Image: A worker puts up a poster by Balearic artist Barcelo, painted for his bullfighter friend Tomas to mark the last bullfight in Catalonia, in Barcelona
Gustau Nacarino  /  Reuters
A worker puts up a poster by Balearic artist Miquel Barcelo, painted for his bullfighter friend Jose Tomas to mark the last bullfight in Catalonia, in Barcelona September 22, 2011.
updated 9/25/2011 7:08:06 PM ET 2011-09-25T23:08:06

Matadors drove the killing sword into bulls for the last time Sunday in Spain's powerful northeastern region of Catalonia in an emotive farewell fight before a polemical regional ban on the country's emblematic tradition takes effect.

Three of Spain's top bullfighters, including No. 1 Jose Tomas, starred in the sold-out show at Barcelona's 20,000-seat Monumental ring. Catalan bullfighter Serafin Marin closed the fight killing the last of six bulls to great applause.

Many fans then invaded the ring to grab handfuls of sand to keep as souvenirs. The fight was preceded by moments of tension as pro- and anti-bullfighting activists exchanged insults outside the city's arena.

Video: Dozens injured in amateur bullfights (on this page)

Catalonia's Parliament banned bullfighting in July 2010 following a signature-collection campaign by animal rights activists. The ban does not take effect until Jan. 1, but Sunday's fight was the last scheduled this season.

Critics say the prohibition is less about animal welfare and more a snub to Spain by independence-minded Catalans.

Bullfighting's popularity in Catalonia has plunged in recent decades and the Monumental was its last functioning ring, although the city once boasted three.

Hours before the fight, a small group of anti-bullfight activists gathered outside the arena, celebrating with sparkling wine.

"Obviously a lot of political parties have tried to politicize this, but we mustn't forget that this popular proposal sprouted from a pure pro-animal rights standpoint aimed at eradicating animal cruelty," campaigner Soraya Gaston said.

Others hoped the prohibition might only be temporary.

"It looks like this may be the last day (of bullfights in Catalonia). But the last word hasn't been said yet," fan Eduardo Edurna said. "I think we will have bullfighting back in Catalonia."

The prohibition caused a furor and triggered a nationwide debate over the centuries-old spectacle that inspired such artists and writers as Goya, Picasso and Hemingway.

"Banning bullfighting in Catalonia is nothing more than an attack on liberty," said Carlos Nunez, president of Spain's Mesa del Toro pro-bullfighting umbrella group. "It's the fruit of policies in Catalonia against bullfighting and all that is seen to represent Spain."

Although mostly symbolic — the Monumental staged only some 15 fights a year — the prohibition sent bullfighting supporters frantically looking for ways to overturn the decision or at least make sure it doesn't spread to other regions.

Spain's leading conservative opposition Popular Party — tipped to win general elections in November — has appealed the ban before the Constitutional Court, while its Catalan branch is battling for a delay in the implementation of the ban.

Meanwhile, the Mesa del Toro is seeking 500,000 signatures in the hope it can persuade the Madrid national parliament to grant bullfighting cultural heritage status.

Animal rights activists, meanwhile, are triumphant.

Slideshow: Pamplona's running of the bulls (on this page)

"It's like a crack has developed in the armor plating (of bullfighting). It's a small crack but the protective shield might crumble altogether," said Leonardo Anselmi, a key promoter of the Catalan prohibition.

Catalonia is the second of Spain's 17 regions to ban bullfighting. The Canary Islands outlawed the practice in 1991 although it had never been a popular tradition there.

For the moment, however, there are no signs any other Spanish region will follow suit.

The practice was once immensely popular in Barcelona and other Catalan towns but its decline began with the end of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in 1978 and the subsequent rise in Catalan nationalism and a rejection of things deemed Spanish.

