Spectators follow a bullfight at the Las Ventas bullring during the 2019 San Isidro festival in Madrid on May 15. (GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Residents in Seville, Spain, finished this week celebrating the Feria de Abril, a week-long cultural festival that began as a cattle exposition in the 19th century. The contemporary event is a block party leading up to a meeting of matadors and cattle breeders at the city’s 250-some-year-old bull ring.

But Spain’s bullfighting season, which begins in earnest after the Feria, is off to a controversial start. A famous matador’s artistic flourish cast an international shadow over the activity insiders consider more ritual than sport, and has further divided Spaniards over bullfighting’s place in society.

Before matador Morante de la Puebla struck the final fatal blow to a bull last Friday, he produced a handkerchief from his ornate outfit and dabbed blood from around the animal’s eyes and nose.

(Warning: the following video includes footage of a wounded and bloody animal.)

The move outraged animal welfare activists who saw the act as mocking an already conquered beast. Silvia Barquero, leader of animal rights party PACMA, called Morante “twisted and perverse” in a tweet, said he showed an “eerie lack of empathy” and called for the abolition of bullfighting.

Social media erupted with reactions that called Morante “psychopathic,” “grotesque and heinous” and “sick.

But the move delighted bullfighting aficionados who considered it an act of utmost artistic expression.

Spanish newspapers cover bullfighting in arts and culture sections and assign critics to review prominent matadors. Madrid newspaper La Informacion wrote that Morante “dazzled the public” with the handkerchief. Online bullfighting magazine Es De Toros said it was a highlight of the festival.

Antonio Lorca, the renowned critic from El Pais newspaper, wrote activists criticizing Morante “refuse to respect the legitimate tastes of others.”

“An anti-bullfighting activist can think that a bullfighter is a torturer for the death of a bull, but not because he pulls a handkerchief and wipes the animal’s forehead,” he wrote.

He lauded Morante’s handkerchief move as an allusion to late bullfighting legends Joselito el Gallo and Curro Cuchares, who is buried in Seville. Both employed the practice of wiping a bull’s face before its demise in their fights.

The incident has exposed the deep divisions in Spanish society over bullfighting’s place. A poll conducted by El Pais in 2010 found 60 percent of Spaniards did not enjoy bullfighting, but nearly the same proportion, 57 percent, opposed banning the activity.


Activists hold letters reading "Stop bullfighting" during a protest against bullfighting organized by the animal rights group AnimaNaturalis outside the City Hall in Madrid on May 12. (OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Catalonia, a semiautonomous region in northeastern Spain that in recent years has tried to secede, banned bullfighting in 2012, but the law was overturned by Spain’s Constitutional Court.

Protests before bullfights and before Pamplona’s famous running of the bulls are common.

But aficionados reject those criticisms.

“Bullfighting is the best example of respect between man and animal,” Pepe Saborit, a former matador and president of the Bullfighting Association of Mexico, said in a phone interview. Bulls bred for these events live years longer than those harvested for consumption and are raised in optimal conditions, he said.

Proponents often push back against what they call “Anglo-Saxon” notions of relationships between people and animals, like pets. Lorca in 2015 instead described the bull as “a perfect work of genetic engineering, one of the most beautiful animals in nature, born for an artistic creation,” and the bullfight as a “fight between a fierce and noble animal and an intelligent and valiant human being who puts his life at risk to attain the glory of civilized values.”

Opponents argue there’s nothing civilized about killing an animal for ritual, and certainly not in wiping the blood from its face.

Read more:

A high school newspaper opposed its school’s ‘Redskins’ nickname, and the debate is dividing the student body

Stripped of women’s records, transgender powerlifter asks, ‘Where do we draw the line?

Tennis star Nick Kyrgios throws a tantrum and a chair before walking off Italian Open court

Olympian Allyson Felix tells Congress of racial disparities in maternal mortality