Beastial sports: the game, the blood, the cruelty

famoso Orson Welles con ordonez

Orson Welles, as is well known, changed the history of cinema at only 26 years of age with the unparalleled Fourth Power, a film that already in 1941 showed an unexpectedly modern and complex language. Welles was also an excellent magician and illusionist, but what few people know is that in his youth the multifaceted artist and intellectual had cherished the dream of becoming a bullfighter. His passion for bullfighting gradually waned over the years as Welles saw the sensationalistic and folkloric aspect of bullfighting take precedence over its symbolic meaning-in his words, the sacrifice of the“brave beast” meeting a“brave man” in a ritual battle.“I hate everything that is folkloric. But I don’t resent bullfighting because it needs all those Japanese people in the front row to continue to exist (and it really does); rather, the same thing happened to me as my father, who was a great hunter and suddenly stopped hunting, because he said: I killed too many animals, and now I’m ashamed of myself.” In the same wonderful interview with Michael Parkinson, Welles called bullfighting“indefensible and irresistible” at the same time.

Irresistible. Any violent confrontation between man and animal, or animal and animal, inevitably draws our gaze. It may be a primitive call that brings us back in touch with the ancient fear of becoming prey; but raise your hand if you have not been, at least as a child, entranced by television images of male lions fighting for the privilege over the female, or deer scoring for territory. Fighting, violence are an integral part of nature, and they still exert a powerful and ancestral fascination on us.

This is probably the impetus behind a type of “show” (if you can call it that), already ethically opposed in the 1800s, and now almost universally condemned for its cruelty: these are the so-called bloodsports, defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “any sport that involves killing or injuring animals for the excitement of spectators or people taking part.” Cockfighting, dogfighting, bullfighting, bearfighting, ratfighting, badgerfighting: the imagination has never had any boundaries when it comes to pushing two animals into a duel for the mere sake of entertainment. In this article we will review some of the more bizarre bloodsport-and you will probably find it hard to believe that some of these forms of “entertainment” exist, or existed, for real.


Goose shooting is still practiced today in some regions of Belgium, Holland, and Germany, but they use an already dead goose, killed by “humane methods” by a veterinarian. This was not the case at the beginning of the tradition: the goose, still alive, was tied by the legs to a board or suspended rope; the animal’s head and neck were carefully smeared with grease or soap. The contestants, in turn, had to ride under the pole and try to grab the goose’s slippery head. The hero of the day was whoever managed to take the bird’s head off, and often the prize for winning was simply the goose itself. It might have seemed a simple feat, but it was not at all, as a passage by William G. Simms testifies:

Only the experienced horseman, and the experienced sportsman, can be assured of success. Young beginners, who consider the feat quite easy, are constantly discouraged; many find that it is impossible for them to pass in the right place; many are pulled out of the saddle, and even when they have succeeded in passing under the tree without disaster, they fail to catch the goose, which keeps fluttering and screaming; or, they fail, going at a gallop, to keep their grip on the slippery neck like an eel and on the head they have caught.




Originating in the 17th century in Holland, the sport also spread to England and North America and, despite being criticized by many influential voices of the time, endured overseas until the late 1800s. A slightly different but equally ancient version is held annually in Switzerland, in Sursee, during a festival called Gansabhauet: competitors wear a mask representing the face of the Sun and a red tunic; the mask prevents them from seeing anything, and the participants, proceeding blindly, must succeed in decapitating a goose (already dead) hanging from a rope, using a sword from which, to increase the difficulty, the string has been removed.






Another wacky sport saw the light of day instead in more recent times, during the 1960s. This wasoctopus wrestling: without tanks or snorkels of any kind, competitors had to manage to grab a giant octopus with their bare hands and bring it back to the surface. The weight of the octopus determined the winner. The animal was later cooked, donated to the local aquarium or released back into the wild.



