Venezuela’s Passion: Twisting the Tail of an Angry Beast
By SIMON ROMERO | September 10, 2006
BARINAS, Venezuela — With its pickup trucks, cowboy hats and billboard advertisements for beer, this oil-rich city on Venezuela’s savanna feels as if it could be somewhere between Abilene and Amarillo on the West Texas plain.
But horsemanship here does not revolve around bull riding or steer wrestling. Venezuelan cowpokes forgo any pretense of going for the horns. They prefer to take the bull by its tail.
In an event called coleo, four men on horseback chase a bull within a corridor about the length of a football field for about five minutes, competing to see who can tip the animal over the most times by pulling its tail.
Of course, after the first fall, the coleador must get the bull back up and running. That is often accomplished by twisting its tail. Some exasperated riders bite the tail. On some occasions, attendants use an electric rod to shock the bull back onto its feet.
Some bulls break a leg when they fall. After the coleo, many of the bulls, bruised and worn out, are hauled to the slaughterhouse.
“I love coleo,” said César Álvarez, 16, an aspiring coleador who traveled to compete in Barinas from the eastern state of Bolívar. Explaining how he had already broken his own leg twice in dust-ups with bulls, he said, “it isn’t just the bulls that are at risk, but us as well, which is what makes coleo exciting.”
The activity, while inflaming animal welfare advocates, is so entrenched in Venezuela that its adherents are asking President Hugo Chávez to declare it the national sport.
“The coleo is beyond an extreme sport; it’s an art form,” said Nicolás Espinoza, a member of the Venezuelan Coleo Federation’s national board, in an interview here on a recent Friday afternoon before a coleo championship for teenagers from throughout Venezuela.
“If you look at other sports, like bullfighting or cockfighting or baseball, there is nothing more truly Venezuelan,” he said. “On every weekend, in almost every town in Venezuela, you’ll come across coleo.”
Coleo is believed to have originated in the llanos, the vast plains of Venezuela, after cattlemen established large ranches more than a century ago.
It is also practiced in parts of Colombia, Brazil and Panama, but Venezuela, a country about the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined, offers the most vibrant scene. About 40 Venezuelans make a living as full-time coleadores, traveling from town to town for weekend competitions offering purses of as much as $10,000. But most of the participants are amateurs.
Brewing companies spend generously on advertising at coleo tracks, where the tail-pulling is frequently accompanied by joropo, a fast-paced music from the llanos with intricate rhyming lyrics performed with a four-string guitar, harp and maracas.
Coleo is perhaps most popular here in the state of Barinas — the heart of the llanos, where Mr. Chávez grew up, and where his father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, is provincial governor and on occasion is in the coleo audiences.
The president did not seem surprised in March when coleadores asked him to declare their obsession the national sport during his Sunday television show “Hello, President.”
With the deftness of someone who started life in these backlands long before establishing himself more than seven years ago at the Miraflores presidential palace in the capital, Mr. Chávez ordered his sports minister to study the proposal. No decree has yet materialized.
The opposition to honoring coleo is fervent, if not widespread. Angela Expósito, a biologist at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas who has organized protests in the capital against coleo, said it amounted to humiliation and torture. She said outnumbering the bull four to one was “the equivalent of cowardice.”
“Where else do you see four men physically abusing an animal into submission with such methods?” Ms. Expósito asked.
Cristina Camilloni, president of the Association for the Defense of Animals, a nongovernmental group in Caracas, said: “It presents an image of cruelty, which any place in the civilized world would want to oppose. Coleo is barbarism, pure and simple.”
But its aficionados remain entranced.
Yamilex Canales, a front-desk attendant at a hotel next to the coleo track in Barinas, tried to explain, as joropo lyrics echoed from the track’s speakers.
“That feeling of the bull when it comes so close to the stands is thrilling,” she said. “When they take the bull down there’s nothing like it.”