Spain's fiesta nacional is on the ropes.
This week, the mayor of Valencia — Spain's third-largest city — floated that he might support a Portuguese-style of bullfighting that doesn't end with the matador killing el toro in the ring before thousands of onlookers.
"There are countries where this is being done, and I think it would be interesting if we in Spain could reach a deal by which the bulls did not get that treatment," Mayor Joan Ribó told the Spanish daily newspaper El País.
Ribó's comments were the latest in a feud that's developed in recent years between bullfighting aficionados and animal rights activists who say the blood sport should be relegated to the dustbin of history.
"There's been a general realization over the last 50 years that there are other forms of entertainment available, that bulls are animals with sentience and feelings and they want to live out their lives with autonomy," said Ben Williamson, media director of the animal rights organization PETA. "This kind of entertainment is just not entertaining."
The dispute is causing problems for politicians like Ribó. Thousands of people demonstrated in Valencia a day before the mayor floated his idea of adopting the Portuguese version of the corrida, or bullfighting in Spanish, to protest local cuts in subsidies to bullfighting events and municipal bans against it in the Valencia region.
The mayor evidently thought his idea would be a compromise between the pro and anti-bullfighting factions, but he was wrong. In Portuguese bullfighting, people still slaughter the bull. They just do it after the fight and outside the ring.
"What Joan Ribó gave is a cowardly answer to try to satisfy both animal rights activists and bullfighter-supporters," Laura Duarte, a spokesperson of the Spanish Party Against Animal Cruelty, said. "The so-called Portuguese way also finishes with the assassination of the bull, even if it's not tortured. We're against this proposal."
Spanish Bullfighters Union President Juan Diego Vicente was equally critical.
"The Valencia mayor's proposal shows a deeply ignorance of how bullfighting works," Vicente told VICE News. "It's a struggle between the bullfighter and the animal. If a toreador finishes him with a gun, there's no fight. Letting the bull go alive leads it to a little room to die without honor."
The concept of honor in bullfighting has fascinated folks since time immemorial. American writer Ernest Hemingway famously became obsessed with bullfighting in the 1920s, portraying it as classic man-versus-nature-and-himself struggle and an opportunity to display Papa's all-important pose of grace under pressure. But Hemingway came late to the fiesta. Bullfighting — like American rodeos — descends from ancient games involving bulls that date at least as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh of 2,100 BC.
Disgust over blood and gore is also ancient, however. "Vegetarianism and care for animals goes all the way back to Pythagoras," said Williamson.
The Spanish public appears to be siding with Pythagoras over Gilgamesh. In December, Ipsos MORI conducted a poll that found that 57 percent of respondents opposed bullfighting. Last year, El País reported that the number of bullfights in Spain decreased 60 percent to around 400 matches in 2014, compared to seven years earlier.
Vincente disputed those numbers. Millions of people attend bullfights annually, he said. Ticket purchases for the events were increasing as the country recovered from the Eurozone financial crisis. The industry generated $4.9 billion for the Spanish economy in 2014, El País reported. "Maybe there are some protests, but there's a real interest on this cultural manifestation," he said.
Politicians are squaring off over the subject.
In 2013, under the conservative People's Party, the Spanish government designated bullfighting as a cultural treasure that could receive public funds for its protection. The move came a year after Catalonia banned bullfighting. The law didn't overturn those bans, however, and it hasn't dissuaded activists from calling for the end of the corrida.
Officials in the Balearic Islands and other regions are also considering bans. Madrid and Valencia recently cut off funding for bullfights. The European Parliament last year voted to prevent EU funds from paying for bullfights. Activists are also controversially pushing to eliminate bullfighting from school curriculums.
Meanwhile, San Sebastian overturned its four-year ban last year and brought back the fiesta. And aficionados are now calling for Spain to apply to include bullfighting as a UNESCO cultural heritage in need of safeguarding, a designation that would qualify bullfighting for UN cash.
That list now includes Arabic coffee in the Persian Gulf, bagpipe culture in Slovakia, and a unique Ecuadoran style of weaving straw hats.
Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr