Turning up with the Bros at the Great Bull Run

At either end of the Maple Grove Raceway, 18 bulls stand corralled in waiting for the start of their next run down the grass pit track, the crowd in the bleachers doing pretty much the same. Runners, clad in white and red, fill the area ahead as Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What” blares overhead, the verse inspiring listeners to “fire up your loud.”   

For quiet Mohnton, that, indeed, is the theme of the day, the antics to come fueled as much by the Bud Light Lime-A-Ritas as the desire to, finally, proudly answer Lil Jon’s question with “nothing, Jon, not for the whole world.”

“Someone just called me ‘broski’,” a fellow spectator says, his tone indicating that whatever runner blurted the phrase out had done so entirely unironically. On that note, host Rob Dickens begins to address the crowd, ultimately encouraging them to raise their red bandanas as he leads them in a quasi-prayer dubbed the “Bull Honorific”:

“Here we are, the courageous few

To test ourselves and honor the bulls.

From those who run to those who fall

We honor the bulls and salute you all.”

The music fades back in, the crunk-meets-rodeo juxtaposition echoing back off the surrounding hills as the cowboys rustle up the bulls into smaller groups and open the gate. Tearing up the center of the dirt track, the bulls hollow out the group, with most retreating to the sides while a brave few make short runs down the center trying to get a hand on the near-ton animals for a brief second.

Then, it’s over. The runners form an orderly line out, their day’s duty of tempting fate done and the requisite level of adrenaline presumably fulfilled. Some, to be sure, are disappointed, but as I look I notice large swaths leave grinning.

“That was crazy, bro,” I hear one shirtless runner say as he walks out speaking to his camera phone. “Are you ready for the next one?”

As I watched him leave, I couldn’t tell if he was sweating because he had actually run, or if it was simply the excitement.—sometimes even flirting with danger is enough to pass for the real thing.  And, if not, there’s always hot dogs and beer afterwards. No turning down required, depending on your definition.

This is the Great Bull Run, which ran through Mohnton’s Maple Grove Raceway this past weekend—it’s first time in Pennsylvania. Inspired by the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona’s San Fermín festival, the Great Bull Run got it’s start last year and has since built a reputation that managed to attract thousands of runners and spectators for a day of carnival food, beer, and bull runs in a miniaturized, comparatively nerfed rendition of its European predecessor.

Part of that reputation comes from opposition from animals rights groups that criticize the Great Bull Run as abusive and cruel, the event serving as an unnecessary test of human will at the cost of the bulls’ quality of life. As the Animal Legal Defense Fund notes:

“Organizers of the Great Bull Run events have publicly denied that the runs are cruel, stating, ‘We do not torture, abuse or do anything cruel to the bulls.’ The organizers believe that animal cruelty is limited to the torture and killing of animals.  However, animals experience fear, and many might say (and I would agree) that putting animals in a state of fear for our own pleasure or entertainment constitutes animal cruelty.”

PETA adopts a similar argument, saying that “there is no way to be sure that these animals won't suffer or become injured at these events” in a recent petition to ban the runs.

Judging from Saturday’s events, it’s easy to see why. The bulls themselves, their horns filed down for runners’ safety, are visibly shaken by the setting. They are forced to run through gauntlets of drunken locals as each attempts to stake their claim on some sense of breaking normalcy and doing something “crazy.” Several bulls at Saturday’s run were contrarian to that goal, turning back into the corral as they were released, prompting whippings and lasso work from the cowboys on hand.

Relatively kind to the way most livestock is treated, but, still, the issue is with forced performance and travel captivity—two aspects that the Great Bull Run’s founding company has routinely dismissed, being as the event is billed as a sort of revenge for the bulls themselves. Which, of course is not true—otherwise we’d hog-tie volunteers for a stampede, and anyone willing to sign up for that would probably veer closer ideologically to PETA than Lil’ Jon. They wouldn’t even need to use a corny “Bull Honorific” to rationalize their actions.

The bigger issue, though, is why we as a public would want to participate in an event that we know is inherently dangerous for both humans and animals alike—moreso for the latter. Ultimately, stepping into a corral with a bunch of bulls that run by you doesn’t make you any more or less of a man or woman than before they came along, and we know this deep down. 

It’s a somewhat painful truth, but nonetheless, in today’s round-corner, soft-ground, make-sure-you-don’t-scrape-your-knee world, nearly anything outside the ordinary will be enough to make us feel like the hardest people on the planet. We are utterly encased in our own rules, looking for any way possible to get out—bulls only happen to fit the “just crazy enough” bill.

It is ultimately a matter of settling. After 9/11, we settled for massive infringements on our personal liberties in the name of what we hoped would be increased security and protection. Today, the world we live in still approximately no more secure than before September 2001, but the illusion of security that those infringements gave us as a public has somehow changed that perception. Surely, we figured, we’re safe after all we’ve put on the line. 

That, of course, turned out not to be true, the further nerfing of our world done all for naught. Now, that particular action is finally seeing its reaction, and the Great Bull Run finds itself playing host to a growing number of Americans so utterly bored by modern life that they need to step into a ring with a group of bulls to alleviate the crushing sense of ennui that pervades our society. The same thought process, though here we replace "security" with "rite of passage."

So, in that sense, you can’t blame the participants for wanting to “turn up,” as Lil’ Jon belted out over the corrals on Saturday. It is this type of attitude that has fostered the growth of everything from Tough Mudders to extreme sports recently, and the need to find a “spark” in life is a concept familiar to all Americans. But to do so needlessly at the cost of an animal’s wellbeing does seem wrong, despite whatever cruel need for an outlet that we perceive in our collective consciousness.

Presumably, though, to participate in a bull run is to be unconcerned with these problems. After all, broski, the next run is coming up soon.