Nuevo en Esta Plaza

Jim Verner


First of all, let me make something absolutely clear: I have only admiration for Walter Johnston as a friend, an aficionado, and an author. And I certainly enjoyed his book, Brave Employment. But that doesn’t mean I agree with everything in it. What it does mean is that Walter had the ability and the dedication to write a volume of over 600 pages touching on virtually every aspect of bullfighting, and for this he deservers the respect and gratitude of CTL members and aficionados in general. (A portion of Brave Employment, including the section that is the subject of this article, was even translated into Spanish and published in Spain). Like every taurine book I have ever read, errors are there to be found and opinions are often labeled as facts. But there are plenty of books by even more famous authors that out-do Wally in these respects. So, if you have a chance to get a copy of Brave Employment, I suggest you do so. You will have many hours of interesting reading.

When I say I don’t agree with everything in Brave Employment, I am talking about ideas, not statistics. I am not the sort of aficionado who remembers the historical details of la fiesta brava, so I would be the last person to notice if Wally got the date of someone’s alternativa wrong or misstated the number of corridas fought in a given year. But ideas and theories about toreo do interest me, and by spelling out his personal views of toreo, as well as some fascinating theories, Wally has generated interesting taurine discussions and arguments. Some of these theories, like how bulls see, how they use their horns, and how they react to salt, are, or at least should be, less subjective. And it is in these areas that I take exception to some of Wally’s claims.

I have previously dealt with the first two of these topics. I questioned Wally’s "anti-cone of immunity" concept of how bulls see (Chapter 21 "Bovine Vision – the Element Essential of Toreo.") in an article, "Bull Vision and the Emperor’s New Clothes", that was published in the Fall 2001 issue of La Busca, the quarterly publication of the Taurine Bibliophiles of America. The editor even printed an exchange of follow-up letters between Wally and me, although he did TBA members, as well as Wally and me, a real disservice by editing the texts of both letters. And in issues No. 136 and 137 of La Divisa, I wrote about horn shaving, disagreeing with most of Wally’s comments, as well as the claims of many other authors, about how this practice affects bulls (Chapter 32, "Afeitar [Horn-shaving] – the Biggest Truco of All").

Now, I would like to turn to Chapter 27, "Trucos (Tricks of the Trade) – How to Cheat in Toreo," to discuss what Wally labels the "Salt Diet." Here is what he says on page 331: "The toro de lidia adores salt; given the opportunity it will consume any quantity of it. The effect of licking its way through a substantial block of salt (a healthy 4 year-old with a voracious appetite is said to be able to consume up to 1 kg) followed by the intake of large quantities of water which it has previously been denied induces a massive attack of severe diarrhea which virtually evacuates the contents of the entire digestive system. The debilitating effect of this experience, equivalent to that of all the drugs under the sun, is that there is no risk of the animal becoming comatose and little or no risk of detection as the bull itself has got rid of the evidence".

The text goes on to add that, while the salt diet is no longer practised on "a vast scale… since the introduction of the ‘docile bull’… in the mid-1980’s…, there are still far too many corridas in which faeces-daubed buttocks… give rise to suspicion of the salt diet fraud having been perpetrated. Another tell-tale give-away of the salt-and-water scam is the disproportionate proclivity for urination…; a combination of excessive urination and dung-daubed rear-ends is almost always indicative of diarrhoeic debilitation." Wally ends the topic by saying that until this abuse is eliminated, "… a considerable proportion of excrement-stained debilitated animals will continue to disgrace the bullrings with their weakened presence to the discredit of the Fiesta".

While this may sound like a good explanation of why bulls are so often weak and have messy hind-quarters – after all many bulls with "dung-daubed rear-ends" do stumble and urinate throughout the lidia – the fact is that the salt diet theory is pure fantasy, ignoring the realities of how cattle eat and metabolize salt. (For my own theory about why bulls stumble and fall, see "The ‘Mystery’ of Bulls with ‘Weak Legs,’" in La Divisa issues 127 and 128).