But critics say the hypocrisy of banning bullfighting in the name of animal rights was shown up when months after the ban, Catalonia passed other legislation protecting the "correbous," a typical Catalan town festival event in which flaming balls of wax or fireworks are attached to the horns of bulls which are then taunted and teased by rowdy crowds in bullrings or town squares.

Spain's ancient fascination with bulls, and with using the animals as a test of bravery, is still very much a part of the national identity. Bullfights and related events, such as the annual San Fermin Pamplona bull-runs, make up a multimillion-dollar industry and draw many tourists.

But modern times and the economic crisis have nevertheless hit the tradition hard and surveys consistently show most Spaniards have no interest in bullfighting.

In an article headlined "The Fiesta is Ending," leading newspaper El Pais highlighted that changing tastes and economic difficulties, particularly in small towns, have led to a 34 percent drop in the number of bull-related festival events from 2,622 to 1,724 between 2007 and 2010.

In January, Spain's leading broadcaster said it would no longer show live bullfights in order to protect children from viewing violence.

___

Ciaran Giles contributed to this report from Madrid.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Dozens injured in amateur bullfights

Photos: San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain

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  1. People raise scarves and candles as they sing the 'Pobre de Mi' song, marking the end of the San Fermin festival on July 14 in Pamplona, Spain. Pamplona's famous Fiesta de San Fermin involves fighting bulls running through the historic heart of Pamplona. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Giants dance during a farewell ceremony on the last day of San Fermin festival's 'Parade of the Giants and the Big Heads' in Pamplona, on July 14. Enormous puppets accompanied by brass bands parade daily through the city during the nine-day-long festival made popular by U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A steer runs over fallen runners on Estafeta street during the last running of the bulls at the San Fermin festival on July 14. There were no serious injuries during the run that lasted two minutes and 20 seconds, according to local news sources. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Churreria Munueta starts making 'churros' in the early hours before the San Fermin running of the bulls on July 14. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boy in a stroller looks at toy bulls before the start of the San Fermin festival's bull run for children on July 13. Six toy bulls driven by runners take part in the children's bull run, which imitates the morning running of the bulls for adults, but for a much shorter distance and with no real animals. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A young bull jumps over several runners or 'mozos' at the bullring shortly after finishing the seventh bullrun of the San Fermines festival on July 13. (Villar Lopez / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A couple embrace in the doorway of a house on Estafeta street before the running of the bulls at the San Fermin fiestas on July 13. Seven people have been injured but none gored in a swift and particularly dangerous second-to-last chapter of this year's running of the bulls in Pamplona. The diciest part of the daredevil sprint came in the home stretch on July 13, as the largest bull ran alone ahead of the pack of five others and six steers and barreled through the crowd like a locomotive. (Daniel Ochoa De Olza / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Participants run with Victoriano del Rio fighting bulls during the sixth San Fermin Festival bull run, on July 12. (Javier Soriano / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Revelers are showered with sparks from the 'Fire Bull,' a man carrying a metal structure loaded with fireworks on the fifth day of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona on July 11. (Eloy Alonso / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Spanish bullfighter Juan Jose Padilla faces his second bull during the sixth bullfight of the Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain, July 10. (Jesus Diges / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Miura fighting bull attempts to leap over the barrier during the fourth bullfight of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona July 10. (Eloy Alonso / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A reveler sleeps before the running of the bulls at the San Fermin fiestas, in Pamplona, July 10. (Ivan Aguinaga / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Revelers run as Miura's ranch fighting bulls follow, on Estafeta street during the running of the bulls in Pamplona, July 10. (Ivan Aguinaga / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Men prepare to take part in San Fermin festival's "Comparsa de gigantes y cabezudos" (Parade of the giants and the big heads) in Pamplona, July 9. Enormous puppets accompanied by brass bands parade daily through the city during the nine-day-long festival. