Image: Pamplona, Spain - May 2, 2015: Mosaic of people running in front of the raging bull, tichr /

Pamplona’s festival of San Fermín is best known for the encierro, or Running of the Bulls   Each morning, six fighting bulls are run through the city streets on their way to the bull ring.  With them run six steers and a large herd of (mainly) male humans.  The bulls and steers may have little choice about whether to run, but the humans do. Why do so many take that risk?  And why are they mostly men?

San Fermín encapsulates many contradictions. It is both celebration of regional culture, and international spectacle; both bacchanalian fiesta and religious rite. It also recalls multiple layers of historical tradition (dating from medieval cattle fairs and the emergence of 18th century bull fighting), whilst being that most modern of global phenomena, the ‘bucket list’ tourist experience.

The continued popularity of the running of the bulls generates heated debate, about both ethics and risk.  As entertainment, there are real ethical challenges of running with the bulls – let alone their intended fate later that day in the bull ring.  Animal rights activists organise a yearly Running of the Nudes in protest – which of course has in turn become part of the contradictory carnival of the fiesta itself.

But why does a modern festival include such as dangerous spectacle at all?  Being trampled or gored by a bull does considerable damage, causing life-changing injuries or even death.  Weighing around 600 kilos, the bulls are bred specifically for aggression and strength.  The authors of a usefully detailed study of the surgical management of goring injuries provide a graphic account of damage goring can do to a human body as the “mass of the animal combined with its acceleration result in tremendous amounts of force being applied at the point of entry of the sharp horn”.  As they ruefully note, management is crucial, as there are “ingrained cultural barriers” against making bull fighting or running safer.

There have been some attempts to reduce the risks, both to the bulls and the humans.  Non-slip coating on the streets was developed to reduce the risk of bulls damaging themselves, and various web sites offer advice to novice runners.  One academic study attempted to formalise such advice, in developing an ‘encierrometer’, a computer algorithm based on detailed experts’ assessments, which would, the authors (perhaps  vainly) hoped, allow potential runners to minimise their risks or abandon the run should the risk be too high.

But the event continues, and with real risks of injury. There have been 16 deaths since contemporary records began, and around 2-300 people are injured per year (though ‘only’ 3% seriously’, notes the City of Pamplona’s web site).  Many injuries are the result of other runners, particularly the inexperienced, with pile-ups at crowded points along the route.  With around 1,000 runners per day, the festival web site estimates the risk of being gored at 0.9%.

To put this in perspective,  one study found  54 reported injuries from cattle attacks in the UK countryside, with 13 fatalities over a ten year: probably an underestimate.  A walk in the country can also be risky, particularly if done with a dog as a companion.  However, dog walkers in the British country-side are not (usually) deliberately out walking courting risks. How do we make sense, in a modern society, of an event that seems to specifically rely on risk taking?

Part of the answer is that many of those who run are neither spectacle seeking tourists, nor solely courting risk.  Many runners speak seriously of ‘running with’ the bulls: not fleeing or chasing, but of attempting (however briefly) to become part of the herd.  At midnight before the run, they will walk up to where the bulls are corralled for the night to quietly observe the group, judging how the herd will behave the next day.  As Thomas Thwaites, in his recent book about being a goat for a year, notes, humans have for millennia sought to ‘become’ other species, yet modern city life has few opportunities for, as he puts it, “taking a holiday from being human”.  For a few minutes (the run is only 825 metres long), the runners in Pamplona hope to experience a moment, perhaps, of transcending humanness and individualism.

So why does this, and other ‘risky’ activities, attract men specifically? One review  estimated that men’s risk of unintentional and violent injuries was at least twice that of women: a difference greater than those of ethnicity, social status or other social characteristics.  Yet gender differences are often assumed to be natural. Large research programmes are devoted to changing  social class or ethnic differences in injury, but gender differences come to be seen as inevitable: men simply take more risks, and this (in itself) does not become a target of health promotion or social intervention.  Risk-taking is deeply embedded in gender socialisation, with boys encouraged to be risk-takers, and girls encouraged instead to be careful risk assessors.  These gendered differences are evident across many areas of social life: in, for instance, children’s accounts of accidents, or in adult cyclists’ talk about road danger, in which men speak of enjoying the risks, and women speak about managing (or avoiding) the risks.  Running with bulls, whatever the motive, and however we consider the relationship to the bulls, entails a very deliberate choice to risk potentially devastating injury.  Whereas this is a socially sanctioned (to some extent) possibility for many men, it is a less readily available one for most women.

Pamplona ‘s encierro is perhaps an extreme example, but it does illustrate why any purely rational attempt to reduce the burden of injury in society is doomed.  Human practices are complex, and embedded in multiple (and sometimes contradictory) layers of history and culture, including the gendered ways in which we come to consider some activities as thinkable for people like us, and others not. Less obviously, they are also embedded in some very different ways of thinking about our relations with non-human species.