MADRID – As matadors face half-ton bulls this month during Madrid's most important annual series of bullfights and Pamplona gears up for its chaotic July bull runs down cobblestoned streets, tensions are building between anti-bullfighting forces and the traditions' defenders, who have launched Spain's first pro-bullfight lobbying group.
At least 17 Spanish cities and towns have slashed municipal funding for bullfights and bull runs or passed measures condemning or banning them since the new leftist Podemos party won its first seats in local and regional elections a year ago.
The party finished third in an inconclusive December election that splintered the country's traditional two-party system into four. It will be repeated June 26, when Podemos could overtake the No. 2 center-left Socialists.
Bull spectacles are expected to be banned this summer on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca by the regional Balearic Islands parliament ruled by a coalition including Podemos — six years after northeastern Catalonia prohibited bullfights but enshrined as cultural heritage bull runs and events featuring bulls running around with flaming balls of wax or fireworks affixed to their horns.
Animal rights activists say the gory fights are among the planet's most blatant forms of animal cruelty, with bulls lanced and finally stabbed through the heart. Matadors are praised for killing with a single stab, though some don't succeed in finishing off the animal with repeated thrusts. Foreign tourists attending fights for the first time often leave stunned.
"Now that the political scenery has changed, there is a window of opportunity at the local level to promote the anti-bullfighting agenda," said Antonio Barroso, an analyst with the Teneo Intelligence political risk consulting firm. "The far left has gained political power and this tends to be an issue leftist voters care about."
But the new Fighting Bull Foundation of breeders, matadors, ring workers, groups of aficionados with thousands of members and event organizers is pushing back with a prominent Madrid law firm that has filed five challenges so far this year to decisions against bullfighting by four Spanish municipal governments and one provincial administration.
It's also pressing for criminal charges in five municipalities against animal rights protesters who disrupted bullfights, mostly by jumping into the rings.
An appeal is planned for the Mallorca ban after its anticipated approval in June or July. The foundation also has requested that Spain's Constitutional Court act quickly on an appeal against the Catalonia ban filed in 2010.
Fighting Bull Foundation co-founder Juan Pedro Domecq, a famed breeder from a family renowned for producing wine, sherry and top-grade Spanish ham, said the bullfighting community had felt under attack with no one to defend it. Besides the legal effort, the foundation is promoting bullfighting as an essential part of Mediterranean culture plus the economic benefits it generates in a country with 20 percent unemployment.
"Now you are not going to be able to attack bullfighting for free," Domecq said. "It will have consequences. Before the foundation existed, there were no consequences."
Shouting matches often erupt between bullfight supporters and protesters at bull events. A May 2 confrontation captured on video at a small Catalonian town turned ugly when two animal rights activists taking video were beaten up by three men and a woman. The crowd cheered and applauded after one attacker grabbed an activist's camera and hurled it into the bullring, shattering it.
The assailants were arrested, and the AnimaNaturalis animal rights group called this week for Catalan regional police to boost security to protect activists planning to video a weeklong bull event starting Saturday.
"We think a minority of the pro-bull sector uses violence to defend their ideas," said AnimaNaturalis director Aida Gascon. "But it's very common for the hardcore fans to try to prevent us from recording."
Jose Miguel Soriano, a partner with the Cremado & Calvo-Sotelo law firm representing the foundation, condemned the assault as "a repulsive act" by people "who don't represent the bullfighting sector."
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, has said he would cut off government funding for bull spectacles, but wouldn't ban bullfights. None of the leaders of Spain's other three main political parties are against bullfights.
Madrid's leftist mayor Manuela Carmena has said she won't ban bull events but did eliminate a 61,000 euro ($70,000) annual subsidy for the city's only bullfighter school and ordered all bull promotional material taken off the city's tourism website. She's not letting anyone use a 30-seat VIP section reserved for city officials and guests at the famed Las Ventas bullring, currently celebrating the weeks-long San Isidro round of bullfights.
Opponents of bull events say they are elated at the political momentum.
"Society has clearly said 'No to bullfights.' It's an unstoppable movement and it's only a matter of time until we see bullfights disappear in our country," said Silvia Barquero, president of Spain's Pacma animal rights political party. It didn't win parliamentary seats in the most recent election but boosted its vote to 220,369 from 102,114 in 2011 in the country of 46 million.
While the activists hone in on bull events, the beasts roam free and virtually undisturbed at the 3,000-hectare (7,400-acre) western Spain farm of Victorino Martin, grazing in groups of four or five on verdant hills and napping in the shade of cork trees.
Those selected to fight leave for the ring when they are between 4 and 5 years old after a life of ease, said Martin, a legendary bull breeder who blames globalization "increasingly imposed by Anglo-Saxon culture" for the political fervor over bullfights.
"There's an attempt to politicize the bulls, but the bulls have been the culture of the Spanish people for millennia," Martin said.
Spain's deep tradition with bullfights was named part of the country's cultural heritage in a law passed in 2013. And Martin says it's only fair for towns that regularly fund street parties that include live music and fireworks to help pay for the featured bull events.
"We don't want privileges, we just don't like being discriminated against," he said.
At a protest last weekend of about 150 people against municipal financial support for bullfights in Madrid's suburb of Fuenlabrada, Podemos member Luisa Barrios said some in her party don't think taking on bullfights should be a priority but said she knows no party members who support them.
Bullfight fan Francisco Valero paused to watch the activists, covered in fake blood, put on a show. He supported their right to protest but disagreed that the bulls are tortured.
"Fighting bulls were born to die in the ring," said Valero. "This is Spanish culture."
Associated Press writer Elsa Fraile in Madrid contributed to this report.