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Cross-border tensions mount over bullfighting

Animal-rights groups in the US lobby to shut down rings just south of

Hemingway called it a grand passion, "the only art in which the artist is in danger of death."

Nearly 70 years after "Papa" penned those exultant words, bullfighting remains a revered institution in many Latin countries. But to increasingly vocal animal-rights groups in the United States and abroad, it's a brutal anachronism that simply needs to end.

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Nowhere is this clash of sensibilities sharper than along the US-Mexico border, where a string of bullfighting rings from Tijuana to Ciudad Jurez has long drawn international crowds. Just last month, a new battle erupted with the opening of a $4.5 million, 5,000-seat bullring in Nogales, Mexico, strategically situated less than an hour's drive from major population centers in Arizona.

The ring, 45 minutes from Tucson and 2-1/2 hours from Phoenix, took a blow when US-based Dillard's department stores stopped selling tickets for bullfights after customers flooded it with calls and returned merchandise.

As a result, charges of animal cruelty are being met with charges of cultural intolerance, as both sides vie to win the hearts and minds of potential US ticketbuyers and corporate sponsors.

"If not for the Americans, those border rings would shut down almost overnight," says Steve Hindi of Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), based in Illinois.

A view from Mexico

To Antonio Avila Morn, such outcry is worlds away. Dressed in cowboy boots and pressed jeans, he watches as welders apply finishing touches to the Fiesta Brava restaurant inside the arena. As manager, he proudly points to the smooth dirt floor circled by a red-metal wall, to rows of chairs still shrouded in shipping wrap, and to a sloping Plexiglas ceiling that glints in the afternoon sun.

"We even have a fine air-conditioning system," he says. "That will allow us to have fights all year."

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Inside Fiesta Brava, Hemingway's passion is captured by posters of bullfighters and their quarry dating back to 1947, when Nogales hosted an appearance by the legendary Manolete. The famed fighter's modern counterpart, young and handsome El Zapata, gazes confidently from a nearby billboard.

Mr. Avila dismisses opposition to bullfighting with the sweep of an arm. "That's a problem in the United States only," he says. "In Mexico, people love bullfighting. It's very popular here, with a very strong tradition."

That's not entirely true, says Jennifer O'Connor of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, based in Virginia. She says PETA has steady contact with Mexicans who oppose bullfighting. "But mostly, they are small, fledgling organizations. We help provide them with support."

But the real battle is being waged in the US, says SHARK's Mr. Hindi. To that end, SHARK has targeted North American corporations that sponsor the events, particularly Pepsi Cola Co. Hindi maintains a Web site detailing Pepsi's support, including a video he shot in Mexico. It shows a bullfight reaching its bloody conclusion with Pepsi signs visible in the background.

Pepsi spokesman Dave DeCecco says his company "does not support bullfighting, nor do we endorse any kind of animal cruelty. This issue is about advertising." Pepsi has started pulling those signs from Mexican bullrings, though Mr. DeCecco denies the move is a result of pressure from animal-rights groups.

Despite the protests, aficionados consider bullfighting an art form that transcends such arguments. "You're taking the brute force of nature and blending the bull's charge, your cape, and your body into something that does have artistic value," says longtime fighter Diego O'Bolger. When done with mastery, "it's almost like ballet."

An unofficial consultant for the Nogales bullring, Mr. O'Bolger has spent years perfecting that art. He traces the long history of bullfighting from the Romans to Spain, where it became a sport of nobles. When a modern-day fighter dons his "suit of lights," he's cloaked in a remnant of that rich pageantry, O'Bolger says.

'A chance to fight back'

It's a point missed by animal-rights opponents, whom he accuses of hypocrisy.

"If you're wearing a belt or shoes, where does the leather come from?" he asks. "As human beings, we kill to survive, whether it's bulls for beef or chickens or pigs. If you've ever been to a slaughterhouse, it's a pretty ignoble place. At least the bull has a chance to fight back."

Even vegetarians like Guadalupe Castillo harbor a soft spot for the fights. "I've been going to bullfights all my life," says the professor of Mexican-American studies at Pima Community College in Tucson. "It's a borderland experience, part of being neighbors with Mexico, part of the vaquero tradition. Yes,... it can seem cruel. But it isn't a sadistic experience. It can been viewed with a sense of beauty."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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