Run with the bulls, let them tumble into the sea during the chase, even stick fireworks or flaming wax to their horns — but don't kill them. That's the line legislators in northeastern Spain drew Wednesday between protecting animals and upholding cherished national traditions.
The Catalonia region, which includes Barcelona, banned bullfighting in July, but many other bull-related traditions in which the animals are not killed continue there. Wednesday's bill, overwhelmingly approved by the regional parliament, was widely seen as a way to enshrine the customs, regulate them for the first time and buffer them against pressure to do away with them.
Defenders of the events heaved a sigh of relief, saying they are far removed from the bloodshed of actual bullfights.
"They could not deny us this freedom," said Pere Fumador, a bull breeder in the Ebro River valley region where the customs are most deeply rooted.
Some animal-welfare activists, however, believe the vote will eventually spell the end of human thrill-seeking at the bulls' expense in Catalonia, the second region of Spain — after the Canary Islands — to ban bullfighting. They predict that officials will find it impossible to regulate the often chaotic events, where the danger is a key attraction.
Spain's centuries-old fascination with bulls, and with using the animals as a test of bravery, is part of the national identity. Bullfighting and related events are a multimillion-dollar industry, drawing many foreign tourists.
Outside Catalonia, Spaniards run with bulls in Pamplona every year, spear them to death from horseback in another northern town called Tordesillas and cordon off town squares to let even children dodge feisty calves of the kind used to breed top-grade fighter bulls.
In Catalonia, bull-related traditions include "correbous," which involves attaching short sticks with flaming balls of wax or fireworks to bulls' horns, then letting the animals run around a bull ring or plaza and chase people. After a while, the fire is put out and the bulls are led back to their pens.
"If the horns are wide enough, the bull does not get burned," said Francesc Sancho, a spokesman for Catalonia's dominant party, a center-right nationalist coalition called Convergence and Union.
In another, less common version, the bulls chase human daredevils on platforms by seaside marinas and plunge into the water. People in boats lead the bulls back onto ground and back onto the platform for another go at it.
The bulls are often younger animals rather than the full-grown, half-ton specimens that matadors take on.
Alejandra Garcia, an activist who took part in a grassroots campaign that led to Catalonia's bullfighting ban, said the animals are terrified and some end up injured or even dead.
Proponents say the goal is not to harm or kill the bulls.
"It is not the same thing (as bullfighting). We do not mistreat the animal, or stab it," said Moises Plaixens, who belongs to a correbous club in the Catalan town of Cardena.
Members of the Convergence and Union party said the bill approved Wednesday seeks to establish safety norms and other regulations to protect both the bulls and people.
Sancho, the party spokesman, insisted the customs are not cruel and cannot be equated with bullfighting because the animals do not die. He said the bill seeks to protect bulls by limiting how long such spectacles can last and having veterinarians examine the bulls afterward for signs of injury or stress.
Garcia said the bill will give activists a legal tool to go to court against, say, festival organizers who violate the rules it sets, such as a ban on participation by children under 14.
Initiative for Catalonia, an environmental party, is the only one in Catalonia to speak out against regulating the festivals. It favors a total ban on events in which bulls are seen to suffer and considers Wednesday's bill "all about seeking forgiveness" from pro-bullfighting fans ahead of regional elections on Nov. 28.
Associated Press Writer Ciaran Giles contributed to this report.