Just how dangerous is Pamplona's running of the bulls?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
July 14 2010 1:24 PM

Gored to Death?

Just how dangerous is Pamplona's running of the bulls?

The running of the bulls. Click image to expand.
The running of the bulls

Today marks the last day of the Spain's Festival of San Fermin, during which revelers run through the narrow streets of Pamplona alongside six bulls and six large steers. The final run was the bloodiest of this year's festivities, with nine participants suffering injuries. In 2007, Michelle Tsai explained what happens when you're gored by a bull. The original article is reprinted below.

Seven people were gored in Thursday's running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, the most dangerous encierro so far in this year's San Fermín festival. A 48-year-old local was gored in the chest and a 23-year-old Mexican in the stomach. How bad is it to get gored?

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You'll probably live, but you can't be sure. A bull's horn can grow longer than a foot in length, and it can cause internal injuries that are several inches deep. But you're only in grave danger if the horn happens to strike a vital organ or a major artery, which doesn't happen very often. A study of bullfighting trauma in Guadalajara, Mexico, found that 66 percent of injuries were in the torero's extremities, while groin trauma accounted for 8 percent and perineal wounds 7 percent. Since officials started keeping records in 1924, 13 people have died during the bull runs in Pamplona.

In Pamplona, most people are running away from the bulls, which means if they get gored, chances are it'll be in their backside. All things considered, the gluteus maximus isn't the worst place to take a sharp horn. Nerve damage is always a possibility, but a gore in the butt is, in general, preferable to a gore in the heart or lung. It's also better to be tossed into the air than impaled against a wall, since the throw can dissipate the force of the gore.

Relatively common are gores to what Spanish newspapers call las partes honorables, aka the groin. Some who get a nasty horn between the legs, like this man from Georgia, need only a couple of days in the hospital; others take a month of bed rest. In 2003, a 27-year-old American was even gored through the rectum; the horn also pierced his bladder. Gores in the vagina are also occasionally reported.

Medical care for the pros has improved over the years, and most toreros today have survived several gorings that would have been fatal a few generations ago. Nevertheless, professional bullfighters talk about conquering the gusanillo, an imaginary worm that resides in the belly of every torero and feasts on fear. Sometimes bravery conquers the pain of a goring. Said one Brazilian bull-rider, who took a horn almost 6 inches into the belly, "Thank God, it didn't touch any vital organs. I thought it was just a scratch—it didn't hurt that much."

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Rick Foster of Justin Boots Sportsmedicine Team and Lyn Sherwood, author of Yankees in the Afternoon: An Illustrated History of American Bullfighters.

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Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.