Behavior of bulls in jallikattu videos – my response to PETA India


I am neither defending nor opposing jallikattu. Nor do I intend this to be an adverserial discussion. Bear with me, it is slightly long. The downside of describing behavior of bulls to those not trained to see it is that each picture seems to take a thousand words.

My response to the response by Poorva Joshipura, CEO of PETA India to my article on Jallikattu

While I don’t agree with PETA India’s view about the ban, I agree that the rights of animals must be protected. My main issue is that it does not seem familiar with the body language of cattle and sees everything as abuse, even when the bulls themselves clearly don’t.

On the similarities between jallikattu and bullfighting—since you raised the point—there are many. You say weapons are used in bullfights—well guess what, they are also used during jallikattu events. During jallikattu, in the holding area, participants stab and jab bulls with sickles, spears, knives and sticks in order to force them to run toward the mob of men (which goes against their desire, which is to flee in the opposite direction). In bullfighting, the bulls are often deliberately disoriented. For jallikattu, bulls may be force-fed alcohol for the same purpose. Jallikattu participants also cause bulls intense pain by yanking their nose ropes, and jallikattu participants also punch, jump on and drag bulls to the ground and twist and bite their tails.

I will post here the video you refer to, that was included in my original article as visuals of the abuse Poorva mentions. An attempt to let bulls speak for themselves, so to say.

Sticks are commonly used to control livestock.If you have to use a stick through a narrow gap, your use is pretty much limited to “poke”. This doesn’t mean you’re skewering the animal. Not something I like, but it is a fact of cattle rearing not limited to jallikattu. Also tail pulling, it is easy to see that the bull’s movement is being controlled to angle him into a narrow space, except the last instance where it is to hold him back. To someone unaware of how cattle move or are moved, this may appear as random harassment, but this is likely shot outside the narrow pen the wary bull has to get into. Precise positioning using vulnerable body parts is normal. Not ideal. But not a jallikattu special either. Ask cattle transporters or… vets.

You claim jallikattu is similar to bullfighting, because weapons are used in the holding area. It may be possible, but so far I have yet to see blood on a bull entering the arena in any jallikattu video. It is also extremely unlikely that the cattle owners will take kindly to prime livestock being cut or injured by a mob. So I am just going to pass on this till I have some evidence it is prevalent.

About the “alcohol”. The video is not certain it is alcohol. Supporters of jallikattu claim it is glucose water for a burst of energy. Whatever it is, the bull is drinking it willingly in the video. I don’t think much will need to be done to make the bulls agitated. Not having control in a situation with a loud crowd and other bulls around will do the trick for most bulls.. Add to it the nature of the activity – youths dispersing when bull faces them, approaching in peripheral vision, pouncing – this sort of thing spooks all herbivores and is enough to make them flee. This is more along the line of harassment than brutality.

Few of the bulls appear intimidated by the men, though resentfully resigned to the control.Jallikattu or not, these are the same people they live with for the rest of the year, who care for them and are trusted, even if they are making freaky demands. Incidentally the same people who have cared for them well – you don’t get these kind of bulls from neglect and brutality. Most of them are just extremely alert (watch ear and tail movements – ears pricked forward is alert, twitching back and forth is nervous, tucked tail is fear, head lowered is aggression). This is not fear, it is wariness. They burst out, get away from the youth and that is that. You will see it if you approach livestock at pasture. The more an animal is in the prime of health, the more it will startle, react. So bursting out of that area is about as normal as a racehorse bursting out of a gate. Some bulls are scared, definitely, where they go around trying to gore people. That is fear/anger behavior. And usually you’ll find the crowd rapidly switch to calming the animal. Not always, not always successful. Basically the bull has “snapped”. The bull has no idea which way is safety, feels cornered, so gets aggressive and does the next best thing, evicts people (the threat) from the arena. Or bulldozes through any and everything to get out of there leading to injuries for people and bulls. There ought to be safety protocols for handling this sort of thing, including the possibility of a referee kind of character who calls it a day for that bull if the men persist.

