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Could a grim summer for lions, bunnies, and bulls boost animal rights?

Debate over the morality of bullfighting is heating up in Spain again, in a summer that has already seen furor over Cecil the Lion's killing in Zimbabwe and the bludgeoning of a bunny on the radio in Denmark.

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    Animal rights protesters shout at people entering the El Bibio bullring in Gijon, northern Spain, last weekend.
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A bludgeoned bunny, a lion that’s become a household name, nearly a dozen Spanish bulls that have torn into those who've taunted them: This is the summer that animals have set the news agenda.

And while their fates are driven by vastly different norms and mores – and the debates around each remain highly controversial – these animal protagonists have likely done more in three months for animal rights awareness campaigns than three decades of activists dumping red paint on women in fur.

Amid a near-record number of deaths by goring by Spanish bull this summer, the daily El Diario waded into a debate that has for decades generated caustic accusations of foreign meddling and misunderstanding: “The beginning of the end of bullfighting?” its headline asked.

The summer kicked off with Allan, the bunny, who was killed on air, and later eaten, by a radio host in Denmark in the name of better treatment of animals. It was not exactly the compassion expected of an animal rights defender, and its shock value threatened to undermine the message and actions of most animal rights groups. But the radio station, Radio 24syv, defended the move precisely as a way to broadcast Danish “hypocrisy when it comes to animal welfare,” its editor said.

It worked. Thousands took to social media, on Twitter with the hashtag #Allangate, either calling for the radio host’s dismissal and even prosecution, or defending the larger message he said he was trying to make: why is it OK to kill a chicken raised and killed in inhumane conditions but not a bunny?

It was then Cecil’s turn. The lion, who was killed by an American dentist on a hunting trip to Zimbabwe, has dominated headlines through the dog days of summer. One New York Times reporter audited the amount of news generated since the animal’s fate was first reported in mid-July. As of Aug. 16, “Cecil the Lion” was churning out 3.2 million Google News results, and mention of the lion was tweeted more than 3 million times.

The Times article, really a condemnation of disposable online news, also serves a larger purpose, argued the news site Vox this week.  

Cecil's death was not, in the scheme of things, a particularly important news story. But it generated an intense, unusual interest in stories about how human beings treat animals that could be used to focus attention on important stories that weren't news that day — stories about animal cruelty, and wildlife conservation, and the ethics of mob justice.

Perhaps the most concrete changes on the animal rights front are about to happen in Spain, though, spurred by a summer in which at least nine people died after being gored or trampled in summer festivals across the country. Four were killed this past weekend alone. That makes 2015 a particularly bloody year in a deadly custom that’s killed nearly 70 people in the past 15 years, according to El Pais – as well as 7,200 bulls in 2014 alone, according to El Diario.

The ancient Spanish custom was popularized abroad in the 20th century by Ernest Hemingway. It has since drawn and fascinated foreigners, especially Pamplona’s famed “running of the bulls” each summer. As the recent deaths have put the sport on the defensive, Spaniards have appealed to history and tradition in its defense.

The sport isn't going away any time soon. Corridas, as they are known, are held in hundreds of small towns across Spain, and El Diario's full headline includes parentheses: "The beginning of the end of bullfighting (in some places in Spain?)” 

Spain has faced growing calls to ban bullfighting. Catalonia was the second region to ban it when it did so five years ago, after the Canary Islands, and with many left-wing mayors now in office, such prohibitions are growing. Amid the accidents this summer, a dozen cities are now say they are planning on holding referendums on the matter, according to El Pais.

Beyond that, summer festivals – and thus the risk of more violence – in Spain aren’t over. And British comedian Ricky Gervais, who weighed in on the Danish bunny incident – "I just battered a Danish DJ to death with a bicycle pump to show how terrible murder is," he tweeted, has now uploaded a video on Facebook on bullfighting.

“I mean the truth is I do prefer the bull to win. I’d rather you didn’t fight a bull, but if you do – if you choose to torture an animal to death for fun – I hope it defends itself and self defense is no offense.”

Agree or disagree, the message is spreading over social media. Twenty-five thousand people have “liked it” and counting.

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