In the early 1960s a World Championship of octopus wrestling was held annually, attracting thousands of people, so much so that it was even filmed on television; in the 1963 edition a total of 25 giant Pacific octopuses were caught, the largest of which weighed nearly 26 kilograms. The gold medal was won by Scotsman Alexander Williams, who caught as many as three animals.

trail of the octopus

In Japan, the small town of Kajiki holds the traditional Kumo Gassen festival each year, which is the most famous spider fighting event. Practiced somewhat throughout Southeast Asia, this discipline involves the use of black and yellow striped argiopi. Lovingly raised as if they were puppies, the spiders are free to roam around the house, to walk on their masters’ faces and bodies, and to build their webs as they please-the price to pay for this freedom is hard wrestling training. To be fair, these arachnids are not particularly aggressive by nature, and even during combat, which takes place by means of a stick on which the spiders clash, it is rare for them to be brutally injured. In any case, a referee is present to separate them should things get too violent.



Kumo Gassen



If Kumo Gassen is ultimately not a particularly bloody sport compared to others, let us instead conclude with what is perhaps the most chilling of all: fuchsprellen, popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Imagine the scene. In an enclosed arena (the courtyard of a castle, or a specially demarcated space) the pairs of participants in the game would gather. Nobles with their consorts, high dignitaries, and scions of great houses. Each pair often consisted of husband and wife, so as to increase the competitiveness of the contestants. Six or seven meters apart, both held the end of a net or a set of ropes resting on the ground: this was their slingshot. Suddenly, a fox was released into the yard: frightened, it ran here and there until it ran over the sling of one of the pairs. At that exact moment, the two competitors had to pull the ends of the net with all their strength, to throw the animal as high as possible.





In the fox-throwing championship held by Augustus II of Poland, it was not only these beautiful animals that were shot into the air: a total of 647 foxes, 533 hares, 34 badgers and 21 wild cats were slingshot. The king himself participated in the games, and demonstrated (reportedly) his strength by holding the net with one finger, while two of the more muscular courtiers stood at the other end. Every now and then some new variation was also tried: in 1648 34 wild boars were released into the enclosure“to the great delight of the knights, but causing the terror of the noblewomen, among whose skirts the boars created great havoc, to the endless hilarity of the illustrious company assembled there.” Three wolves were tried in the same championship. Leopold I of Habsburg, on the other hand, joyfully joined the court dwarfs in finishing off the animals as soon as they landed, so much so that one ambassador noted his surprise at seeing the Holy Roman Emperor accompanying himself with that clique of“tiny boys, and idiots.”

Indefensible, but certainly not irresistible.

(Thanks, Gianluca!)

Controllo della mente

Uno degli scienziati più controversi, divenuto col passare degli anni un “mostro” assoluto ma sempre più nebuloso nella mitologia del XX secolo, è José Delgado.

Spagnolo di origine, classe 1915, si trasferì in America accettando la cattedra di fisiologia alla prestigiosa università di Yale nel 1946. Era particolarmente interessato agli studi di neurofisiologia, allora agli albori, e in dettaglio la sua ricerca consisteva nell’esplorare le reazioni del cervello stimolato da impulsi elettrici. Mise a punto lo stimoceiver, un microchip radiocomandato che poteva stimolare le onde cerebrali monitorandole al tempo stesso mediante elettroencefalogramma. Questo permetteva libertà di movimento al soggetto dell’esperimento, e il controllo a distanza da parte degli sperimentatori.

Impiantò gli stimoceiver nei cervelli di gatti, scimpanzè, scimmie, gibboni, tori e anche esseri umani. Stimolando la corteccia motoria, era in grado di controllare i movimenti degli animali indipendentemente dalla volontà di questi ultimi. Poteva far loro alzare una gamba, muovere la testa, senza che i soggetti potessero opporvisi. Nell’esperimento a suo dire più importante, impiantò nel cervello di un gibbone dominante e aggressivo un microchip collegato ad una leva: ogni volta che la leva veniva azionata, lo stimolo elettrico induceva nel gibbone un’immediata quiete. Pose la leva all’interno della gabbia, e alle femmine di scimmia occorse poco tempo prima di scoprire che tirare la leva inibiva gli attacchi del “bullo” in questione. Così le femmine impararono a tirare la leva ogniqualvolta il comportamento del gibbone aggressivo diveniva minaccioso.

