Spanish bullfighting vows to survive Catalan blow

23rd September 2011, Comments 0 comments

Man and bull will dance with death in a Catalan arena for the last time in history Sunday before the combat is banned for good from the Spanish region.

But the struggling tradition, in which a matador with cape and sword duels a half-tonne, sharp-horned beast, vows to survive the blow -- even if the bull almost certainly won't.

In Barcelona's Monumental ring, the legendary Jose Tomas will joust on the sands with a charging mass of lean meat and muscle. Other matadors on the day are Juan Mora and a young Catalan, Serafin Marin.

Animal rights activists who have rallied under the banner of protest group Prou, the Catalan word for "enough", say they will stay away from the Barcelona ring, the last still in action in Catalonia.

"We don't want to provoke any confrontation," said Prou member Helena Escoda.

"The abolition has been achieved now. It was a legitimate decision of the Catalan parliament supported by many citizens. We have done what we had to do," she said.

Catalan regional members of parliament voted July 2010 to ban bullfighting as of January 1, 2012 after Prou managed to garner 180,000 signatures for a petition demanding the debate.

Critics say the ban is just a way for independence-minded Catalans to thumb their noses at the rest of Spain.

Rafael Luna, a Catalan member of the conservative Popular Party, points out that other festivals including one in which flaming rags are tied to a bull's horns will survive the new regime.

"I respect people who defend animals but the hypocrisy is that they have banned the bullfight and not other bull-related activities," he said.

At a fighting-bull ranch north of Madrid, some 650 kilometres (400 miles) away from Barcelona, the mood is defiant.

Ricardo del Rio, heir to one of Spain's best known fighting-bull breeders, Victoriano del Rio, is determined to battle on.

"Danger - Fighting Bulls. Do not enter." The warning is written in big letters on the metal gates that block a battered dirt road trod by 1,400 cattle -- fighting bulls, cows and calves.

"They are not dangerous but you have to be very careful with them: they are wild animals," said the 40-year-old breeder, son of the famous Victoriano and the sixth generation in the family business.

He cries out a long yell, typical of fighting bull breeders, to call over beasts rooted to the ground at the other end of a field in Guadalix de la Sierra.

"Dakar", "Ecuador", "Entrenador", Ricardo del Rio cries out the names of the bulls, which by three or four years of age already weigh 450-580 kilograms (990-1,280 pounds).

"We are getting them ready for next year," he explains.

Only bulls aged four to six and weighing at least 480 kilograms (1,060 pounds) can enter a first-rank bullring. "But they are often heavier," Del Rio says, pointing to "Bravucon", a black bull resting its impressive bulk under the shade of an oak tree.

Del Rio's passion is not shared by all.

In an August 2010 survey, 60 percent of Spaniards questioned were against the bullfight.

That an economic crisis means bullrings are emptying. The number of fights, organised even in the smallest Spanish villages, slumped 37 percent to 1,724 last year from 2,622 just three years earlier.

"A fighting bull can fetch 22,000 euros ($30,000) in first-rank bullrings," said Del Rio. "But because of the falling number of fights there is a surplus and they sometimes go for less."

His bulls are destined for the premier rings and therefore are less affected by the crisis.

Only 18 fights were held in Barcelona's Monumental ring last year but the ban still raises emotions in the bullfighting world.

"The significance of the ban is more philosophical than financial," said Alvaro Munoz, fighting-bull veterinarian. "It is gives a boost to animal rights defenders."

Del Rio, who will go to Barcelona with his family to see Sunday's fight, said the custom would live on in the rest of Spain. "We will never lose the tradition. It is so deeply rooted in our history," he said.

But he thinks the industry has to do more to convince the public. "By getting to know the bulls you can learn to love them like us, like we love them," Del Rio said.

Asked whether that sentiment might be lost on animal rights activists, the breeder insisted: "We dedicate our lives to bulls. No other animal lives as well."

He pointed to the 1,400 animals spread over 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) of land, and compared their conditions to those of milking cows crammed 400 animals to just 10 hectares (24 acres).

Fighting cattle were no good for milk or meat, Del Rio argued. "If the fiesta did not exist, the 200,000 head of cattle in the bull-fighting sector would all die."

© 2011 AFP

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