The preserving of the bulls

PETE KIEHART/NYTA bullfighter prepared to finish his fight as José Luis Martín Moro, right, watches from the seats at the 96-year-old arena in Pamplona, Spain, on July 13, 2018. In his job as taxidermist for the festival of San Fermín, known for its running of the bulls, Martín Moro turns the slain animals into trophies for a diverse clientele. (Pete Kiehart/The New York Times)

By Andrew Keh – The New York Times.

PAMPLONA, Spain — The joys and pleasures of bullfighting are fleeting, corporeal and often ambiguous. José Luis Martín Moro tries to materialize them, to preserve them forever.

Martín Moro is a taxidermist, one of the best in all of Spain. He travels the country each summer taking inventory and seeking clients wherever bulls are ritualistically killed for entertainment. He has won acclaim for the hyper-realism of his creations, the way he imbues them with emotion. For the past two years, he has served here as the taxidermist for the festival of San Fermín, in a role as vital as it is unsung.

“I think I have reached the pinnacle of my career,” he said. “What I don’t know is how long this will last.”

The popularity of bullfighting — a sport, an art form or a travesty, depending on whom one asks — has waned for decades. Animal rights activists denounce it as cruel. Much of the public in Spain has lost interest in it.

Such concerns, though, can seem invisible at the thousands of bullfighting festivals that take place every year in Spain. San Fermín, the best known of them all, has, for generations, drawn scores of people to Pamplona every July for nine days of bull-centric merriment.

Every morning, there is the ceremonial running of the bulls, known as “el encierro,” in which six bulls and thousands of daring revelers undertake a rollicking half-mile run through cobblestone streets to the city’s 96-year-old arena. There, at night, the same six bulls are sent to be slain at the hands of some of the country’s top bullfighters, or toreros.

“And once the bull is killed,” Martín Moro said, “I own it.”

Martín Moro, 42, has a deal with the organizers for all 60 of the festival’s bulls, which he then prepares for a diverse clientele, including runners, bullfighters, business owners and aficionados. (Last year, he visited a hospital to offer an injured American runner the head of the bull that had gored him. The man declined.) He charges around 1,500 to 2,000 euros, or about $1,700 to $2,300, for a head. An entire bull, a project he does maybe once a year, sells for 6,000 euros, or about $7,000. In all, he attends about 90 festivals and handles about 110 bulls every year.

After the run on the second-to-last day of the festival, Martín Moro slipped through a dense, buzzing crowd to meet potential clients. He was dressed in white, with a red handkerchief around his neck, like everyone else. He gripped a notebook that contained the name, registration number, color and weight of each of the specially bred bulls. Clients always request specific animals, and he had pictures of each in his phone.

The bulls, which can run up to 15 mph, had moved briskly that morning in a tight pack, and the whole thing was over after an adrenaline-soaked 2 minutes 24 seconds. It was a subpar run, messy and clogged with amateurs, according to Javier Delgado, a well-known runner and client of Martín Moro. One person was gored but survived.

Serious runners can sound like hard-core surfers. The bulls, like an ocean’s waves, are unpredictable and unrelenting, and the runners, seeking an ephemeral thrill, try to harness that energy. Many crib the language of addiction. It can be a good run or a bad one; they will do it again the next day regardless. A great one is savored for years.

Martín Moro’s work indulges those feelings. Last summer, Delgado sprinted for several seconds squarely between the horns of a bull that had become separated from the pack. The experience was intoxicating, he said, and for the first time in his eight years running in Pamplona, he craved a memento. He contacted Martín Moro to purchase the bull’s head.

“I saw that it was a beautiful bull, and I was happy about how I ran, and I wanted to keep that memory with me,” said Delgado, 29, who works in a factory in Badajoz.

Martín Moro has long reveled in this world. As a child, he used to admire the heads mounted in restaurants near his hometown, Ciudad Rodrigo, a 20-minute drive from the border with Portugal.

He began experimenting with taxidermy when he was 14, working on small animals he and his friends hunted. He had an early breakthrough when he filched a piece of wire from one of his mother’s artificial plants to fortify the tongue of a wild boar. At 18, he made his first bull’s head. It was imperfect, but someone from his town nevertheless asked to buy it. He made another, and someone bought that, too.

