Animal Cruelty or Adrenaline Rush? Inside the Running of the Bulls

Photo: Chris Valentine
Photo: Chris Valentine

By Adam Wenger

Vern Chatfield stood tall in the sweltering, 100 degree heat. He wore a simple grin on his face, a striped blue t-shirt and remarkably clean white slacks, remarkable given the fact that the 82-year-old  man from Santa Clara had just run alongside a herd of 1,500-pound bulls and had barely broken a sweat.

“I'm not a hero,” Chatfield said as a crowd gathered to congratulate him. “I'm just here.”

Photo: Adam Wenger
Photo: Adam Wenger

He was here alongside hundreds of other runners -- mostly 20-something bros -- who had paid $60 to avoid being trampled to death by bulls. They had come to the Alameda Fairgrounds for the Great Bull Run, the American version of Spain's Running of the Bulls.

It was a surreal spectacle, somewhat akin to watching a horse race devoid of any romance. Beer was on tap. A mechanical bull gyrated to the tune of dehydration. GoPros and smartphones recorded every minute of the action, and plenty of inaction. Fans gathered in bleachers to watch enormous cattle charge 35 mph down a ¼ mile track, panicked runners at their side, a dust storm in their wake.

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There were young kids, grandparents, white guys in sombreros pretending to be Mexican, actual Mexicans and a guy who decided wearing a black trench coat in the dead of summer was a good idea.

Chatfield described the experience as the most dangerous thing he's done in his life. The type of surreal undertaking 78-year-old Jim Molsow of Dublin had always wanted to check off his bucket-list.

“It's sort of like scuba diving,” Molsow said, before admitting sharks are scarier than bulls.

Event co-founder Rob Dickens told me it's about the adrenaline rush, the feeling of not knowing what to expect, and in the case of the bulls, a matter of retribution.

“The bulls are running at their own accord and getting revenge on humans for thousands of years of beef eating.”

And his advice on how to best avoid being gored: Don't stand in front of the bulls.

“Unless you're in the way, you should be fine,” he said. “Things go horribly wrong every now and then, but most injuries are caused by people getting run over by other people, not bulls.”

Despite scorching temperatures, everyone inside the fairgrounds appeared to have a blast. But the Great Bull Run has plenty of detractors. Animal rights groups have decried the event, alleging animal cruelty. Direct Action Everywhere spokesman Ronnie Rose said the bulls are taunted and frightened for cheap thrills.

“Veterinary experts have concluded that the bull runs are dangerous and inherently stressful to the animals,” he said via email.

Photo: Adam Wenger
Photo: Adam Wenger

A small but vocal group of activists gathered outside the fairgrounds to protest. As I stopped to take a photograph, a shirtless dude holding a beer looked their way and scoffed. “I could really go for a steak right about now.”

One group of runners I talked to said sardonically that the real concern was tomato abuse. They were referencing the giant tomato fight that followed the bull runs.

“The PETA people are here protecting the bulls, but who's here protecting those poor little tomatoes?” one asked.

While Dickens admitted a number of attendees have been injured – “but nothing, as much as the media would like to hear it, serious” – he maintained the bulls are fine.

“From a business standpoint, it makes no sense to have bulls that are injured. We need to use these bulls at every event nationwide. They need to be able to perform as the athletes that they are at each event.”

He added that activists have been making outrageous accusations. “I literally got an email saying I can't believe you're lighting the bulls on fire. And I was like, what?”

Rose, meanwhile, said “inquiries into the conditions and treatment of the animals have been met with silence.”

Looking forward, Dickens hopes to turn the event into a yearly spectacle held at three or four “destination” cities. Asked if he would consider running bulls down the windy part of Lombard Street in San Francisco, Dickens said he would love to, but he'd have to lay down a bunch of dirt or thick rubber gym matts to protect the animals, “which is doable, but very expensive.”

Speaking of money, Dickens admitted he hasn't turned a profit – yet. “We've lost money on every single event,” he said. “But we're still in our first year of operations. It's not like we're putting on a 5K. We're learning as we go.”

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Wherever he goes, expect GoPro-wielding thrill seekers, protesters and plenty of dust to follow.

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