Where is Bullfighting Still Legal?

Handsome toreador in black costume with red cloth
© Guryanov Andrey/Shutterstock.com

Written by Drew Wood

Published: May 11, 2024

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Bullfighting is a highly controversial cultural practice. It is deeply rooted in culture but falling out of favor due to concerns about animal cruelty. It’s still practiced in more parts of the world than you may realize, though sometimes with modifications to make it less cruel and dangerous. This article reviews the history of bullfighting, its rules, its problems, and where it is practiced today.

What is Bullfighting?

Selective breeding produces Spanish fighting bulls with highly aggressive characteristics.

©alberto clemares exposito/Shutterstock.com

Bullfighting is an event in which a human fighter tries to overcome or kill a bull according to certain rules. There are different styles of bullfighting, and each has its own traditions and practices. Typically, the matador (in Spanish) wears a traditional costume and brandishes a red cape to attract the bull’s attention, which causes it to misdirect its aggression away from the matador. Bulls are deliberately bred to be aggressive and are raised with as little human contact as possible in order to make them more likely to attack in the bullring. Bullrings are circular to prevent the fight from bogging down into the corners of a square enclosure.

Origin of Bullfighting

Bull leaping is depicted in this artwork from Knossos, Crete.

©Sergey Lyashenko/Shutterstock.com

Ancient cultures in Mesopotamia and around the Mediterranean worshipped and sacrificed bulls as part of their religions. For example, the sacrifice of bulls was part of the Jewish religion in ancient times. Zoroastrianism in Persia practiced the killing of a sacred bull. Surviving mosaic art from Greece and Crete depicts the sport of “bull-leaping.” The Romans entertained their people with gladiatorial games that often pitted bulls and other animals versus people in life-and-death struggles.

Medieval Bullfighting

Equestrian statue of El Cid, Burgos, Spain

This statue honors El Cid, a famous Spanish knight.


In medieval times, bullfighting was an elite spectacle for royal weddings, religious festivals, and other special occasions. It was originally done on horseback to display the prowess of celebrated knights, such as El Cid. Poets dedicated poems to particularly brave and skilled fighters.

In the early 1700s, matadors began fighting on foot at the last stage of the contest. The supposed greatest matador of all was Juan Belmonte. He was famous for allowing the bull to get within a few centimeters of his body and was gored many times during these attempts. Spanish and Portuguese colonialists took bullfighting with them and made it popular in Latin America.

Rules of Spanish Bullfighting

Bullfight in Spain. Spanish bullfighter in the bullfighting arena



wound, tire, and weaken the bull before the


shows off his bravery and skill.

©Axel Alvarez/Shutterstock.com

There are many complex rules in bullfighting based in centuries of tradition, but these are the main points:

  • The matadors parade into the ring in order of position and seniority.
  • A horseback-mounted picador stabs the bull with a lance in the neck up to three times to weaken its neck muscles and cause it to hold its head and horns lower. This makes it less dangerous to the matador.
  • The matador performs moves with his cape to distract the bull from the picador and show off his bravery and skill.
  • The banderillero thrusts spear-like darts called banderilla into the neck and back of the bull. These enrage the animal and provoke it to charge full-tilt toward any human in its line of sight.
  • At the climax of the performance, the matador faces the bull alone in the ring, demonstrates his skill at provoking and evading the animals’ charges, and finally kills it with a sword. He must accomplish this with one fatal blow within a maximum of 15 minutes. Otherwise, the incensed crowd will boo him in disgrace from the ring.

Problems with Bullfighting

Furious bull in the bullfight arena running near a man

Bulls, horses, and people can be badly injured or killed during bullfights.


There are clear animal cruelty issues in bullfighting. Humans deliberately breed and raise the animals with the intention of making them dangerous to people. Bullfighters frighten and torment the bull with noise, color, movement, and painful wounds. The killing blow must hit a small specific area between the bull’s shoulder blades to produce a relatively instant death. With a moving target, more often than not, the cut is not so precise and the animal dies a slower and more painful death as it bleeds out. Bullfighting events also injure and sometimes kill horses and people. Riders equip their horses with blindfolds and special armor to prevent them from getting spooked or injured as badly.

Where is Bullfighting Banned?

Retinta Strength: Superb and Impressive Profile of a Retinta Breed Bull in a Green Landscape of Encina Pasture, Under a Blue Sky with White Clouds.

Bulls can live at peace in a dozen countries where bullfighting is banned.


The popularity of bullfighting has declined dramatically in recent years. It tends to be more popular with older generations, who see it as a proud national tradition and a source of tourist income. Younger generations are often more sensitive to animal rights issues and international criticism of the sport as cruel and barbaric. These countries have banned bullfighting completely: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Panama, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile.

Where is Portuguese Bullfighting Allowed?

Woman bullfighter with blue costume back on black background

Female bullfighters are an honored part of the Portuguese tradition.

©felipe caparros/Shutterstock.com

Portuguese or “bloodless” bullfighting does not involve killing the animal in front of an audience. Horsemen and women charge the bull and stab its back with several spears. A group of 8 fighters on foot capture the bull and subdue it. It leaves the ring either to recover and fight another day or face a professional butcher.

This style of bullfighting is legal in Portugal, Canada, the United States, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Bolivia, and Costa Rica. However, in the U.S. and some other countries, bullfighters use velcro-tipped spears that do not harm the animal.

Where is Spanish Bullfighting Allowed?

Bullfighting is still popular in rural areas of France near the Pyrenees Mountains, which form the border with Spain.

©Abelle Photography/Shutterstock.com

Traditional Spanish bullfighting, which results in the death of the animal, is still legal in Spain, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Mexico. Several individual states in Mexico have banned it, and about 70% of Mexicans want it banned nationally. Some cities in Spain have also banned it, including Calonge, Tossa de Mar, Vilamacolum, and La Vajol. In France, bullfighting is legal only in the south in areas bordering Spain and in Mediterranean coastal provinces.

What Organizations Are Working to Ban Bullfighting?

Bullfighting in Spain, Tradition, Culture, Devotion and Art

Several international organizations are working to end bullfighting everywhere.

©Nacho Moran 100x100 Toros/Shutterstock.com

If you are concerned about the cruelty involved in bullfighting, find out how you can help through animal welfare organizations like these:

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About the Author

Drew Wood is a writer at A-Z Animals focusing on mammals, geography, and world cultures. Drew has worked in research and writing for over 20 years and holds a Masters in Foreign Affairs (1992) and a Doctorate in Religion (2009). A resident of Nebraska, Drew enjoys Brazilian jiu-jitsu, movies, and being an emotional support human to four dogs.

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