Cattle have strong flight responses. While they flee a threat, they aren’t too scared unless they get trapped. It is a reflex. The bucking off of people trying to catch it. Left alone without further irritation, they will calm rapidly. For animals, “threat” is not how we interpret it. Anything from the unfamiliar to outright attack is a “threat”. The usual response is a burst of adrenaline and a gallop away from the source. This really doesn’t mean they are intimidated – reflex kind of thing. Spooked. Like we jump when someone goes “boo” is irritating, but not abuse – unlikely thought it may seem to someone not used to them. Or it would be impossible to have thousands of years of sport and get that same reaction over and over.

This is not to say it is “right” to play with them or that it is ethical. There is a need to engage with breeders of prime bulls, veterinarians, animal rights activists such as yourself, lawmakers and get perspectives and contribute to evolving more sustainable practices instead of helicoptering in with the “right interpretation” that those on the ground don’t recognize. There will be negotiation. The worst of the practices will have to be chipped away. There will need to be convincing, not ordering. That is possible only when you have the buy in of those engaged in them.

But the most important thing from this video as well as others on the internet is the importance of a sturdy arena that the bull cannot exit and injure others or himself. Possibly with a little pen at the opposite end of the arena with view of arena blocked for the bulls to cool down where people other than owners should not be allowed. I repeat, I am not an expert or even familiar with jallikattu but it certainly appears that an area for bulls to escape to and cool down safely will largely reduce injuries for all. Regulation can actually achieve things of this sort if a determined effort is made to identify them.

There are other things, but my point is that there is a mix of abuse and normal behavior with cattle in the objections, which makes it difficult to tell what the prevalence of abuse because of jallikattu is. While this approach is very healthily pro-animals, it is hostile to their owners and considers them malicious by default to the point of making breeding and owning bulls at all unviable. This is a problematic view – that the animals who are clearly in excellent condition are better off not existing at all, because of your views on how they are treated on one day. These are bulls worth lakhs that you are consigning to being no better than butcher meat. And they will face worse injuries, because if more money is not to be spent on them, they will have to be provably economically unviable to be butchered. Not the few that accidentally get injured, but deliberate neglect and potentially injury by owners unable to sell them or earn from them anymore. Because here is a thing. An owner loves an animal he takes pride in, not one he has to feed at the cost of necessities for his own home. Livestock are not pets, they are property. Check out the vanishing male cattle in Maharashtra. There is a complete ban on slaughter now, but the law was similar to Tamil Nadu when these numbers happened – no slaughter of cows, only slaughter of economically unviable males. They get abandoned or starved to death now. They got butchered earlier, but every successive rural hardship has led to a decline in their numbers. Such are the alternatives you are recommending when you remove the one thing that makes them desirable and economically viable. With a  ban on jallikattu there remains little need for an indigenous cow owner to opt for continuing – this often includes stud fees that are 20 times the fees of artificial insemination – with imported sperm. You are wrong when you say it is entirely determined by dairy industry. It is, if there is no other use for non-dairy cattle, which you are ensuring.

You also claim the bulls used for jallikattu are “aggressive by nature and prone to attack”. Are you sure you’re not talking about the jallikattu players? The bulls run helter-skelter not because they are aggressive, but because they are scared. They are so scared they need to be coerced to participate through weapons and the cruel methods as described above.

In fact, a teacher in Mexico conducted an experiment to prove it is not the bulls, but the humans, who are aggressive. The teacher had the students stand in a bullfighting arena where a bull was let loose and matadors used red flags as they do during bullfights. As you can see in the video, the bull just wants to find a way out, and is working on doing so, without hurting anyone:

The video shows bulls will not attack if not provoked.

