to the young bison, the “hunting horn”. This is my own shorthand for the sort of punchy hooking at nearby objects, performed while maintaining a forwards motion. It is as much a threat as an attack, and the real danger to a runner is that he will end up attached to the bull through this passing jab, who will then have to stop and deal with the problem properly. Which is why runners must not wear belts, wear white trousers and a white t-shirt or shirt that will rip, and tie their faja, the red sash, and panuela, the red neckerchief in slipknots. (It is also why, if you’re knocked down, you stay down in the steet. A horn jab in the buttock or hamstring is nasty, but there’s a paramedic ten yards away and a hospital full of surgeons within minutes. If you get up, drawing a bulls attention, then that jab will be to the torso or head, which is how people die.)

Which leads me to the third, final, and fatal-for-some mind-set of the ‘lone bull’. Note that with the bison, you can see the dominant bulls peeling off to turn and face the wolves, anger overtaking fear, something I have witnessed first hand riding with Don Álvaro Domecq on his ranch Los Alburejos, where the Torrestrella bulls are bred.

Photo by Nicolás Haro (Click to enlarge)

In the photo you can see one of the farmhands having to dance his horse out, lance ready like a picador, as a bull breaks from the herd to take a shot at the horses who are herding him and whom he has now decided are predators. After he did this, another bull joined him, and led us all a merry and extremely dangerous chase…

A suelto, or ‘loose one’, as they are called in Pamplona more often than not has this psychological state forced upon him by falling and losing sight of his herd among the human runners. However, once in that state, once the attack-switch has been flicked, then God be with those who surround him. For while he may not have been the lider, the ‘alpha’ bull in his herd, when standing alone he has by default just become Number One in his world. And everyone around is now a wolf to him…

The Editor

P.S. This post appeared before as ‘Bull-Running: Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad‘, and has some good comments attached.

P.P.S. And if you have not already, read my book about my two years in Spain, including running in Pamplona and training and performing as a bullfighter: Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, which was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Books Of The Year Award 2011.

P.P.P.S. In case you are worried about the horse – who was trained for just this and much, much more – we are pictured afterwards below.

Photo by Nicolás Haro

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One Response to The Running Of The Bison

  1. Pingback: “Winter is here. The wolves are coming.” My latest interview on the BBC… – The Last Arena

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