In quella che fu la sua più spettacolare dimostrazione, Delgado si improvvisò torero. Sceso pubblicamente nell’arena di un allevamento di tori a Cordoba, José sfidò un toro a cui era stato impiantato lo stimoceiver. Quando il toro lo caricò, all’ultimo istante, come un abile prestigiatore della mente, Delgado premette il pulsante del suo radiocomando, e il toro interruppe la corsa, allontanandosi confuso. Un altro suo esperimento riguardava i “fusi neuromuscolari” (sequenze di onde cerebrali con una specifica frequenza): ogni volta che il cervello della scimmia Paddy ne produceva uno, il chip stimolava la materia grigia della scimmia con una “sensazione di avversione”. Nel giro di poche ore, i fusi erano notevolmente diminuiti.

La ricerca sugli umani non andò altrettanto bene. Un soggetto chiudeva il pugno in modo involontario, confessando al dottore che “la sua elettricità è più forte della mia volontà”. Un altro, la cui testa si girava a destra e a sinistra in modo incontrollato, non riusciva invece ad abbandonare l’idea del libero arbitrio, e affermava “Lo sto facendo volontariamente. Sto solo cercando le mie pantofole”. Ma in generale Delgado notò che le risposte erano talmente soggettive che non potevano essere ritenute rilevanti. Così, nonostante le pressioni (molti pazienti con problemi mentali chiedevano insistentemente di essere “curati” con il microchip), Delgado finì per sperimentare la sua invenzione su una percentuale bassissima di volontari.

Questo non gli impedì di preconizzare una società futura “psicocivilizzata”, in cui ogni istinto sovversivo o criminale potesse essere inibito con la semplice pressione di un bottone. Stupri? Istinti aggressivi e violenti? Sarebbero tutti spariti grazie al microchip. Le tendenze reazionarie della sua visione del mondo non tardarono a catalizzare su di lui l’indignazione e la condanna pubblica. In un mondo in cui ogni mente è controllata, nessuna ribellione è possibile.

Così, nonostante il suo stimoceiver facesse la fortuna degli scrittori di fantascienza, Delgado si ritirò nuovamente in Spagna e gradualmente scomparve dalla ribalta internazionale, verso la metà degli anni ’70. Il suo nome venne citato sempre meno frequentemente nelle ricerche, e alcuni pensarono addirittura che fosse morto. Ma José Delgado è vivo e vegeto, e alla veneranda età di 95 anni, anche se non lavora più, è ancora elettrizzato dalle nuove scoperte nel campo della stimolazione cerebrale.

Delgado divenne con il tempo un nome associato alla scienza “malvagia”, quella deriva nazista e senza scrupoli che, figlia degli esperimenti di Mengele, aspira ad ottenere il controllo sulle menti e le vite dei cittadini. In realtà i microchip sono recentemente tornati alla ribalta e, come spesso accade nella tecnologia più controversa, gli esperimenti di Delgado hanno spianato la via ad un utilizzo della tecnologia degli impianti cerebrali per curare patologie come distonia, epilessia e Parkinson. Ultimamente, poi, le terapie cerebrali hanno sviluppato tecnologie sempre meno invasive che implicano l’utilizzo di caschi stimolanti le varie aree cerebrali, sperimentati anzitempo da Delgado in prima persona e da sua figlia Linda.

Oggi i vari saggi e le relazioni sui nuovi esperimenti citano raramente Delgado, che è divenuto una sorta di paria della scienza a causa delle sue posizioni troppo “estremiste” e “destrorse” negli anni ’70. Il placido vecchietto che oggi è José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado guarda distaccato alle accuse dei cospirazionisti di voler controllare la mente delle persone, scuote la testa, e dice semplicemente: “È pura fantascienza”.

Ecco un articolo dettagliato sulle ricerche di José Delgado.