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Revellers run from the "Fire Bull", a man carrying a metal structure loaded with fireworks on the fourth day of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, July 9. (Vincent West / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Spanish bullfighter David Mora, center, waits to make "the paseillo" or ritual entrance to the arena before a bullfight in Pamplona, July 8. (Daniel Ochoa De Olza / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Spanish bullfighter Jesus Martinez "Morenito de Aranda" performs a pass during the second bullfight of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, July 8. (Vincent West / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Spanish bullfighter David Mora is gored by the second bull during the fourth bullfight of the Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona, July 8. (Jesus Diges / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A "recortador" performs with a fighting bull during an exhibition of acrobatic skills at the bullring on the fourth day of the annual San Fermin festival in Pamplona, July 9. (Stringer/spain / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A runner is trampled by a wild cow at the bullring following the second running of the bulls of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain, on Friday, July 8. Perhaps best glorified by Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises," the festival is known around the world for the daily running of the bulls. (Eloy Alonso / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A runner hangs from a wooden door as a Cebada Gago fighting bull passes during the second running of the bulls of the San Fermin festival on July 8. Six people were treated in hospital and a 24-year-old Australian man was gored in the leg in a run that lasted three minutes and ten seconds, according to local news sources. (Joseba Etxaburu / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A fighting bull takes the curve during the San Fermin festival on July 8. People come from all over the world to test their bravery in the daily bull runs and enjoy the festival's nonstop street parties which last until July 14. (Denis Doyle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Revelers run next to Cebada Gago ranch fighting bulls on July 8. (Daniel Ochoa De Olza / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A photographer waits with his camera inside a shop decorated with a painting of Saint Fermin on the Estafeta Corner before the second running of the bulls on July 8. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A calf jumps into the arena after the running of the bulls on July 7. Revelers gather in the bullring following the running of the bulls and bull calves with their horns covered are released from enclosures into the bullring. Thrill-seekers crouch down at the gate of the enclosure and the released calf leaps over them. (Ivan Aguinaga / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. An image of Saint Fermin is carried through the streets of Pamplona on July 7. (Ivan Aguinaga / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Mexican matador Arturo Saldivar is trampled by a Torrestrella bull during a bullfight held as part of the San Fermin festival on July 7. (Ander Gillenea / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Revelers are surprised by an angry leading ox, used to drive the fighting bulls during the running of the bulls on July 7. (Daniel Ochoa De Olza / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A man falls next to a steer during the first bull run on July 7. (Eloy Alonso / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Several 'mozos' or runners are chased by bulls from Torrestrella ranch during the first bull run on July 7. Four people were lightly injured. (Jesus Diges / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A runner is turned round by a young bull at the bullring after finishing the run on July 7. (Jesus Caso / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Revelers take cover before a fighting cow leaps over them at Pamplona's bullring after the first bull run on July 7. (Joseba Etxaburu / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A man is tossed during the 'Chupinazo' to mark the start, at noon sharp, of the San Fermin Festival on July 6 in front of the Town Hall of Pamplona. Tens of thousands of people packed Pamplona's streets for a drunken kick-off to Spain's best-known fiesta: the nine-day San Fermin bull-running festival. (Pedro Armestre / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Reveler kisses the traditional red neckerchief as ten of thousands people kicked off the San Fermin Fiesta in Pamplona on July 6. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Water is thrown from a balcony onto revelers during the 'Chupinazo', the official opening of the San Fermin fiesta in Pamplona, July 6. The festival, held since 1591, attracts tens of thousands of foreign visitors each year for nine days of revelry, morning bull-runs and afternoon bullfights. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Thousands filled the main square in Pamplona July 6 for the festival's official start. (Vincent West / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Revelers pack the 'Plaza Ayuntamiento,' Pamplona's city hall square, for the start of the San Fermin Festival. (Jesus Diges / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. A festival goer jumps from a fountain to be caught by the crowd during the opening of San Fermin festival on July 6. (Denis Doyle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Revelers drink wine while celebrating the 'Chupinazo' in Pamplona, July 6. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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