The Bulls Of Death

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April 23, 1956

John Kobler

They are the Miuras, finest of all, stars of a new season at the great Seville Fair.

To that most passionate of sportsmen, the Spanish bullfight fan, the gaiety and color of Seville 's annual great fair is but a prelude to an act of dedication. In the bull ring at the height of the festival will appear the matadors for the climactic sport of death between man and animal—the finest of bullfighters in a dramatic and major act of the new bullfighting season. It is toward this moment that Spain , a nation of aficionados, looks; it is toward this moment, in a very real sense, that a breed of fighting bulls has been reared, the finest in Spain : the bulls of Miura, "The Bulls of Death."

The nickname of these great dark beasts is aptly chosen. Over the generations, the Miuras have claimed many victims, the most famous of them Manuel Rodriguez, the immortal Manolete, who was fatally gored nine years ago by a bull already dying. Their intelligence, their speed, precision and their calculated malevolence place the Miura bulls in a class apart. "No bull," says Juan Belmonte , one of the most brilliant performers in the history of the art, "ever showed greater offensive and defensive capacity in the face of the bullfighter. All the other bulls I have ever fought could eventually be brought to a point of absolute submission; the Miuras never." Of the seven mounted heads and 17 paintings of celebrated bulls hanging in Madrid 's Museo Taurino, 14 are Miuras. Of the 1,427 bulls whose feats the bullfight historian, Jose Maria de Cosso, lists in his monumental work, Los Toros , 66 are Miuras. "Jaqueta," reads a typical entry, "Miura, was run in Cordoba June 31 [sic], 1866. Endured 36 pic-ings, left eight horses in the ring and two more who died in the corrals from [his] 'caresses.' "

The dynasty of the Miuras was founded more than a century ago, in 1848, by a wealthy hat manufacturer and passionate aficionado, Juan Miura of Seville , and his son Antonio. From Andalusia, the province which traditionally has bred some of the finest fighting strains, they got their original stock. Prom the hands of the eminent matador Rafael Molina (the Lizard), they received an outstanding brave bull; one which, fought to a standstill but still unbroken, was spared by popular demand from the death thrust of the sword. This animal sired some of the most redoubtable of all the Miura bulls, and since his time no other strain has been crossed with the Miuras, the desired characteristics being perpetuated by selective breeding only. With the years, the Miuras' reputation for fierceness and unconquerable spirit grew to legendary proportions. What has always distinguished them is superior intelligence—they learn faster from experience than other bulls, remember longer, and hence are more prone to discern quickly their real enemy: not the cape, but the man. Such is their menace that some 45 years ago the Bulls of Death caused the only serious matadors' boycott in Madrid on record.

Two topflight matadors, Ricardo Torres , called Bombita (the Little Bomb) and Rafael Gonzales, called Machaquito (the Little Pounder), drew up a petition addressed to the bull-ring owners of Spain , protesting that since the Miuras were twice as dangerous as any other bulls, matadors who fought them should be paid twice as much. They obtained the signatures of a number of their colleagues to a petition, but it was rejected. The bull-ring owners then refused to employ the matadors. Instead, they signed some up-and-coming young matadors, including Rafael Gomez, who became famous as El Gallo (the Rooster), and Vincente Pastor, who were only too happy to fight Miuras or any other kind of bull. In the end, the petitioners had no choice but to submit. Two of them were eventually killed by Miuras and nearly all were injured.

The present master of the Miura ganaderia is Eduardo Miura III, who assumed command in 1942 upon the retirement of his father, Eduardo II, and his uncle, Antonio. It is not the same estate old Don Juan founded. Like many another, the original and more fertile ganaderia has been converted to farm land by order of the Ministry of Agriculture. Don Eduardo acquired the new property, which lies approximately 30 miles north of Seville and embraces some 1,500 acres, only 15 years ago, retaining its Moorish name of Zahariche.One day not long ago, while in Seville , I telephoned Don Eduardo for permission to visit Zahariche. He said he would be glad to show me around personally, and he suggested I drive there next morning early to escape the midday heat.

Zahariche was not hard to find. Its one-story, E-shaped ranch house, gleaming whitely through a stand of acacia trees, was the only structure in sight. Barbed wire ringed the entire domain, which, though as flat and unaccented as the surrounding countryside, looked richer in grasses and broom and scrub. As I reached the house, Don Eduardo stepped forward flanked by a little retinue of nodding, smiling house servants and ranch hands, who clearly had not seen many Americans pass that way before. I shook hands with a taut, lean, sharp-featured man close to 40, with a pencil line of a mustache, high-styled as a flamenco dancer in a flat-crowned Cordovan hat, rib-length jacket and glistening black boots. "They are bringing some of the bulls for you to see now," he said, pointing to a distant line of hillocks. On their crest I could make out the silhouettes of moving cattle, accompanied by mayorales on horseback, carrying long poles. "But we have time before they get here," he added.
He led me across a patio, sweet-smelling with honeysuckle and acacia, toward the rear of the house. We passed a miniature bull ring, wherein—so Don Eduardo informed me—young Eduardo IV practiced passes on a goat. Tiled floors and lowered blinds made the house cool inside. On a heavy refectory table had been laid out almonds, squares of goat cheese and a sherry dry as gunpowder. As we sipped and munched, Don Eduardo expatiated on the mementoes of past taurine glory that crowded the walls. The prize exhibit was the head of the Miura bull, Coralito, who was posthumously awarded a silver ear in 1940 by the officials of the Valencia bull ring for "bravery and nobility."
Don Eduarodo told me that the Miura herd numbers only 500 head at present, half its former strength. The decline began during the Spanish Civil War, when no corridas were fought and fighting bulls were slaughtered for meat. Nor did Don Eduardo think the herd could be increased much because of the reduction of pasturage.

