Bullfighting charges into US - tamely

Mike McWhorter inhales sharply as the bull, snorting and slobbering, brushes against the leg of the gilded matador in the ring below.

"Man, that was a close call," says Mr. McWhorter, who is transfixed by what he considers a ballet between man and beast. "See how their feet become intertwined. That just gives me the chills."

McWhorter is a regular at the new bullring, which opened on this dusty, cactus-choked ranch land in south Texas last month. He has grown up watching bullfights across the border in Mexico, but now he doesn't have to travel out of the country for an afternoon of entertainment.

The Santa Maria Bull Ring in La Gloria is one of the first of its kind in the US and, because of its location, it's starting to gain international attention. But unlike the fights in Mexico, these are bloodless and, under US law, must not harm the animal.

Some see this venture as a quirky tourist attraction, others see it as setting a dangerous precedent. Fred Renk simply sees it as a place to exhibit a centuries-old art form.

This son of a Portuguese immigrant built the ring with $100,000 from his own pocket out of a passion for the pageantry of a bullfight.

He began learning the sport after seeing his first fight in 1952. And when his young son, David, saw him gored in a Mexican bullring, his son was captivated as well. Today, David Renk is only the seventh American to become a full matador, and the first to fight in the Plaza Mexico in Mexico City.

He is the matador that McWhorter is watching - in a whirl of colorful capes and shiny swords - spar with the bull. When the kill is simulated by a touch on the back of the neck, the fight is over and the bull is allowed to leave the ring.

An elated judge presents David Renk with the highest honor a bullfighter can receive: two ears and a tail - the first such prize to be awarded in this ring.

Because the bull has not been killed, a petrified pair of ears is offered to David (minus the tail, which has yet to be located). He struts around the ring holding aloft the two crusty ears as spectators yell: "bravo" and "olé!"

The opening weekend, the stands surrounding the bullring were packed to capacity at 1,000, with some 300 people turned away. Today, though, the crowd is thin and feisty.

They laugh when the bull simply stands in front of the matador, looking indifferent about his situation. They shout, "Pull his tail," when the bull falls down during a pass through the cape and refuses to get up.

But all joking aside, a bloodless bullfight can be more difficult for a matador. Indeed, the few who have fought at the Santa Maria ring say it's much more unpredictable and tiring when the bull is not slowly incapacitated.

This is not the first bloodless ring in the country; there are two in northern California. But those rings, run by the large Portuguese community, are well-kept secrets, advertised only by word of mouth.

Fred Renk has no qualms about widely promoting his ring and plans to expand the facility to hold an even greater number of spectators.

So far, the ring has been attracting a mix of winter visitors: Those who have never seen a bullfight before, and Hispanics who have been raised on the sport but are finding it hard to cross the border since Sept. 11.

Sitting on the metal bleachers, Linda Howerton peers into the bullring and squirms in her seat. "I'm not sure if I'm ready for this," says this retiree from Davenport, Iowa, who spends her winters in Weslaco, Texas. "I'm just glad there won't be any blood."

The only member of her group that has seen a bullfight is Gary Dunn. Well, actually, he hasn't seen a complete fight; he was kicked out of a ring in Barcelona while in the Navy in 1958.

"I was routing for the bull," he says impishly. "You don't do that."

For many here, the experience is altogether new. For others, it's like an old friend.

Vicente Chávez was born in northern Mexico and, though now living in Roma, Texas, has often crossed back to catch a bullfight.

"He really identifies with it. It's part of his culture," says his wife, Eva. "But these bloodless bullfights are not like the real thing. They are not as lavish, but they are still beautiful," she says.

Not everyone is impressed with the new bullring.

"I liken these bloodless bullfights, whether in Texas or in California, to a dogfight where the dogs have muzzles," says Steve Hindi, president/founder of Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, based in Geneva, Ill. "It is not a fair fight."

Mr. Hindi says the animals are mistreated before entering the ring and, even though not killed by a matador during the fight, will be killed shortly thereafter because they have wised up and cannot be fought again.

But Fred Renk says his bulls will not die, but rather spend the rest of their days cavorting with rodeo clowns. While his first group of animals was raised in the US and tended to be small and weak, the next group will come from Mexico. They are currently in the 60-day quarantine process.

For McWhorter, that process can't happen soon enough. He has already signed up to take matador lessons at the Santa Maria Bull Ring this summer.

"I've been watching bullfights all my life. Now I'm going to realize my dream of becoming a bullfighter," he says wistfully as one of the matadors runs behind a barrier while the bull charges around the ring. "Man, that's beautiful."

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