Bullfight fight

No blood, no big deal. Right?

Spanish-style bullfighting is illegal in California. So animal rights activists want to shut down a bullfighting school headquartered in San Diego.
  • Spanish-style bullfighting is illegal in California. So animal rights activists want to shut down a bullfighting school headquartered in San Diego.

An online petition urging city officials to take action to shut down a cross-border bullfighting school based in San Diego has gathered over 23,000 signatures from around the world since its launch in late June, most in the weeks immediately following its launch. This appears neither to surprise nor worry the owner in the least.

The California Academy of Tauromaquia bills itself as the first bullfighting school in the nation, advertising “a practical and convenient education in the techniques of bullfighting.”

The academy’s mission, according to their website: “Students of the Academy train in the classic manner: one on one with talented, experienced instructors running the horns. There is extensive video analysis, classes on the culture, history of the fiesta and zoology of the fighting bull. Students have the opportunity to train with guest instructors; both professional matadors and talented aficionado practicos. Every course culminates in a ‘tienta’ — a class with livestock and the student’s first face to face encounter with the wild.”

This doesn’t sit well with petition author Michelle Sibinovic, who describes herself as “a lifelong animal-welfare advocate and outspoken citizen against all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty including the sickening spectacle of bloodletting known as the toreo.” Sibinovic says she is “appalled to learn that there is a bullfighting training school right here in my home state of California.”

In the petition, Sibinovic calls on mayor Bob Filner (although Filner departed in August and Todd Gloria is currently serving as interim mayor, the petition has not been updated) along with chamber of commerce CEO (and former mayor) Jerry Sanders and Joe Terzi, president and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority (as well as a Starwood Hotels executive) to publicly denounce the academy’s existence.

Sibinovic herself, however, is not a local San Diegan — she resides in the Los Angeles suburb of Temple City. Her name is linked to numerous animal-rights petitions and actions found across the web. On popular petition site Change.org, for example, Sibinovic has signed over 2000 petitions, recruiting others to sign more than 1600. Most (1597 as of mid-July) were related to animal-rights issues.

Sibinovic says that this is only the second petition she’s prepared herself, the first being a plea to the Malaysian government to prosecute a man there captured on film “beating a toy poodle named Sushi to a pulp.” That effort, launched via the Care2 petition site, garnered just over 3000 of the 4000 signatures sought.

This time, Care2 picked up the bullfighting academy and helped Sibinovic promote it.

“I was thrilled. There are literally thousands of petitions at the site. The fact that the Care2 editors took special notice of my petition and wanted to spread the word was more support than I ever dreamed of,” Sibinovic says. “Just prior to July 4 I was holding at 750+ signatures. Before I knew it I was seeing tens of thousands of responses.”

The bullfighting petition also contains an excerpt of a 2006 New York Times article describing the work of academy owner Coleman Cooney: “While bullfighting is illegal in the United States (except for nonlethal ‘bloodless’ events in some states), and California also bars promoting or advertising bullfights, it is not illegal to teach the moves and traditions. Mr. Cooney stages the live-animal component of his class work in Mexico. Advanced students can even pay extra for the opportunity to kill a bull there. Over the years, humane societies have launched campaigns to shut him down. Animal rights groups have sent spies with video cameras. Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said Mr. Cooney’s school is a ‘stepping stone’ to animal cruelty. ‘This is not an activity that any school should promote or provide training for,’ Mr. Pacelle said. ‘We want them to stop engaging in this nonsense.’”

Cooney was happy to talk about his program, which he says has been in operation since 1997.

“About 12 years ago, a different generation of animal-rights activists harassed us for a while,” Cooney explains. “A lot of people who are doing this now have no idea that we’ve been around. They think we’ve just opened up, and they’re worried about the ‘infection’ of bullfighting spreading to California.”

The petition does not mention that California is one of the states that do permit bullfighting in the Portuguese style, or “bloodless bullfights,” which do not involve the bull being killed in the ring. The bulls generally only fight once, however, and many end up sold to butchers for slaughter following their performance.

“There are so many misconceptions and misunderstandings about bullfighting,” Cooney says. “The hallmark of the Western experience is ‘I don’t get it.’

“Bullfighters train in what’s called a tienta. A tienta is not a bullfight — you’re not killing any bulls, you’re not hurting any bulls. You’re not even dealing with bulls; you’re dealing with the females of the species.” Cows, essentially. Cooney notes that there are no laws on the books that currently deal with training and using females in a private, non-slaughter situation.

“I would hope people would share with me the basic understanding of the Constitution that, if there isn’t a law against it, it’s legal,” Cooney says. “And there are hundreds of these tientas that take place on ranches in California every year.”

Cooney says that the majority of tientas for his students, however, are conducted internationally — in Spain, Mexico, or southern France.

Other training doesn’t involve live animals at all, instead substituting a trainer wielding a pair of horns, mimicking the actions a bull might take in the ring, an activity referred to as salon.

“Salon takes place wherever anyone is that has a muleta and a capote [two types of matadors’ capes, the first smaller and lighter than the second] and wants to train. Salon simply means ‘living room bullfighting,’ and that’s how everyone learns.”

Cooney says he gets some of the most laid-back reactions to his training activities from Southern Californians.

“I train in Point Loma, Balboa Park, North County, all over the place,” says Cooney. “The thing about San Diego is that people never ask you what you’re doing. They’re completely incurious, but if I train in Central Park, I’m immediately surrounded by a group of New Yorkers who are, like, ‘What are you doing? I don’t understand, how interesting.’ Salon looks like taurine tai chi; like yoga for bullfighters.”

In the early 2000s, Cooney says, the local humane society became aware of his classes and began showing up at practices to videotape the training.

“They brought all of their evidence that they collected to the district attorney, with the position that we were violating [Section] 597m of the penal code, which is a law that was put together in the 1970s to protect the right of the Portuguese community to have bloodless bullfights.”

The law states that it is illegal to “promote, advertise, stage, hold, manage, conduct, participate in, engage in, or carry on any bullfight exhibition,” though it does contain a specific exemption for bloodless fights conducted as part of larger religious festivals or ceremonies, generally conducted in the Portuguese community. The law does not address bullfight training, and the district attorney declined to prosecute the case.

“Now, we get the occasional foul-mouthed email from someone that stumbles on our website or sees us on TV,” explains Cooney. “This [petition] is a little different, because of Facebook.

“One of our students won a prestigious competition in Spain for amateurs,” Cooney continues, explaining the reason for the latest round of exposure for his academy. “I’m getting, like, 50 emails a day, which is not a big deal. It’s free expression, as far as I’m concerned. If they don’t like bullfighting, they have every right to protest it.”

But protest sometimes crosses the line into profanity and threats, as happened in an email Cooney received from Rick in Eureka, California (who provided his full name and address.) “THE PEOPLE will hunt you down and stick swords in YOUR back until you die a slow and painful death. It is what you sick, piece-of-[expletive] scumbags deserve. Leave the planet on your own accord, or THE PEOPLE will help you on your way.”

This is the relatively clean portion of the correspondence — Rick uses considerably harsher language in the remainder to express how he really feels. But Cooney feels not only is the hate expressed toward him misguided, so is Sibinovic’s petition itself.

“The whole idea that they’re going to shut us down” is wishful thinking, Cooney believes. “I don’t mind, but it is kind of irritating.”

Still, Sibinovic is pushing on, having gathered over 23,000 of the 25,000 signatures she’s seeking.

“I am heartened to see that in many of the petition comments signers have either canceled visits or have vowed to take San Diego off their destination list for future business and vacation travel until officials take a hard look at Cooney’s ‘school’ and shut him down.”

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