You seem to think of bulls as terrified, timid creatures. They are not. They are capable of fear, of course, but they are perfectly capable of attacking people if they feel cornered- or, for that matter, otherwise. I have to disagree completely here to the point of DON’T TRY THIS. This video is extremely misleading bullshit. The “bull” in the video is a calf. Watch him run – all legs, no bulk, total frisky. Still has his baby coat of hair. Adorable max, but really he wouldn’t do anything even if the students petted him. Likely around a year to a year and half old, though guesstimate – not familiar with the development of that breed. The male aggressive behavior is a part of sexual maturity. You won’t see it in calfs! It wouldn’t matter even if the students moved all they want or got aggressive. The calf would shy away. There is a reason bulls are castrated as a medical practice. It is because adult males can be very aggressive and territorial. Never mind me. If you can trust the University of Wisconsin Department of Dairy Science to not have an agenda of protecting jallikattu or any other bullfighting, here’s an excerpt from their Farm Safety Fact Sheets. This excerpt is on page 2.

Behavior of bulls in jallikattu videos - my response to PETA India 1

I also have no idea why you think bulls aren’t aggressive. I’ve met many bulls who would dispute that. Heck I know a couple that went out of their way to make that point. Strangers couldn’t pass one of those damned critters without risking getting gored. Zero provocation. Just existence was enough. Magnificent animal, but liked people about as much as I do, was just less inhibited about it. Loved him. From a distance. To the best of my knowledge, he was never mistreated. Was the darling of the family, whom he never attacked. Put him in that Facebook video and it would never get uploaded. There would be a news headline “Bull gores x students in an attempt at a Facebook video gone horrily wrong.” Just like good temperament, bad temperament too is a combination of nature and nurture. And sometimes just the personality of the animal. Most bulls fall somewhere in the middle, though all are territorial to some degree unless castrated. They can also be trained otherwise, but this is unnatural behavior, not easy and cannot be relied on with anyone other than their trainer. They may be trained for fights too, but you cannot invent aggression in an animal. Only train discipline or how to channel aggression.

This is one thing I want to insist – regardless of jallikattu or bullfighting. Please stop spreading disinformation that could put people at risk. You are a voice of authority related with animals. The chances are that you could get a gullible urban supporter gored. Rural folks who know bulls won’t believe.

You have concluded your piece by mentioning that other animals suffer—but the existence of one type of suffering cannot justify another. If it did, setting animal rights aside, even human rights would never progress. You, as a woman, or me as a woman, would likely never have been educated or have the opportunities we have today if people thought this way.

It is a minor point, but defending my honor here. The article is public. You are implying I conclude the article justifying jallikattu by bringing in other instances of animal suffering. Actually, that is not how the article ends. The PETA video which actually makes the opposite argument comes after that. Entirely voluntarily. Why would I do that if I wanted to conclude with justifications of jallikattu and ignore harm to cattle as something other animals go through too?

The rights of animals aren’t a negotiable issue for me. My disagreement is with what constitutes abuse as well as whether the alternative is better or worse. I am also concerned about people and their livelihoods. And I am not concluding that jallikattu does not involve abuse. I am trying to find out more. I am trying to decode the complaints and see what appear to be genuine areas of concern and what appears to be a misunderstanding. I am interested in knowing whether there is a possibility that allows all to thrive without harming another.

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7 thoughts on “Behavior of bulls in jallikattu videos – my response to PETA India”

  1. Dear Vidyut,

    You say: “With a ban on jallikattu there remains little need for an indigenous cow owner to opt for continuing – this often includes stud fees that are 20 times the fees of artificial insemination – with imported sperm. You are wrong when you say it is entirely determined by dairy industry. It is, if there is no other use for non-dairy cattle, which you are ensuring.”

    I heartily agree. Local practices like Jallikattu help to keep indigenous breeds of cattle alive, by giving them an economic raison-de-etre. If such local practices are banned, then these breeds are starved of economic support, and they simply cease to exist.

    Agreed, poking and tail-twisting is cruel, but we need to ask ourselves whether it is more cruel than simply ceasing to exist! In a far-from-ideal world, I feel that it is better to let Jallikattu go on, so that these bulls are bred and nurtured.


