Search for "San Jorge Gazules 2012" on YouTube and you will see a dozen videos of this year's sueltas de vaquillas (or bull-runs as we foreigners call them, though they are actually heifers), in honour of Alcalá's patron saint. Up until 1899 they did indeed use bulls, and they used to run all the way to the slaughterhouse in the Calle Salada where they were butchered and the meat shared amongst the population. But the bulls killed two people that year, and the bull-run was dropped until 1961. They used bullocks at first, then switched to the less dangerous heifers.
Twice a day over the three days of the festival, at 1.00 and 2.30 pm, a canon is fired on the Plaza Alta and a young cow is released from a lorry onto the square. Eventually she will run down San Juan de Ribera, Ildefonso Romero and Calle Real to the Alameda, cheered on by thousands of people watching the spectacle from their rooftops and balconies, or squashed up against the heavy iron bars which block the side-streets.
The vaquillas are supplied by a local ganadero, or breeder. They are bred for their agility, bravery and ferocity, the daughters and potential mothers of the fighting bulls or toros bravos who grace the bullrings of Spain, though half their size. These sueltas are a chance to put them through their paces. If they put up a good fight on the streets, they are more likely (supposedly) to produce fiercer bulls.
At the point of release the young animal will already have been driven to a frenzy by the journey, with people banging on the sides of the lorry as she is driven through Alcalá's steep narrow streets to the Plaza Alta. Angry and confused by the sound of the cannon and the roaring crowds, and blinded by the sudden bright sunlight, she often slips on the sand and falls to her knees. She is constantly goaded by a group of young men, often referred to as mozos, fired up with drink and eager to show off their machismo. They wave their arms in front of her, yank her tail or smack her on the flank. They aren't supposed to use bullfighters' capes, but some do so anyway.
Occasionally she will get her own back by delivering a corneado with her sharp horns, or trampling on one of the runners as they scurry to climb to safety on a nearby balcony or take refuge behind the metal bars. Sometimes the injuries are serious, and in places where full-grown bulls are used rather than vaquillas, there are occasional fatalities. Last week a 70-year-old man was killed by a bull in Jaen; his family insisted the fiesta should continue, as he wouldn't have wanted to spoil the fun. The media report such cases as if they were reporting traffic accidents, as if they were inevitable rather than avoidable.
Sometimes an animal will give up the fight and stand still, bewildered and terrified, or try to get away from her tormentors. Last year one of them sought refuge in the bar Los Manueles on the Alameda, which was captured by the local TV crew. But they are soon taunted by the mozos into responding once more. The people want their entertainment. They will discuss the merits of each beast in detail; the more she fights back, the more she is worth to the breeder.
There are signs of change though. The Málaga town of Alhaurín al Grande has suspended its sueltas after a cow was injured so badly by six men in 2010 that she had to be put down. The maltreatment was filmed by the Colectivo Andaluz Contra el Maltrato Animal y Medioambiental (CACMA) and the men were later charged by the Guardia Civil. You can watch the video here, if you have the stomach for it. But Alhaurin is on the Costa del Sol, and has large numbers of residents and visitors from Northern Europe. The removal of the bull-run from its festival is more likely to be down to economics than animal welfare.
Like many foreigners living in Spain, I find the sueltas very hard to watch, even on film. I have never met an alcalaino who could see anything wrong with it. As far as they are concerned it is free entertainment for all social classes, and and integral part of their beloved fiesta. But the expats here tend to keep out of the way until later in the day when the heifers are on their way back to the farm.
More generally, I've observed that foreigners react in different ways. Some feel it is not their place to criticise or comment on local traditions and culture, even if they don't like it. Some join animal welfare groups campaigning against tauromaquia, lending their support to a growing number of young Spaniards concerned about such issues. A few of them throw themselves wholeheartedly into the festivities, possibly in the belief that it makes them appear more "integrated". Others, like me, just stay at home during the fiestas and write articles like this.
Anyway, here's one of those videos, so you can judge for yourself.