Not wishing to rely solely on my personal experience of raising fighting cattle, and watching them consume large quantities of salt, I called on the assistance of two beef-cattle ranchers, Don and Reuben Verner. (Don, one of my younger brothers, is also a good aficionado práctico. His son, Reuben, who has never fought bulls in a taurine sense, recently sustained a two-trajectory cornada in the thigh while working range cows, and, in the best tradition of toreros and cowboys, he was back on the job while the stitches were still fresh). They not only supplied their observations, which confirmed my own, but they also provided scientific studies that are pertinent for getting to the truth of these "Salt Diet" claims. I will footnote a few key references so that anyone who wishes to delve deeper into this topic can do so. (The term "salt," as used in Brave Employment, seems to refer to sodium chloride. To cattlemen, it can be sodium chloride or it can refer to a combination of mineral salts, including sodium chloride, that are essential for healthy animals).

Cattle can suffer from salt (sodium chloride) toxicity, but it is rare. It is more common for animals to get insufficient salt when grazing since most plants accumulate low levels of sodium and chloride. Salt is often added to supplemental feeds, but even then cattle usually need still more salt, so free access to salt blocks (sodium chloride and other minerals) is common. When cattle do get an excessive intake of sodium chloride, for whatever reason, they seem biologically prepared to tolerate or eliminate the excess quite easily. More importantly, cattle have built-in mechanisms that tell them when enough is enough, something that is quickly apparent to anyone watching cattle at salt blocks – one animal may spend hours at the salt block, licking away with abandon, and then suddenly lose interest and walk off, while another animal will take four licks and be on its way. Without this self-control, it would be impossible to allow cattle free access to salt. The amount of salt an animal can tolerate is also quite large. Scientific literature reports steers weighing 370 kg consumed as much as 9.33% of their body weight for extended periods without adverse effects (1).

For animals to overindulge in salt, they need to have suffered restricted sodium chloride intake until they "develop an intense craving for salt so that when salt is finally made available they tend to overestimate their needs and to eat more than they should"(2). Such an excessive appetite for salt would be difficult to generate quickly since "approximately 80 percent of the sodium and chloride entering the gastrointestinal tract arises from internal secretions such as saliva, gastric fluids, bile, and pancreatic juice. Thus, isolated, large variations in salt intake with feed and water have relatively small effects on the total amount of sodium and chloride entering the gastrointestinal tract"(3). So salt would have to be withheld for a sufficiently long period to allow body reserves to be depleted to the point cattle would want to over-consume.

Interestingly, in the studies of salt toxicity in cattle, diarrhea is never mentioned. The main symptoms of salt toxicity include thirst, tremors, twitching of the skeletal muscles, poor coordination and eventually collapse if water is not available. Water intake is needed for the animal to cleanse the salt from its body, but this is via urine rather than feces. In actual fact, the digestive tract of cattle is quite complex, and it would be virtually impossible for an animal to evacuate "the contents of the entire digestive system" as Wally suggests. Cattle are ruminants. Since they lack upper teeth, they do a poor job of breaking down fibrous feed with their mouths. Thus, the first stomach, called the reticulum, will accumulate undigested coarse foods which are formed into a bolus and then regurgitated back into the mouth for further chewing. Depending on the type of feed, cattle may "spend 8 hours or more a day ruminating"(4). Yep, fighting bulls, like milk cows, need to chew their cuds.

So what about all those "dung-daubed rear-ends"? Wally is right when he says we often see them in the plaza. The answer, however, lies in the fact that any sort of stress produces diarrhea in cattle. Even gentle herding of beef cattle produces what Arizona cowboys poetically call "shit-assed critters" and it has nothing to do with salt intake. And I suspect this is a physiological reaction to stress that assists cattle rather than debilitates them, much like the adrenaline rush of a stressed human.

So put this Salt Diet in the "interesting-theory-but-not-true" basket, and keep reading Brave Employment as well as all the other bullfight books you can. Most of them have some good information and ideas, some that are dubious, and some that are just plain wrong. But don’t forget: take it all with "a grain of salt".

(1) Meyer, J.H, W.C. Weir, N.R Ittner, and J.D. Smith, 1955, ‘The influence of high sodium chloride intakes by fattening sheep and cattle’, J. Anim. Sci. 14;412

(2) Radeleff, R.D. Veterinary Toxicology, Second Edition, Lea & Febiger, p.179, 1970

(3) National Research Council, Subcommittee on Mineral Toxicity in Animals, ‘Mineral Tolerance of Domestic Animals’, National Academy of Sciences, p.442, 1980

(4) Livestock Feeds and Feeding, Fifth Edition, Kellems, R.O. and Church D.C. Prentice Hall, p. 12-13, 2002