  2. Melroy C.F.Fernandes

    As a recipient of updates on your blog, I wish to make the following comments:
    (1)I congratulate you, Vidyut, for actually practising “freedom of expression” which is in presenting both sides of the argument.

    (2) In your response,I am unable to understand why you miss out details like:
    • the bull is pricked(or cut) with sickles or knives by the handlers.
    • biting of the bulls tail by the handlers.

    (3) I live in a village on the outskirts of Mangalore(close to a forest range) and I see cows and bulls everyday( I do not rear any).

    (4) I have no doubt that the animals used in Jallikattu(going by the photos and especially the video posted by you) are terribly scared .

    (5) I have witnessed with my own eyes how a trapped hyena from a forest(fallen in a septic tank which was being dug in the ground)was “cowed-down” so much by the sight of crowds that it did not even budge when a brave local man jumped into the pit tied the hyena’s mouth and legs with coir rope, while we were waiting for the forest dept. to arrive.

    (6) I can tell you from my experience that animals are petrified by crowds of human beings.

    (7) Cows do not even like unknown persons going close to them.

    (8) I have read arguments on both sides blogger and PETA. I concur with Poorva’s arguments on behalf of an animal that cannot speak for itself.

    (9) In my opinion Jallikattu is torturous to the bovines used and should be banned.

    (10) If the Bangalore supposed “mass molestation” can be termed as criminal due to the lack of consent by the females, of the human species, involved. Then the use of an animal which cannot consent to its use in man’s recreational activity too is criminal.

    (11)Going by govt. definitions, I am a marginalised micro-farmer. You may well remember the ruse used by Deve Gowda that he was a “small humble farmer”. Don’t believe the BS that all “farmers” are financially not well to do(that is a another topic). “Small farmers” who rear bovines for races and competitions are big time businessmen.Don’t let their appearances fool you.

    1. Thanks Melroy, replying as I can.

      2. That is the part of not seeing any bleeding or injuries on the bulls. Also, unlike the bulls in bullfighting, these aren’t going to be slaughtered, but used to win further prizes. No owner is going to allow a 3 lakh rupee and years of effort worth animal to be cut for sport and harmed for further use.

      3,4 – that is the flight response. It is a normal response of herbivores. It isn’t fear so much as a reflex.

      5. A hyena is not a domesticated animal. It is a stranger to humans.

      6. No. Well raised livestock is very rarely scared of humans. And I say this as someone who has raised livestock, lived with them, gained enough veterinary knowledge to care for own animals (non-surgical), even treated the livestock of others on occasion.

      7. No animal likes strangers, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are scared. Are you scared of everyone you avoid?

      11. There isn’t as much money in livestock as you imagine. There are tremendous costs. Daily. Specially raising prize animals. You spend a lot more and usually never recover it. It is work of passion, or you bulk produce average animals for profit.

    2. Seeing your response, one thing I understand is you are trying to understand everything intellectually without even raising any animal. so you have no idea about this sport. Even then you have failed to response with Vidyut’s intellectual response.

      What you know is just theory (25%) of what you heard and saw in youtube and no practical experience (75%). It is like you have concluded with what you know 25%. See you should have 40 marks to pass. Hence you have failed miserably here.

      Throwing a packet of biscuits to a dog or seeing an animal crying from distance and you feel sad does not make you animal lover. Please come out from that illusion and try to be in reality. These bulls are like our brother, part of our family. do not take it personally but please come and see how these bulls are raised if you are truly passionate about life around you.

  3. First of all I must say that I like your intellectually ‘open’ way of discussing this topic. It’s not a black and white topic with a clear right answer. The PETA CEO’s response was ‘closed’. It was based on pathos more than logos. She was angry with you and even DEMANDED that you take down your article or change your point of view. That is so irrational and fundamentalist. Just because you don’t agree with someone, they don’t have a right to talk about it? So kudos for remaining open and honest.

