Culture not Cruelty

Religious and local festivals can be an amazing spectacle for locals and travellers alike, but for some, the line between culture and cruelty is often crossed.

Over time religious and local festivals have developed and evolved, yet some traditions have remained constant. Although the vast majority of these religious or local festivals are a beautiful thing to watch or be part of for locals and travellers alike, there are some places where, in the name of religion or tradition, animals are harmed or slaughtered en masse as part of the festivities. Religion makes it difficult for outsiders to challenge these events, but as a tourist you can vote with your feet to ensure that at worst you are not encouraging the barbaric practices that take place – with one festival alone in Nepal involving the slaughter of over 200,000 animals in just two days. Yes – 200,000 animals!

What is it?

Culture not cruelty is exactly that. There are many religions and many cultures and each have their own traditions, ways of living and festivals all around the world. At any one time, somewhere in the world there is likely to be a local religious festival happening, such as carnivals and street processions, pilgrimages, and even paint throwing! As an outsider to these cultures it isn’t right to judge or layer western opinions and thought processes on these festivals, many of which seem a million miles away from everyday life, but some things cross all boundaries – religious and cultural – and morality and welfare should be one of those things.

What you should know

  • There are a variety of religious festivals involving animal cruelty happening around the world, all at different times of the year. As an example, perhaps the biggest, but strangely one of the least well known, is the Gadhimai festival in Nepal, which takes place across two days in November, each 5 years, where over 200,000 animals are barbarically slaughtered as an offering for the Hindu Goddess of Power. At this event local villages are expected to offer at least 1000 animals each for slaughter, and the animals slaughtered include buffalo, goats, pigs, rats and even birds, amongst other creatures. As part of this is the ‘five offerings’ (Panchhbali) which involves the slitting of throats slowly, so the animals die a slow and painful death. After this, sword wielding men enter the buffalo yard (containing up to 20,000 buffalo). They chop the hind legs off of the buffalo so they fall to the ground, then hack away at the head until it is removed. The cruelty and suffering is unrivalled, and it can take around 25 attempts with the sword to kill the animal.
  • Animal slaughter as a religious sacrifice on a smaller scale is common practice in places like Nepal, and is in fact an everyday occurrence in temples where the ritualistic beheading of goats, chickens, ducks and younger buffalo is common. The idea of ritual slaughter dates back thousands of years. It is practised by many religions as a means of appeasing a god or gods or changing the course of nature, but most developed countries and many developing countries have banned this kind of slaughter for welfare reasons, including many states in India (which is where an estimated 70% of attendees to the Gadhimai festival now come from). In fact, many of the other ‘traditions’ that are mentioned in this website, may trace their history to these religious sacrifices, such as Bull Fighting or other events- for example, the Rapas Das Bestas in Spain where wild horses are rounded up en masse into a big stone corral and then are wrestled violently by festival attendees who shear their manes and tails. This is done by teams of three men per horse and involves one of the so called ‘fighters’ jumping onto the back of a horse, making the animal unsteady, and two others pulling the neck and the tail until the horse is forced to the ground. At this point the shearing is done and some horses are also branded. It doesn’t take a wildlife or equine expert to see that this is a stressful experience for the horses involved. The festival is a proud part of the villages ‘culture’ and attracts tourists domestically and internationally. Originally it traces its roots back to a legend that all the wild horses are descendents from a pair released as thanks to a Saint in the 1500s.
  • Other ‘cultural’ festivals involve things like the annual Spanish goat tossing festival in honor of St Vincent de Paul, the patron saint of the town of Manganeses de la Polvorosa. It involves a young man who finds a goat in the village, ties it up, and takes it to the top of the local Church belfry. He then tosses the goat over the side and it falls 50 feet where it is hopefully caught by villagers holding up a sheet of tarpaulin. The village officials banned the event but it continues regardless as this isn’t enforced. In Germany and Spain they also have festivals involving goose clubbing, which until recently involved the clubbing to death of a live tied up hanging goose. Now the animal is killed prior to the event. These festivals date back almost 400 years.
  • Likewise, the ‘fire bull’ festival, also in Spain, is another example – tar is stuck to a bull’s horns and then set alight. The bull suffers horrific burns, blindness, and injuries caused by frantically running around in agony and hitting things. All this whilst the crowd circles the bull and cheers.

What you can do

There are various ways you can show that you as a traveller do not support these types of festivals. The best one is to not attend – to vote with your feet. Foreign tourists attending these festivals as a ‘rights of passage’ add money to the local economy and by default endorse the cruelty. Many of these events may not happen at all without the tourist interest and the associated hype that some tourists can create – story telling, Facebook pictures, reviews and websites etc. Secondly, you can write to the consulate of the countries involved to express your concerns – it’s easy to find out their addresses and contact details online, and you can often email them too. Many within the national governments think that these things encourage tourism, by suggesting that in fact they limit it through boycotting their regions and events, the thought process may change quickly. Thirdly, you can sign up to relevant local and international charities campaigning against these festivals and add your weight to their campaigns. Likewise, if you see tour companies, hotels or hostels encouraging visiting these festivals, use Trip Advisor reviews to show your concern, speak to the management and inform your travel agent. Together, we can make a difference in this area.

Where does this occur?

Spain, India and surrounding regions, Nepal, Pakistan, Central America, South America, Portugal, South Africa

Links to organisations for further information: