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Big beef over bullfights in Portugal

Kill the bull! Kill the bull!"

On a balmy September afternoon, the large crowd in the public square of this quaint Portuguese town is working itself into a frenzy.

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Nowhere else in Portugal would you hear such words.

Unlike in Spain, the Portuguese bullfight is not a blood spectacle where the animal is killed. It's a display of swashbuckling horsemanship, glitzy costumes, and bare-knuckled combat.

But Barrancos brazenly defies a 70-year-old ban on Spanish-style bullfights. The determination of its citizens is matched by that of animal-rights demonstrators in the capital, Lisbon. Yet this is more than a face-off over bullfights. It's part of a broader collision between the "liberal" values of northern Europe and the traditions of southern Europe.

With membership in the European Union, more southern Europeans have begun to embrace traditional northern European values, including respect for the dignity of animals. As a result, animal-rights groups have begun to emerge as a significant social force, drawing support from organizations such as veterinary associations and student groups.

But as this civic activism grows, regional pride is also on the rise. Spain's Andalusia and Estremadura regions, Portugal's Alentejo, Sicily, Italy, and the hill farms of Greece are emerging as staunch bastions of the past, social experts say. Their defiant traditionalism has emerged as a reaction to concerns over modernization and the perception that their culture is under siege.

Indeed, sponsors and participants of the Barrancos bullfight have defended their 300-year-old tradition as a non-issue. "The law doesn't apply to us," says Barrancos mayor Antonio Terreno. "It's a tradition that's older than the law."

Only two miles from Spain, Barrancos residents have ignored the ban since it was introduced, along with recent court orders against killing bulls in public. At one bullfight in August, two bulls were killed by unidentified matadors from Latin America. Their names were kept secret to avoid prosecution.

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But Portugal's fledgling animal-rights movement is persisting, even making this an issue in Sunday's general elections. "The practice is medieval, pure and simple," says Maria do Ceu Sampaio of the Portuguese League for Animal Rights. "Our leaders ... must explain to the Portuguese people why they are making a special exception for the people of Barrancos."

Riled by the growing campaign, local officials here even said that, if the bullfight is halted, they will destroy their passports and declare the town part of neighboring Spain. The reverence is understandable, given the cultural closeness locals feel for Spain, even speaking a dialect blending Andalusian Spanish with Portuguese.

"The bullfight is not just a fashion to us, it's a part of our life," says Carlos Mantas, an ice-cream vendor. "At a time when we were otherwise ignored by Lisbon, this tradition helped bind us together, gave us an identity."

But animals-rights groups point out that just because an activity is steeped in tradition, doesn't mean it is civilized. "When the matador hurls a sword and kills an ... animal, that's not culture, it's a knowing act of cruelty," says Tome de Barros Quieroz, with the Society for the Protection of Animals in Lisbon. "It's a cultural anachronism that serves no purpose." For evidence, he cites polls that show a decline in bullfighting's popularity. Three out of 5 Portuguese do not consider themselves bullfighting fans, according to an August poll published in the Expresso newspaper. Only 12 percent of those polled between the ages of 18 and 21 said they were fans, compared with 37 percent of Portuguese over age 60.

"There's a growing feeling across the country not to do harm to animals," Mr. Quieroz says. "It's just a matter of time before more people make themselves heard on the issue of Barrancos."

For now, the debate remains deeply divided. It has split the ruling Socialist Party, which is at loggerheads over whether to support remote Barrancos' tradition or enforce the law. A bill sponsored by a former governor of Alentejo called for passing a special dispensation so that, as in France, bulls could be killed "wherever local custom demands." But a rival measure called for bullfighting rules to be applied to the letter of the law. The government, preoccupied with elections, prevented both bills from reaching the Parliament floor.

But such are the emotions in this case, that few Portuguese officials believe it can put it off for long.

What should be done is quite simple, according to Lisbon lawyer Artur Mendes. "The government should enforce the law," he says. "Even at the risk of confrontation. For as long as we allow these massacres of man and beast to continue, we cannot ever be taken seriously as members of Europe."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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