In the festival of San Fermin each summer, bulls race through the streets of Pamplona, Spain, goring and trampling anything in their way. When a copycat event hits the Petersburg area next weekend, the bulls may have to circumvent one additional obstacle: animal rights organizations that say the event is dangerous for people and animals.
The Great Bull Run, scheduled for Saturday at Virginia Motorsports Park, is being billed as an all-day festival that will feature live bands, drinking, a tomato fight and games. The highlight, though, is the four scheduled bull runs in which participants will try to outrace — or dodge — 15 rodeo bulls and nine steer charging around a dirt track.
“It’s not going to be a tame event on any level,” said Rob Dickens, one of the promoters.
That’s part of the concern posed by some animal rights activists. An online petition directed at Virginia Motorsports Park has garnered nearly 4,500 signatures, and PETA officials said protesters are expected to be on hand Saturday.
“This type of thing is a throwback to a time when we thought nothing of animals and we thought torturing them was acceptable,” said Ashley Byrne, a campaign specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The Humane Society of the United States recently sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture outlining why the organization thinks the event will violate the Animal Welfare Act. Tanya Espinosa, a USDA spokeswoman, said the agency is examining the Humane Society’s concerns. It’s not clear whether a response or action might come before the bulls are set loose Saturday.
“I just don’t see how this can ever be acceptable,” said John Goodwin, the Humane Society’s director of animal cruelty policy.
The group contends that the event needs special licensing. The Animal Welfare Act requires any entity exhibiting animals “to the public for compensation” — which includes carnivals, circuses and zoos — to have a valid license. Rodeos are exempt, as are livestock shows. But Goodwin said the bull run can’t be compared to a rodeo — “it’s absolutely more dangerous,” he said — and the Welfare Act clearly defines farm animals as animals “intended for use as food or fiber.”
“That’s not what these bulls are,” Goodwin said.
Dickens, the chief operating officer of the Great Bull Run, said organizers have the only license required of them: a permit to transport the animals from a rodeo ranch in Kentucky to Virginia. The bulls are from an outfit that specializes in rodeos, and he said the animals will receive far better care than those that run in events in other countries.
A veterinarian will be on site, and the bulls will be running on dirt, a quarter-mile track that doesn’t include any sharp turns. “And, obviously, we don’t throw the bulls in a bullfight afterward,” Dickens said.
There’s also the matter of safety for the participants. Each runner must sign a three-page waiver that includes a lengthy section on the ”assumption of inherent risks” and states in all-capital letters: “THE EVENT IS A HAZARDOUS ACTIVITY THAT PRESENTS A SERIOUS PHYSICAL AND MENTAL CHALLENGE TO PARTICIPANTS.”
Pamplona unleashes 12 animals a day, and the event will feature twice as many. The San Fermin festival uses Spanish fighting bulls with sharpened horns, but the Great Bull Run will rely on the beefy bulls used in American rodeo events.
“The rodeo bull is no pet,” Dickens said. “They won’t sit there and lick your hand. They will bowl you over, and they sometimes will seek you out, but not on the level that a Spanish fighting bull will.”
The entire run will last only a couple of minutes, and participants can begin anywhere on the track. There will be fencing to keep the bulls in place, but runners can jump off the course at any time.
Organizers said response has been strong. Two more bull events are scheduled this year, in Atlanta and Houston, and seven more are scheduled for 2014. The event has a Facebook page that counts more than 67,000 fans and several enthusiastic comments.
“My adrenaline is already pumping!!! Cant wait!” one says.
“Had this on my bucket list . . . now I don't have to go to Spain for it,” another says.
Dickens said 20,000 people have signed up to run in different cities, including more than 5,000 in Virginia. Organizers expect a large walk-up contingent Saturday; the entry fee is $75.
Organizers have plans to expand the event to two days next year. They said there’s a huge demand because there are so few similar alternatives. An Arizona-based promoter has staged a half-dozen bull runs in the Southwest since 1998. According to news reports, at a bull running last year in Cave Creek, Ariz., two people were hospitalized and at least six others suffered injuries.
The famous bull run in Pamplona injures several dozen people each year and has resulted in at least 15 deaths. Despite the risks, organizers of the run promise a safer event.
“This is not meant to re-create Pamplona,” Dickens said. “We’re not re-creating the San Fermin festival where they prayed to saints. We’re not doing the bull fight. What we’ve done is we’ve taken the fun aspect of it, and we’ve brought it here as its own event. . . . We don’t want to co-opt other countries’ cultures. We just want to have a fantastic, adventurous event that people have a chance to do here in the U.S.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that The Great Bull Run is in Richmond. It is Petersburg, Va., about 30 miles south of Richmond.