After years of lobbying by animal rights campaigners, in July 2011 the Catalan Parliament voted by a small majority to ban bullfighting. The Catalonia region of north-east Spain banned bullfighting as a spectator sport with effect from January 1, 2012. 

In the evening of 25 September 2011, 20,000 spectators from Spain and around the world were packed into Barcelona's Monumental Bullring for the last bullfight in the Spanish region.

But the debate for and against is still very much alive.

In September 2016, there were demonstrations in Madrid after a matador was killed by a bull, sparking calls for a Spanish nationwide ban. 

Then on 20 October 2016, Spain's Constitutional Court overturned the ban, ruling that the Catalan parliament had powers only to regulate the sport, not ban it. This outraged animal rights campaigners - and Catalan separatists who see it as a symbol of the old regime of General Franco. They also see it as representing central political power in Madrid against which Catalans voted in the independence referendum on 1 October 2017.

The central government in Madrid has declared the vote as illegal because it breached the Constitution, ignoring a 90 percent vote in favour of breaking away from Spain, according to Al Jazeera.

I think anyone who wants to be a toreador loves the bull more than his girlfriend. Bullfighting is his life. That's what he wants.

Luis Cantero, bullfighter trainer

The bullfighting ban polarises Catalan society and provokes strong feelings on both sides. Many are glad it's in place, feeling that bullfighting has no part in Catalan culture.

But it has also affected those most closely associated with the sport - the matadors and bull breeders, whose lives depend entirely on the sport and who argue passionately for its survival. They're angry at the loss of their way of life.

"The bull is my life and they've taken it away; or at least my life in Barcelona. In terms of bullfighting, I'm dead, dead here in Barcelona," says bullfighter Serafin Marin. 

They dismiss claims by animal rights campaigners and argue that a handful of votes should not have decided the issue and ended six centuries of Spanish tradition. 

"You can't prove the animals are tortured ... None of these guys who want to be bullfighters, would harm a beetle ... There's no such thing as torture," says Luis Cantero, a bullfighting trainer.

Supporters also emphasise the part bullfighting plays in the Spanish economy. 

"Bullfighting is the second biggest spectacle in Spain after football. It generates wealth and many jobs. The tax on tickets sales alone generates 50 million euros. Bullfighting creates jobs too. It's one of the driving forces of the Spanish economy," argues bullfighter Fran Vazquez. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the campaigners who lobbied so long for the ban and who used the constitutional process to draft a new law banning the sport.

"The polls published by the media show that the majority of Catalan society was in favour of banning bullfighting. The Popular Legislative Initiative channelled all the forces within Catalan society. In fact, if I'm not wrong, we got more than 180,000 signatures when only 50,000 were needed," says Josep Puigdengolas, an animal rights campaigner.

Some also see a political dimension to the debate. Catalans can often see themselves as having a separate identity from the rest of Spain, as the October referendum shows. They see it as having been foisted on them by central government in Madrid. These feelings of resentment did not pass with the restoration of democracy in the late 1970s and still underlie the tension between Barcelona and the capital.

"It's not about animal rights but about politics," says Vazquez. "Catalonia has banned bullfighting because the province, or some Catalan politicians want to separate Catalonia from Spain. What could be more representative of Spain than bullfighting?"

But Carlos Lopez Perez, a member of Libera!, a Spanish non-profit animal rights organisation, disagrees. "Entertainment that abuses animals no longer fits the morals of the age. The Catalan parliament took into account what the people wanted and legislated independently. We consider this activity outdated. Regardless of whether it's Spanish or Catalan, society today finds it clearly abusive. Killing an animal is incompatible with modern and civilised Catalan society."

So, like the bull, the debate rages on - with some thinking the ban has as much to do with Spanish regional politics and Catalan autonomy as it does with animal rights.

Catalonia's Last Bullfight - Fran Vasquez (Bullfighter)

Source: Al Jazeera