Catalonia’s donkey parade festivals take place amid animal rights concerns

Els Tres Tombs is a Catalan celebration of animals that falls on the feast day of St. Anthony the Abbot

A man riding a horse being blessed by a priest from the church of Saint Anthony in Valls during the Tres Tombs festival on January 12, 2020 (by Mar Rovira)
A man riding a horse being blessed by a priest from the church of Saint Anthony in Valls during the Tres Tombs festival on January 12, 2020 (by Mar Rovira) / ACN

ACN | Vilanova i la Geltrú

January 17, 2020 05:50 PM

Saint Anthony the Abbot, Catalonia’s protector of animals, is honoured with a feast day on January 17th every year, a day particularly special in many towns and neighbourhoods across the country. The festival known as Els Tres Tombs, or ‘the three laps’ in English, is celebrated in honour of both animals and the saint.

The tradition is hugely popular in Valls, the Barcelona neighbourhoods of Sant Andreu, Sant Antoni, and in the town of Vilanova i la Geltrú, where the festival is known to be one of the biggest in Catalonia for its quality, size, and diversity.

The biggest spectacle of the day is the donkey, horse, and pony parade. Often, locals even bring their own dogs, cats, birds, and whatever beloved pet they may have, to the parade. All animals, both taking part in the parade and activities, and the pets brought to the event, are given a blessing by the local cleric. 

Traditional, well-preserved carriages are ridden through the streets, as an homage to peasant farmers and wagon riders. These carriages used to serve for practically any purpose the people needed, farm work, fire fighting, even funerals. 

Els Tres Tombs is a feast day that began centuries ago out of the belief that a winter celebration was needed to salute the hard work that the horses and donkeys did for the community.

Marc Buqué, the vice president of the Saint Anthony Society in the town of Valls, says his local Tres Tombs celebration mixes tradition and spectacle, and is different from those in other villages because the parade route is more complicated. 

In fact, one of the claims is the iconic descent of the Plaça del Blat, as at this point the carts push around two turns. "Everyone who comes to Valls knows that there is the headache of the route, that there is a bit of risk and a spark. It is a place of beauty," said Buqué.

"Tradition and torture" say animal rights organizations

However, the festival is not universally loved. In an interview with Xarxanet last year, Albert Diez, director of the National Association for the Defense of Animals, says protocols are needed to end abusive treatment of the animals, and to expose forgotten animal rights. 

Díez said, “it is a tradition, and it’s also torture,” and he views the Tres Tombs festival as 200 years of making animals suffer for pure entertainment. For his organization, the fact that obvious mistreatment is involved is enough to end the act, even if it is a tradition.

However, they stress that they don’t want to scrap the whole festival, but rather provide alternatives, such as replacing the animals with motor vehicles. 

Neus Aragonés, spokesperson for the Association in Defense of Animal Rights, says "no inspections are made, the amount of hours spent riding horses on streets is excessive, and they carry heavier loads than they can withstand."

A few years ago, a horse died from exhaustion in Montjuïc during the tradition, and Aragonés says this is the type of situation her group wants to avoid.

Taradell pioneering protocols to eliminate animal suffering

Working alongside the Animal Defense Foundation, the town of Taradell are implementing new techniques to assure the safety and comfort of all animals involved in the Els Tres Tombs celebration. 

Last year, the town hired vets to be present during the festivities, while also banning cars from driving during the parade and music bands were removed from the areas near the animals to avoid the stress caused from loud noises. 

But this year, the town is going a step further by hiring a group of veterinarians and animal experts to evaluate the wellbeing and monitor the stress and pain levels of the animals involved in the parade, and take any measures necessary to avoid suffering.

"Only in this way will we be able to save the tradition,” said the town’s Els Tres Tombs organizing president, Josep Preseguer. He attributes these changing times to the current generation being much more conscious about animal rights.