    As far as animal rights go, I’ve always struggled to understand it. As long as animals are used by humans in any way, they won’t have any rights. Why are some things considered abuse and others not? Bullfighting is abuse but butchering that same bull for meat isn’t? So the abuse lies in the way the animal is killed and not in the actual killing? Or does the abuse lie in the entertainment that is derived from the bull’s death? So if the bull is butchered in private it’s okay but in an arena it’s abuse. I would say all use is abuse. Keeping a cow pregnant and keeping it’s calf away from it so that we can steal it’s share of milk is abuse. Castrating bulls so that they aren’t as aggressive is abuse. Even keeping dogs as pets so that you don’t feel lonely is abuse. It doesn’t matter how much you love your dog. Is a slave owner who treats his slaves with a lot of love and affection in the right? Are his slaves not slaves?

    In Himachal there has been a ban on religious sacrificing of goats and chicken. It’s completely okay to butcher them for meat but not to please a deity. When we start choosing what counts as abuse and what is just use, we end up arguing about what the animal “feels” which is something we can literally never know for sure. The truth is that animals are used by humans like property, like slaves, and whether it’s shitty or not, it’s what it is.

    The true ethical treatment of animals would be to let them be on their own and preserve their natural habitats. But that obviously can’t happen. It’s a good philosophical exercise to discuss whether using animals is right or wrong.

    All of this doesn’t mean that I’m against all animal rights. It’s a good thing that there are people fighting for more humane treatment of animals. But keeping the above points in mind, the fight for animal rights can be made more humane towards the humans related to these activities. That would be much more appreciated than turning these issues into political issues and becoming so extremely rigid about your own view that you try to suffocate all discussion on the topic.

    1. Any rights are always a grey area. There is someone in control serving some important function preventing the entity in question from living their freedoms to the max. And there is always a compromise where coexistence happens. I generally look at how long lasting the harm is, what alternatives exist, what is the situation of the “abuser”, and so on, and try to see if a middle path exists.

      Letting animals live free won’t happen for economic reasons, but it won’t necessarily benefit animals bred in domesticity for thousands of years either. They have evolved to be co-dependent, so to say. They would serve as fodder for wild animals – actually, they already do. Just ask nomads how much they protect livestock from wild animals (or even rural folk in more remote places, for that matter).

      In my view, animals suffering for humans is inevitable – to take a very primitive view, it is survival of the fittest. Humans are better adapted to capture and use them or eat them. Whether we have a right to do it is about as useful to ask whether ants have a right to farm aphids. It is what they do. The ants, aphids and capability are so prevalent that preventing it is an absurd task.

      In this situation, as opposed to say bullfighting, what I find relatively less objectionable is that it plays into the animal’s natural instincts. Also, the “match” favors the one without choice. A bull is physically stronger than men. Even a crowd of men. You cannot control large livestock without tools. Take away the tool, and the man is at tremendous disadvantage. Which I think is fair given that it is the man with the desire to have that match to begin with. In that sense it isn’t bullying the way cockfights or bullfights are, where two animals that could kill each other are pitted in what often is a death match for the entertainment of someone else.

      In my experience, a herbivore who can flee is rarely traumatized by the cause to flee. While standing in holding areas and being controlled by a lot of people is uncomfortable, it is more unpleasant than injurious. We can argue that humans don’t even have a right to scare cattle or make them uncomfortable. I’d like to argue that humans are animals too. Do we have a right to deprive them of a livelihood? Do we have a right to consign an entire breed of cattle to extinction? This is like demanding female foeticide because women get raped. The answer is in improving practices, not banning something that floats a lot of livelihoods and the viability of at least two indigenous breeds.

      What can be done is to appeal to ethics. One thing in abundance at an animal sporting event is animal lovers. It would be way easier to get a consensus against causing injury to animals, on safety barriers, on safe areas to cool down for the star performers…. than to tell everyone to go home and go bankrupt if that is what it took because you didn’t like what was going on.

  4. Excellent reply Vidyut. I just love it. It is now very obvious that moron does not even know the body language of the bull but claims to be voice of the animal. No wonder how he misinterpreted and misguided true animal lovers and the court in a way.

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