By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Far from the narrow cobblestoned streets of the Spanish city of Pamplona, Americans will soon be running with the bulls at a Virginia drag-racing strip.
"The Great Bull Run" on August 24 at the Virginia Motor Sports Park is an American adaptation of Pamplona's San Fermin running of the bulls, made famous by Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises."
In the U.S. version, participants will have to buy insurance before braving the horns and hooves of bulls chasing them down a quarter-mile strip of asphalt set in farmland south of Richmond.
The bulls, weighing in at 1,000 pounds (450-kg), can hit speeds of more than 20 miles per hour (32 km per hour).
The appeal? Pure adrenaline, said Rob Dickens, co-founder and chief operating officer of The Great Bull Run.
"Why do humans want to do anything dangerous?" he asked. "It's the thrill of it. It's knowing that you're doing something dangerous. That's why there are no events called ‘walking down the sidewalk.'"
Over the past 100 years, 14 people have died in Pamplona's San Fermin festival which dates to the 13th century and which now draws visitors from around the world to a week of partying and bull-fights. At the last event, in July, dozens of people were trampled and several were gored, including one American tourist who had to have his spleen removed.
About 5,000 people have paid up to $50 to enter the Richmond event, which organizers said will launch a 10-city U.S. tour over the next year, including Atlanta, Houston and Dallas.
Participants must buy mandatory insurance and sign a waiver generally absolving The Great Bull Run LLC, the Boston-based company staging the event, and others of any liability if they are injured.
"This is not a petting zoo," Dickens said. "The bulls will not stop and lick your hand - they'll run over you, if you don't get out of the way."
Dickens said every precaution was being taken for safety.
For example, if the bulls seem to be overtaking them, runners can duck into a safety area or jump one of the fences. Medical staff also will be on hand. There will be no sharpened horns, which Dickens said was often the case elsewhere. Runners are barred from taunting or harassing the bulls to make them more aggressive.
The bulls will be crossbred from a Kentucky farm, not Spanish fighting bulls. In Spain, the running bulls are killed in a bullfight, but the U.S. animals will be spared.
Still, the Great Bull Run has drawn the ire of animal-rights groups, who condemn it as exploitation of animals for the sake of entertainment.
"In this American version, the bulls will be subjected to loud noise and crowds of panicked people. A pastime that involves staring at and taunting animals is as unsafe as it is un-American," said Ashley Byrne, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The Humane Society of the United States has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to examine whether the companies running the events were properly licensed. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the group last week the department was examining the issue, according to a copy of the letter provided by the Humane Society.
The USDA did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Dickens, who identified himself as a former Wall Street lawyer, said the legal aspects of the bull runs were in order.
According to the Humane Society, U.S. bull-running events have been held occasionally since 1997, with the last one in 2012.
Gerald Stokka, an associate professor of livestock stewardship at North Dakota State University, said the running was unlikely to harm the bulls, who will be leaner and smaller than standard dairy animals.
"Maybe the bulls will have a great time, actually," he said.
(Additional reporting by by Ian Simpson; Editing by Claudia Parsons)