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JOHN CRISP: Boston-based event full of bull

on August 14, 2013 10:20 AM

Don’t have the time or money to fly to Pamplona and run with the bulls? No problem. It appears that the bulls are coming to you, thanks to Bradford Scudder and Rob Dickens.

These Boston-based lawyers are organizing and promoting “The Great Bull Run,” a series of events in which participants actually pay as much as $65 for the dubious privilege of running along a quarter-mile track in front of, behind or alongside 1,000-pound bulls. The price includes a bandana, a T-shirt and, if you’re over 21, one beer.

The first event is scheduled for Aug. 24 in Richmond, Va. Organizers report that 5,000 runners have already signed up.

Is this event too dangerous for any sane person? Or is the problem that it isn’t dangerous enough to justify awarding a T-shirt that boasts “I Ran With the Bulls”?

The organizers’ website is ambiguous, warning participants that they might be “trampled, gored, rammed or tossed in the air by a bull.” Participation requires medical insurance and a signature on a waiver that absolves the organizers of liability for any harm that might befall a runner, up to and including death — these guys are lawyers, after all.

On the other hand, the organizers, loath to scare runners away, admit that they use “less-aggressive bulls than those used in Spain.”

This is an amusing understatement. Ernest Hemingway, probably the best writer in English on the Spanish bullfight, wrote in “Death in the Afternoon,” “The fighting bull is to the domestic bull as the wolf is to the dog.”

In fact, real fighting bulls are wild animals that live in the open range and are generally protected from any contact with humans. They are very fast, very powerful and extremely aggressive and dangerous, especially when separated from the herd. Of course, domestic bulls might be “evil tempered,” as Hemingway put it. But real fighting bulls and the bulls that will be trotting through the course in The Great Bull Run in Richmond are, literally, two different animals.

Which is not to say that runners might not get hurt. Even a domestic bull can inadvertently trample someone with deadly consequences. But most runners in Richmond are likely to be in less danger from the bulls than from stampeding by their fellow runners or from heat exhaustion, alcohol poisoning, brawls or heart attack.

In other words, The Great Bull Run is informed by an unhealthy disingenuousness that makes people pay for being fooled into thinking they’re accomplishing more than they really are. But that’s a common experience in our culture. In this case, though, the disingenuousness extends to the welfare of the bulls themselves.

The Great Bull Run’s organizers insist that, unlike in Spain, the bulls are not killed after the event, nor do they “hit them, shock them or deprive them of food, water, light or sleep.” A veterinarian is always on hand and efforts are made at “reducing any anxiety they (the bulls!) may feel.”

And when they’re not running? After the event, “the bulls return to their free-range ranch where they relax in open fields.” As one organizer put it in an interview, the bulls “hang out in bull paradise.”

Sounds nice. But I’m suspicious of this rosy picture. For a period in my youth, I drove long-haul cattle trucks and have a good sense of how cattle are handled. Just moving the bulls between destinations as far-flung as Richmond and Southern California involves considerable stress on the animal. And when the bulls’ running days are over? Oh, I suspect that, just like in Spain, we’ll kill them and eat them.

I don’t mean to throw cold water on anybody’s idea of fun, but surely The Great Bull Run is a classic instance of Americans’ deep capacity for irony — that is, our unwillingness to take much of anything seriously while almost convincing ourselves and others that we’ve done something significant.

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