The most feared and dangerous beast in Spain also happens to be one of its biggest celebrities.
The 1,200-pound, black-and-white fighting bull, who goes by the name of "Mouse" – or "Ratón" – drew more than 3,000 fans cheering last weekend. He didn't disappoint: he promptly chased one daredevil runner after another, trying to flip them airborne and skewer them as he did a month ago in a fatal goring that enshrined his reputation.
Mouse was greeted in the southeastern farm town of Sueca like a rock star: Everyone stood up at 2 a.m. Sunday in the bull ring's grandstands as he charged across the sand after loudspeakers introduced him with the eerie strains of the soundtrack to "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly," the 1960s spaghetti western film starring a young Clint Eastwood.
Ratón didn't claim any more victims this time, but tried his hardest to gore runners. And he captured intense media coverage in what could be his last appearance before retirement amid the controversy he has generated about Spain's summertime tradition of bull versus human runs, a pastime that plays out in rings, narrow streets and plazas across the nation.
After running with Mouse, a breathless Julian Herroja said the bull is so dangerous that "if you make a mistake, he won't. You'll be a victim for sure."
More than 30 journalists were on hand to cover the event in Sueca, population 28,000, near the beach destination of Valencia. Though Mouse will make one more appearance before the end of his season this year, he will run around the ring without runners.
Mouse's owner now fends off as many as 60 cell phone calls daily from reporters. Facebook pages dedicated to him include comments from some people praising him for taking revenge against humans in a country where slews of bulls are slain every year in bullfights by matadors.
But Gregorio de Jesús is angry that Mouse has been nicknamed "Killer Bull," saying he gets blame for doing what comes naturally: Defending himself against perceived threats.
"We go to entertain people so they'll have fun, but unfortunately they are fighting bulls, and there is always a percentage of risk," said de Jesús, 42, a former bull fighter who raises 70 specially bred bulls and 300 cows.
The hype about Mouse has grown so much in Spain that de Jesús is forced to deny reports that the 11-year-old Mouse has killed as many as five runners during his career. But in addition to the 29-year-old victim Aug. 14 in the town of Xativa, he killed a 56-year-old man in 2006 and has seriously injured five more people over the years.
Mouse got his name because no one ever expected him to turn into such a raging bull, de Jesus said. As a calf, he was tormented by several youths who broke into his pen and exhausted him almost to death. Then he was nearly fatally gored by another bull at de Jesus' ranch.
Critics and bull run aficionados alike agree that security is lax at many small town bull runs, meaning almost anyone can participate — even if they're drunk, have taken drugs or aren't physically fit enough to sprint away from enraged bulls. Sueca's mayor beefed up security Sunday, and the extra contingent of police took away some suspected drunks during Mouse's run.
After the bull's last deadly goring, Valencia's regional government announced plans to study how police can be given more authority to detain runners who shouldn't be in the ring, while stressing that the overall number of bull run injuries in the region where they run dropped to 486 in 2010 from 676 in 2008.
Héctor Benet, an insurance agent for the bull run industry, said the number of deaths each year in the region averages four, with dozens of serious injuries annually. While bulls in the runs aren't killed or bloodied like their counterparts in bullfights, animal rights groups say the events are a form of animal torture, with bulls terrified by the hundreds of people who taunt the animals by yelling at them, poking them with long sticks and tossing sand from the plaza at them.
"Mouse is the proof that the bull runs are barbaric and medieval," said Leonardo Anselmi of PROU, the animal rights group whose signature-collecting campaign led to a bullfighting ban in Catalonia, which neighbors Valencia. "It's excessive and cruel violence. The culprits are the politicians who allow the bull runs."
But after Catalonia banned bullfighting, politicians there put in protections for other bull-related traditions, including "correbous" — when metal rods with flaming balls of wax or fireworks are attached to bulls' horns before they are let loose to run around bull rings or plazas and chase people.
It's all part of Spain's centuries-old fascination with bulls, with animals used in public as a test of bravery and part of the national identity. Spaniards also run with bulls in northern Pamplona every year, spear them to death from horseback in a town called Tordesillas and cordon off town squares to let children dodge feisty calves bred to become top-fighter bulls.
Sueca's mayor, Salvador Campillo, was torn on whether to let Mouse perform in his small city after this year's fatal goring by the bull. In the end, he decided to go ahead because he's a bull run fan.
"Raton is a bull that gives a great show, he never stops," Campillo said with a smile.
The town's annual end of summer party also features an international paella cooking competition in place since 1961. The contest attracted chefs this year from top restaurants from Spain and France, plus one from Chicago.
Campillo said de Jesus told him that the Sueca event would be Mouse's last real run before retirement, but de Jesus insisted he won't decide until next year whether Mouse will be put to pasture to breed "some little Mouses" with a chance of inheriting the bull's agility, aggression, intelligence and speed.
Mouse's eventual retirement will probably prove lucrative for his owner, Campillo said, because cow owners who want mating privileges with the bull may have to pay as much as $4,145 for each use of his services.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.