During the 2008 financial crisis, Martín Moro lost his job as an accountant at a construction company. Depressed, he turned to taxidermy for comfort. Eventually, friends and family members suggested he make it his career.

“Now my passion is my profession,” he said. “I’m living in a dream.”

That night, Martín Moro went to the Plaza de Toros, where Juan José Padilla, one of the most famous bullfighters in Spain, would perform for the last time before his coming retirement.

Almost 20,000 people packed the stands. Spectators belted out folk songs and tilted wineskins toward their mouths. The festivals in certain other cities are more prestigious, but San Fermín attracts the biggest bulls and often the rowdiest crowds. This suits Padilla, known for his swashbuckling charisma and his black eye patch, a vestige of a gruesome goring he suffered, and remarkably returned from, seven years ago.

One of his associates had already contacted Martín Moro during the week to reserve both bulls the torero would face. Martín Moro considered it an honor. He said he would give the bulls hardened expressions to match Padilla’s character.

“He will hang them in his home for the rest of his life,” Martín Moro said. “His sons and his grandsons will look at them, and my name will be on the plaque.” With lightning flashing across the gray sky, Padilla luxuriated in the outpouring of love from the crowd. (“Padilla, maravilla!”) He drew appreciative coos when he began his fight — against a 1,100-pound brown bull named Decano — on his knees. He waved the animal close, coaxing it into tight, gentle turns, as if the gravel ring were a ballroom floor.

When the moment came, Padilla lifted his sword and thrust it between the bull’s shoulder blades. The strike was pure. The animal staggered for a few seconds and then keeled onto its side. The stands erupted in cheers.

“I couldn’t dream of an afternoon like the one I lived in Pamplona,” said Padilla, who has collected 36 other taxidermy pieces during his 20-year career. “I will always feel proud when I see those heads.”

It was late that night when Martín Moro arrived at the slaughterhouse where the vanquished bulls had been transported to be dismembered, decapitated and disemboweled. Six heads awaited him. With a knife, he peeled the skin off each one, taking extra care around the eyelids and lips. He grabbed an electric handsaw and detached the horns. Blood dripped everywhere — on the ground, over his hands, onto his white protective coat.

“This is the ugly side of the job,” he said. “Every day I arrive clean, and every night I leave dirty.”

Two days later, he returned to Serradilla del Arroyo, a village of 200 people in the province of Salamanca, where he lives with his wife, Teresa, and two sons — Diego, 12, and Rodrigo, 7 — in a two-story house he built himself. After the hectic days in Pamplona, the silence in his backyard workshop felt gaping.

On the agenda was a hairy black bull from a regional festival. He moved meticulously through a process perfected over the past decade: He hardens a polyurethane-based form inside a mold, carves it with a knife, manipulates clay to recreate the bull’s facial structure, and sews on the hide. Each step brought the object closer to life. He pulled out a picture of the bull and crouched to examine the sculpture, like a barber lining up a buzz cut. He said he visited ranches to see bulls when they are young to better recall their personalities when they are dead. He angled a pair of glass eyeballs imported from Germany slightly to the side and narrowed the eyelids. It had been a suspicious bull, he said.

Martín Moro’s children share his passion for bulls. Diego sometimes assists him in the workshop, helping to mold clay. When the family gathered for lunch later at the only restaurant in the village, Rodrigo popped out of his seat and pretended to be a bullfighter, swaying a paper napkin back and forth, tilting his head theatrically to the side. Everyone laughed. But Martín Moro said he did not want Rodrigo to become a torero.

Eight years ago, Martín Moro befriended Iván Fandiño, the first big-time bullfighter to entrust him with a commission. It was Fandiño’s initial faith, Martín Moro said, that helped him become one of the country’s top taxidermists. Last summer, Fandiño was killed during a bullfight in France.

“It’s beautiful, everything that surrounds this,” Martín Moro said. “But beneath it all is death.”

Garazi Erburu Irigoyen contributed reporting.

Source: My Palm Beach Report

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