How un-Spanish can you get?

MADRID, Spain — The Catalonian Parliament will vote in a few weeks on whether or not to ban bullfighting, an initiative spearheaded by a dozen people who may ultimately be responsible for putting down a centuries’ old tradition in Catalonia.

Regardless of the outcome, however, the fiesta, as bullfighting is known in Spain, may be fatally wounded.

The proposal was promoted by Prou (“Enough,” in Catalan), a platform constituted in August 2008 whose members belong to various animal rights’ groups.

Animal rights’ movements have been campaigning against bullfighting in Catalonia for three decades, but have mainly done so through politicians. Now, the proposal comes directly from the people. More than 180,000 signatures were collected by 800 officially authorized volunteers, more than triple the 50,000 needed to present the initiative in Parliament.

Prou feels there is an increasing sensitivity in society to animal protection, a decrease in enthusiasm for bullfighting in Catalonia and a continuous rejection of bullfighting by foreigners visiting the country. It also argues bulls and humans share “many aspects” of their “neurological and emotional systems.”

The proposal is now in the hands of political representatives. Nationalist Catalonia’s Republican Left (ERC) will likely vote in favor of the initiative. Conservative People’s Party (PP) will almost certainly vote against it. But bullfighting doesn’t divide along political lines, so other groups, such as the center-left Socialist Party (PSC) and Convergence and Union (CiU), a conservative nationalist party, will give their members freedom to vote.

“In my group, there’s a minority who likes bullfighting, a minority who wants to abolish it, and a majority who feels close to animals’ rights associations but doesn’t think banning is the way,” explained David Perez, a PSC spokesperson, who likes bullfighting.

Perez thinks bullfighting will end up dying. “But,” he said, “if bullfighting has to disappear, let it be of natural death, not because politicians ban it.”

Luis Corrales, coordinator of the Platform for the Promotion of the Fiesta, concurs: “The day people stop going to bullfights, the business will leave Catalonia.”

A 2008 Investiga survey, covered in many media outlets, found that seven out of 10 people in Spain’s northeastern region — including Catalonia — had no interest in bullfighting. Corrales argues “no interest” equals indifference, not a desire to prohibit it.

“When there are good bullfighters, the 20,000-seat ring in Barcelona sells out. What other cultural or sport activity, except soccer, can draw so many people?” Corrales asked.

“Bullfighting has a long tradition in Catalonia. Barcelona had three bullrings with morning and afternoon sessions,” said Perez. Now there is only one arena — the Monumental — in the whole Catalonian region.

“I wouldn’t say there’s less liking for bullfighting here, but animal rights groups are stronger in Catalonia than the rest of Spain, because the region, and particularly Barcelona, has always respected minority movements, and also because there’s a Catalonian identity component that views bullfighting as Spanish,” argued Perez. There are strong nationalist feelings in this region, where Catalonians highlight their differences from Spaniards — ranging from their language to their character.

Bullfighting is a tradition throughout Spain, though there are more aficionados in some regions than others. The survey concluded slightly more than 20 percent of the people in Catalonia were interested in bullfighting, compared with almost 40 percent in the Valencia region just south of Catalonia, where the level of interest was the highest. Interest in the other regions averaged around 32 percent. The Canary Islands is the only region in Spain that bans bullfighting, with a law passed in 1991.

Patricia Goma, an ERC representative, denies nationalism is behind the dislike for bullfighting. “Bullfighting is as Catalonian as it is Spanish, and Portuguese and French,” she said, adding that she didn't think there was a particularly strong following for bullfighting in Catalonia.

Prou member Jennifer Berengueras squarely rejects the nationalism argument too: “Of the 11 people in Prou’s commission, two are English, three are Argentine, one is Madrileno and five are born in Catalonia. Pro-independence interests are totally ruled out.”

The bullring in Catalonia had been in decline for years. But then Jose Tomas came to town. This matador is often credited as the savior of bullfighting in the region. Retired in 2002, he chose Barcelona for his return in 2007, and his fans still pack the ring to this day to see his legendarily calm stoicism when the bull brushes by him.

Goma contends most spectators come from outside Catalonia, though Corrales maintains the majority is Catalan. Regardless, Jose Tomas says he feels a special relationship with Catalonia. Early this month, when his foundation, Fundacion Jose Tomas, gave 200,000 euros to various Catalonian NGOs, he said: “I owe Barcelona a lot, and this is my way to return everything they have given me,” the Spanish media reported.

Antonio Lorca, a bullfighting critic who writes for the daily El Pais, thinks Jose Tomas is a “great bullfighter but no redeemer.” Lorca argues ranchers and bullfighters are harming the fiesta. “The main protagonist has been genetically manipulated to the point that a fierce, powerful and fearful animal in the 1920s has turned into a weak, pitiful one,” he stated. “Bullfighters want as little risk as possible, they are the ones responsible for this disaster, with the collusion of ranchers. There’s no emotion any more, and with no emotion, the fiesta doesn’t make sense.” In his view, this is the reason behind the decreasing number of bullfighting enthusiasts.

Genetic selection has changed the bulls’ behavior and anatomy, explained Professor Javier Canon, a geneticist at the Veterinary School in Madrid’s Complutense University. By selecting particular studs and cows and not others, he said, it is man who decides what genes — and therefore, what attributes — comprise the bred bull.

There is also the issue of shaven horns — cut a few centimeters so the bull cannot gauge distances correctly. This banned procedure is widespread, denounce critics, but difficult to prove. Shaven horns lessen the risk, though there’s no escaping danger.

The mythic bullfighter Manolete, played by Adrien Brody in a recent film, Manolete, was killed in 1947 by a bull that some accounts report having had shaven horns.

The bill proposal reads bullfights “objectively maltreat animals and inflict pain and suffering on them.” According to Professor Juan Carlos Illera, director of the animal physiology department at the Veterinary School in Madrid’s Complutense University, bulls feel an initial pain when the picador pierces their hide with a lance, but these animals have developed a swift adaptation mechanism to combat that pain. The bulls’ neural transmission speed is faster than in other animals or humans — and the faster the transmission, the faster the response to pain, he explained. “Eighty-five percent of pain receptors are blocked within seconds,” he said.

Those findings are not without controversy. But even a lack of pain does not convince bullfighting opponents. “It’s the issue of animals being exposed in those conditions for the public’s enjoyment,” reflected Canon.

The question seems to be: How much longer will the Spanish public enjoy bullfighting?