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Tico bullfights and horse shows: Tradition or torment?

The holidays may be over in some places, but in Costa Rica, festival season is just getting started.

This time of year, nearly every town holds an annual fiesta cívica with horse parades called topes, carnival rides, greasy Chinese food and corridas – Tico-style bullfights where everyday Juans go up against bulls in the ring sans weapons.

But this year’s revelry has been dampened by local media’s heavy coverage of gory injuries — to both humans and animals — and the spread of such stories though social media. Instead of the usual images of delighted carnival-goers, Ticos browsing Facebook and Twitter have been bombarded with gruesome photos of, for example, a dead horse hoofs-up in a tractor loader at the Palmares festival, and videos of an amateur bullfighter taking a horn through the shoulder.

Though these type of incidents have always been commonplace at the festivals, the conversation surrounding the annual town fairs has usually revolved around their merits as a cultural tradition and their importance in replenishing municipal coffers.

Over the past month, however, the festivals have come under increased scrutiny from politicians, members of animal rights groups, public health agencies and the public — leading some to publicly question their true cost.

Thousands injured 

At the crux of any Costa Rican civic festival are the bullfights. The events resemble a traditional rodeo, but as an added spectacle members of the audience can enter the ring to face down the bulls. These unarmed amateur rodeo clowns, known in Spanish as improvisados, taunt the bulls while trying to avoid being gored. In the bull ring there are no rules, save for one: no one kills the bull.

Unsurprisingly, the bullfights almost always lead to injuries. Red Cross workers say they often treat up to 30 people a night at mid-sized festivals. The bullfights at Palmares and Zapote, the two largest festivals, routinely result in hundreds of injuries – and sometimes deaths. According to the Costa Rican Social Security System, or Caja, 65 people were hospitalized during this year’s Zapote festival. Hundreds of others were treated on-site by the Red Cross.

Several of these bullfighters required emergency surgeries, and one, Luis Salas, the one who was pierced through the shoulder with a bull’s horns, remains in serious condition at the publicly funded Calderón Guardia Hospital in San José. He’s recovering from artery and nerve damage as well as a punctured lung.

The high number of serious injuries this year prompted an outpouring of concern from the medical community.

“The impact of the corridas is very serious and has huge implications for the improvisados, their families and the Costa Rican social security system,” wrote Walter Vega, head of surgery at Calderón Guardia Hospital, in an opinion piece published in the daily La Nación. “We can find other types of diversions that don’t create this much pain and suffering for our families.”

Injuries are so common during bullfights that Costa Rica’s public health insurance won’t cover bull riders or improvisados. Since 2008 the law has required festival organizers to take out insurance policies for the events’ participants, but the insurance limit is often too low to cover severe injuries, leaving wounded bullfighters to settle their own bills.

This was the case with several of the bullfighters at this year’s Zapote Festival. Salas’ injuries alone exceeded Zapote’s per-person insurance limit by more than ₡1.5 million ($2,800), more than three times the average monthly salary in Costa Rica. The bill is likely to increase as Salas’ hospital stay drags on.

“In theory the festival organizers are supposed to tell the participants how much their policy [will cover] so they aren’t surprised with a bill when they leave the hospital,” Wven Porras, the chief of risk management at the Costa Rican Social Security System told The Tico Times. “In our experience, [the organizers] generally avoid providing them with this type of information.”

In 2013, organizers with the Palmares Festival skirted these regulations altogether. Instead of purchasing the required health insurance, organizers took a gamble and hoped their standard labor insurance would cover bullfighting injuries. Improvisados reportedly signed fake policy sheets before entering the bullring.

The alleged fraud came to light after an improvisado, 29-year-old Melvin Valverde, was wounded in the neck by a bull and killed. Valverde’s family never received an insurance payout.

It isn’t only health professionals who are showing increased concern. Former President Laura Chinchilla took to Facebook after the Zapote festivals ended to express concern about the high number of injuries. The ex-president noted that the television networks broadcasting the events make lots of money off the backs of injured bullfighters.

“Putting aside whatever motivations amateur bullfighters may have for entering the ring, the truth is that they are serving themselves up on a silver platter for the people who really make money on the event,” Chinchilla wrote.

Animal mistreatment

Concerns about the welfare of the animals at the heart of several Tico fiesta traditions also seem to be growing. Social media networks exploded two weeks ago with graphic images of a horse that died on its way to the Palmares horse parade, or tope, which is one of the major attractions of the festival. The horse and its rider had been on their way to the parade when the horse spooked and stumbled into a ditch by the side of the road.

The rider emerged from the incident with only minor wounds, but the horse, panicked to escape from its trap, eventually succumbed to injuries and extreme stress. The incident sparked scattered protests around the country, and an online petition to prohibit topes has collected nearly 20,000 signatures as of this writing.

SENASA officials also treated 91 horses for injuries at Palmares and seized three horses that were abandoned during the tope. Four other horses were seized before the tope even started, due to poor health.

Animal rights activists have long been opposed to topes and bullfights, and some of their complaints are slowly seeping into the collective Tico consciousness. In 2014, more than 200,000 Costa Ricans signed a popular initiative bill that would ban taurine events. A second bill, drafted by lawmakers and supported by 136 different civil organizations, would put stricter regulations on events using animals.

Still, these traditions have many supporters who believe that eliminating the events would be an affront to Costa Rican traditions. They point out that both types of events are sanctioned and monitored by the National Animal Health Service (SENASA).

Despite the uproar at Palmares this year, veterinarians and animals health officials working at the tope — the country’s largest — say the event has greatly improved its track record on animal treatment. One vet said the accident that resulted in the horse’s death was erroneously portrayed by social media users who didn’t have all the facts.

“I don’t like feeling that all the improvements we have made for the animals in the last five years will go to waste because of one accident,” Juanma Estrada, one of the vets who tried to rescue the dying horse, wrote in an emotional Facebook post after the incident. “Right now, I can tell you that the Palmares Tope probably takes animal treatment more seriously than any other.”

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