THORNTON -- It was supposed to be a "bloodless bullfight," a dangerous dance between a pirouetting matador and an enraged bull that would not end in death.
But this time-honored Portuguese tradition capping a religious festival was anything but bloodless.
As the matador raised a short, festooned spear to stick to the bull's neck, an animal welfare investigator charged into the ring, suspecting that the banderilla's Velcro tip concealed an illegal steel barb that would pierce the animal's hide.
Spectators chased the intruder and a bloody melee ensued, sending a San Joaquin County sheriff's deputy to the hospital and two men to jail.
Portuguese feel disrespect
The episode in May reignited a battle that has endured for several decades between bullfight aficionados and animal welfare advocates who contend the ritual is animal cruelty masquerading as religious theater.
"The Portuguese people wonder why these animal rights activists can come in and disrupt a legal event without any consequences whatsoever," Frank Sousa, director of the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. "They feel their culture is disrespected. How is it any different from a rodeo?"
When California lawmakers banned to-the-death bullfights in 1957, they created an exemption for Portuguese-style bloodless fights if they are part of religious celebrations, the only exemption in the United States.
Since then, 20 times every summer across the Central Valley, gaily attired matadors on horseback run bulls to exhaustion and taunt them with red capes. In the fight finale, teams of men known as "suicide squads" stop the charging bull in its tracks, then grab the tail and ski around the arena.
Animal welfare advocates say there is nothing religious about a bullfight and are lobbying for laws to require veterinarians on the scene.
"When it gets to the point where they create these bullfights, pretend they're religious, then torture and slaughter the bulls, I have a big problem," said attorney David Casselman of the nonprofit Animal Cruelty Investigators, whose agents are monitoring the fights.
The Portuguese community is girding for a public relations fight over a custom falling out of favor.
"We need to defend our traditions," said Jose Avila, publisher of the Portuguese Tribune, one of the largest Portuguese-language weekly newspapers in the nation. "I understand that some people do not like bullfighting, the way I do not like boxing, but we accept the difference, right?"
Avila said the bulls are treated well and raised "like kings" to prepare for their single trip into the arena.
Animals are butchered
After the fight, they become ring savvy and are butchered for food.
Whether the bullfights are a religious exercise has been debated since 1981, when then-Attorney General George Deukmejian said the fights would have to be an integral part of a Mass, which must take place on consecrated ground to comply with the law.
"It's just crazy what's going on at these places," said Andrew Stewart, the ACI's animal welfare investigator who stopped the fight in May.
He had received a complaint that the bloodless bullfights by professional matadors from Spain, Portugal and Mexico were anything but. A week before the Thornton fight, he found 30 barbed banderillas at a bullfight in Los Angeles County, where authorities are investigating possible misdemeanor violations of animal cruelty laws.
Allegations of animal cruelty could not be substantiated in Thornton because someone took the banderillas before authorities could inspect them, said San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelblau.
"At this point, we're just saying it's a bad scene. We're done with it," he said.
The Humane Society of the United States says it has had trouble finding a district attorney willing to prosecute.
"We were told by one DA in one case that there was no way he could go up against a priest," said Eric Sakach, the group's senior law enforcement specialist.