Of the 500 head, about 250 were cows, 150 bulls (eight of them seed bulls), 80 calves and 20 oxen. "Oxen have a calming effect on bulls," Don Eduardo explained, "and they are always used when maneuvering a herd from place to place." Sixty of the bulls have shown the requisite qualities to be marked out for important corridas . A brave Miura in perfect health may fetch the equivalent of $800 to $1,000, so that Don Eduardo had something like $50,000 worth of fighting bulls on the hoof, an immense sum by Spanish standards.

A young mayoral , swarthy as bark, his black leather chaps banging against his thighs, bustled in to tell us that the bulls were approaching. We left our sherries unfinished. As we came around to the front of the house again, I started back involuntarily. Barely 20 feet away, with no more than a low split-rail fence between them and us, stood two score or more of big, black bulls, their sleek hides glistening in the blazing sun. In arenas I had seen infuriated bulls hurdle a barrera twice as high.
Some of the Miuras were honing their horns against a tree trunk or a rock, others tore at the scrub with their teeth, still others—nostrils flaring and head erect—stared at us fixedly. At a short distance the mayorales sat their mounts, still as statues, watching.

I had always understood that a fighting bull would attack any living thing on sight, and I asked Don Eduardo what stopped them from charging us or the mayorales . A myth, he assured me laughingly. Bulls have a strong herd instinct and seldom get mad when in a group; they will, in fact, usually turn away if approached. Only out of the herd do they become murderous and then only if they feel threatened or hemmed in, as when they find themselves between a fence and some moving object.
At a sign from Don Eduardo a servant rolled out a Land Rover , with a silver statuette of a Miura bull for a radiator cap. Don Eduardo motioned me to get in and, encasing his slender hands in white string gloves, drove on to the range. As we bounced through tall grass over the trackless range, my host told me that some people still attribute the Miuras' superior qualities to a secret family formula. But he assured me that he adheres to the same traditional, almost ritualistic methods of every other breeder. "We bring the cows and bulls together by St. Joseph," he said, using a peasant expression, meaning that the mating season begins on the saint's day, March 19, "and we separate them by St. John [June 24]."

The formative years of a righting bull are trying ones. Shortly after birth a mayoral notches his ears with a knife in a pattern which identifies the ganaderia . The Miuras get a V and a semicircle sliced out of their left ear and a straight cut along the tip of the right. A little later, to toughen them emotionally, they are removed from their mother's care, and a few months after that deprived of female companionship altogether, the heifers being transferred to the opposite end of the range. The branding takes place when they are about one year old.
Two years is the age for the crucial tienta (testing). To the ganaderia in early spring Don Eduardo invites a few select gentlemen toreros and a professional matador or two. The matadors are always pleased to attend, for the bulls under observation may one day fall to their lot in the arena.

Some breeders test in a closed corral, similar to a bull ring, where a horseman waits motionless to see if the bull will charge without being incited. Don Eduardo prefers the open range. In this method horsemen chase the bull until he turns, then knock him heels over tail with a pole thrust under the rump. If he runs away, Don Eduardo may shout "Buey [ox]!" and condemn him to castration and the meat market. If the bull shows some fight, he may be consigned to a novillada (bullfights fought by novilleros , those not qualified for the title of matador). If he charges hard and often, the triumphant cry goes up of "Toro!" and he is left again to run wild on the range until he reaches the optimum age and size for combat. Under the rules of the corrida he must be at least 4 years old and weigh no less than 900 pounds. To add the last bit of heft, Don Eduardo's mayorales grain-feed the bulls from troughs scattered around the range for about two months before delivering them to the ring.
As a further indication of what stuff a bull may be made, his mother is tested too. The matadors and the more venturesome guests play her with a cape. Don Eduardo drove me to the small arena, about a mile from the house, which he maintains for this operation. An aroused cow of fighting stock can easily kill a man, and the arena is equipped, like a full-size one, with fixed wooden shields, called burladeros , to duck behind when the going gets rough. Between the burladeros and the main wall there is barely enough room for a man as spare as Don Eduardo to squeeze into, a hazard which tickles his sense of humor. "I call them magic weight reducers," he said. "Fear can make anybody thin enough to get through. I've seen fat men twice as wide as the space disappear into it—and then get stuck there."

Immense and lethal though the Miuras are, I had been assured by experts all over Spain that they were once much more so. Don Eduardo readily conceded this. "Nowadays," he told me, "we deliberately breed down the head and horns." He ascribed the change not to any whim of the breeders themselves, but to the influence of Spain 's three greatest matadors. Belmonte created, and Joselito and Manolete refined, a hair's-breadth, close style, now demanded by the public, which is possible only with smaller, lighter bulls of shorter horn. Don Eduardo led me next to a series of abandoned cattle pens, which he proceeded to open for my inspection. Suddenly a breathless mayoral came lathering up to us. "Don't open that last one!" he yelled. "We've put a seed bull inside temporarily."
The news sent Don Eduardo into a gale of laughter. "Might have been interesting," was his reaction.
"Just what would have happened," I asked weakly, "if you'd opened that door?"
"Why, we'd have had to stand and fight!" He was still enjoying the joke when we got back to the house. The mayorales were rounding up the bulls and we watched them lumber off again towards the distant hillocks. "We'll pick our six bulls from that lot for the Pamplona fiesta next month," Don Eduardo said.
I made a mental note of this and when the time came I studied the critical reports of the fiesta. The bulls, it seemed, had been fully up to standard. But the legend had proved too much for the three matadors. They took no risks, keeping as far away as possible and killing quickly. It was one of the shortest bullfights on record.


Ganaderia Miura