A firecracker is lit. Bang. The sound echoes in the stadium. As the smoke clears, the gate is lifted and from the dark tunnel emerges 2,000 lbs. of enraged beast.
The creature, eyes black as night, chooses a victim- a man using a red umbrella to taunt him- raging, it charges, gaining speed with each stride it makes. Then, just as the bull is about to strike, the man knowing he is the prey steps aside, as though he was on a leisurely stroll with his umbrella. The animal unable to stop his charge roars past the man. The crowd cheers.
This is the Bull Run.
Just think, with a mere $15, a brave heart and perhaps a change of underwear, you too can enter the field to find your inner matador and take your chances with the four-legged menace. But, be warned, accidents have happened in the past.
Each year, since 1999, The Portuguese Oriental Club, on Shellard Road in Cambridge, holds these events to honour a tradition that dates back to the 16th century on the island of Terceira, Azores. The “touradas a corda” (literally bullfights-by-rope) are not for the squeamish of heart.
In Terceira, the “touradas à corda” are held by local villagers from May to late September. In these events, similar to the Running of the Bulls, a bull is let loose from the town’s square (or other open space) with a very long rope around its neck. The other end of the rope is held by 12 “pastores”, men dressed in traditional garb (white shirts and a black hat), who control the animal from a distance. Courageous people then attempt to provoke the animal and get as close to it while avoiding being gored. Some “touradas à corda” also do away with the rope entirely.
According to Rick Martins, vice-president of The Oriental, the Bull Run is all about keeping these traditions from back home alive in their new Canadian home.
Even with the signaling system at the Oriental they are honouring the traditions from Terceira. One firecracker warns the people that the bull is about to be let loose
The second one is lit just as they let him out. A third one is lit signifying the bull is safely put away, then it’s safe to resume your day.
In the villages back in Terceira, the homes are right up against the street, the front door opens and you step onto the street, you need some kind of warning system for homeowners so they know when to lock the doors and bar the windows before the beast arrives.
“I remember one year in Terceira, the bull came running around the corner, right into this gentleman’s home. It ripped out the front porch of the home and knocked the man upside-down. The man got up brushed himself off, happy that the bull had chosen his home,” said Martins. “It’s a sign of good luck, it’s like you have been blessed.”
Unfortunately the system isn’t infallible; there have been times when a fourth firecracker is needed. This signifies the bull has escaped, or in other words. Run!
Like the little old ladies back in Terceira, who after thinking they were safe following the third firecracker, had ventured out to the town well to get water. Then the fourth bang was heard, sending women and children scattering for the safety of their homes.
“I have never seen 80-year-old women, hike-up their skirts and run like that, they were just gone,” Martins chuckled. “Fear is a good motivator.”
But lest you think the bulls are mistreated in this venture, the four bulls used in the event are treated humanely with even air-conditioned facilities and the Oriental Club works closely with The Humane Society to ensure that the animals do not suffer.
In any case, none of this would be possible without the assistance of Elio Leal, who not only supplies all the animals but he also transports them and cares for them while they are at the Oriental. It’s a labour of love for this man, who just wants this tradition to carry on for the younger generation.
“This is our pretend bullfight, people associate bullfighting with blood and death,” said Leal. “There’s none of that here, here we’re just bringing some of our island to Canada.”
Leal not only brings the bulls here, he also raises them on his farm of over 300 head of cattle and horses that he uses in his traditional equestrian bullfight (in the ring) that he holds in Dundalk.
In these events which he calls “a thing of beauty,” horsemen, are the centre of the event. The rider will attempt to wear-out the bull. The matadors, in comparison to their Spanish counterparts, play a small role, usually distracting the bull during the event and just like at the Oriental it’s a bloodless undertaking.
For anyone interested in catching one of these wonderful events and seeing first-hand a piece of Portuguese culture, The Oriental Club has one more event planned for this summer on August 24-25, they can be reached at 519-623-2020. For the more adventurous, Leal, is holding an event in Dundalk on July, 20. You can reach him at 416-768-4444 for ticket information and directions.
Just remember, three firecrackers you’re free. Four, run for the door.