Mexico City weighs bullfighting ban

Bullfighting practice at Rancho Seco Put to the test: Rancho Seco's stock are tested for their aggression

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It may be the rainy season in Mexico - but Rancho Seco, meaning Dry Ranch, lives up to its name.

Tucked away in the countryside of the central state of Tlaxcala, the 1,000-hectare (2,500-acre) hacienda is reached by a dusty road dotted with nothing but cactus and cattle.

Despite the arid ground under foot and the punishing sun above, the air inside the farmhouse on Rancho Seco is cool.

As we are ushered into the wood-panelled living room by Don Sergio Hernandez, the 73-year-old owner, the mounted heads of bygone bulls look down on us from the walls.

"These are the heads of our most famous bulls," he says, drawing us towards a powerful-looking black head with curved horns.

"This animal was called Pajarito," Don Sergio says, "which means Little Bird. The name was a good coincidence because this bull flew. He jumped right into the stands."

Sergio Hernandez and his son Don Sergio and his son say they are trying to keep traditions alive

There are also dozens of framed newspaper clippings from around the world showing Pajarito in mid-flight, his forelegs outstretched, his hind legs pushing off from the wooden barrier behind him.

But while Pajarito's leap made international headlines a few years ago, the next headline about bull fighting in Mexico might be about its demise.

Last year, the animal rights lobby proposed a ban on bullfighting in Mexico City to the capital's legislative assembly.

Following a similar move in Catalonia in Spain and recent restrictions on the controversial practice in several Latin American countries, including Ecuador and Peru, Mexican activists are confident a city-wide ban will be passed during the new legislative session.

"Catalonia was the starting point for us," says Gustavo Larios Velasco from the Mexican animal rights organisation, Meta.

"It was the moment which showed that an organised society is capable of persuading its parliamentarians to respond to the wishes of the people and not of a privileged elite."

The "privileged elite" he is referring to includes Don Sergio and his family.

Bravery test

But Don Sergio's son, also called Sergio Hernandez, argues that bullfighting helps to sustain the rural economy in states like Tlaxcala.

"About a million people in the country depend directly or indirectly on this activity," he says.

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Gustavo Larios

In Mexico City, the bullring is a constant failure”

End Quote Gustavo Larios Animal rights campaigner

"On this farm, we have 12 to 14 employees plus their families. That's about 60 people who rely on bullfighting right here."

Bullfighting is not as profitable as it once was and although the Hernandez family have run the business for five generations, Sergio Jr works as an accountant.

But when he is not in a suit and tie, he heads straight for Rancho Seco.

"Every Friday, I look forward to leaving my office, to come to the farm, to get up on a horse and take in all this beauty."

It is indeed a beautiful spot, with 1,000 cattle roaming the grasslands and hillsides. But most of the cows will not be dedicated to producing future Pajaritos.

That is reserved for a selected few with the requisite aggression.

Inside a small bullring on the ranch, Sergio Jr and his father examine a heifer to decide if she has what it takes to become a breeder.

She is put through a mini-bullfight complete with a matador, picadores (lancers on horseback) and banderilleros (who thrust barbed darts into the animal) to test her speed, strength and instinct to charge.

For the cow, this is a life-or-death moment.

"Depending on how brave she is, she will live or die," says Sergio Jr, before adding optimistically: "So far, she's doing well".

Brutality and bloodshed

If bullfighting is outlawed in Mexico City, it will mean an end to the practice in the world's biggest bullring, the Plaza Mexico, which can hold more than 40,000 spectators.

A young bullfighter takes part in the Under-14 Apprentice Bullfighting Competition" in the Arroyo bullring, Mexico City, 8 September 2012 Young bullfighters compete in Mexico, but critics say bullfighting should have no future

But activist Gustavo Larios says bullfighting's popularity has been on the wane for some time.

"In Mexico City, the bullring is a constant failure. For a bullfight, they might fill it around five times a year. But whenever it is used for a musical group, it's full every time."

The anti-bullfighting arguments in Mexico are much the same as in other countries where they are still held - that the practice is barbaric, out-dated and has no place in a modern, forward-looking society.

But in Mexico, the animal rights lobby has a potentially powerful ace up its sleeve.

They have linked the brutality of the bullfight to the bloodshed of Mexico's drug war, saying that watching animals being killed for sport contributes to a wider desensitisation to violence in Mexico.

It may be enough to tip the balance in favour of a ban.

At Rancho Seco, the cow has passed the bravery test and will be spared. But the practice of bullfighting might not fare so well.

For Don Sergio, nothing less than Mexico's cultural heritage is at stake.

"At this rate, we're all going to end up only watching NBA [US National Basketball Association] games. We have to defend our traditions."

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