Too Young to Bullfight?

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Michelito the 10-year-old bullfighter

Kids sometimes get in trouble for breaking a window or an arm while playing a sport, but they rarely cause controversy for their choice of sport itself. Not so with Franco-Mexican boy Michel Lagravère Peniche, 10. Twice over the past weekend, officials in the south of France stopped Lagravère from taking part in his favorite pastime. Such a prohibition might be odd were the kid a soccer or rugby champ. But Lagravère's precocious gift is for bullfighting.

"The violence and torture central to bullfighting make it a truly shocking activity at any time, but its cruelty is even more horrible when it's being inflicted by a small child," argues Claire Starozinski, president of the Anti-Corrida Association (ACA), which seeks a full ban on bullfighting in France and was behind the moves to prevent Lagravère from performing this past weekend. "This boy has killed nearly 60 of these animals in Mexico — there's video of him, inflicting death, on the web. We decided to prevent him from fighting in France."

Strictly speaking, the bullfighting prodigy known as "Michelito" isn't in France to slay any bovine foe. The series of exhibitions he's scheduled to appear in are bloodless becerrada — confrontations with calves, staged by local bullfighting schools. Young Lagravère's participation is intended to provide aspiring matadors a demonstration of technique and skill that falls short of provoking the calves with physical pain — much less a death blow with a sword.

But the boy's renown has the ACA focusing its anti-bullfighting campaign on him as a means of drawing attention to their wider bid to end all bullfighting in France. Bullfighting is currently prohibited under a law that bans gratuitous cruelty to animals, yet it is allowed in certain areas of southern France where the practice is part of local culture and tradition. The ACA wants it stamped out everywhere and is about to embark on a series of protests ending with a big demonstration at the Nîmes festival on Sept. 13. "What fans of corrida don't understand is, the bloodshed and agony that draw them to the event is the same thing that repels the public once it's forced to look at it," says Starozinski, who cites polls that consistently show that a majority of French want the practice ended.

Bullfighting aficionados, though, are mobilizing to ensure that Lagravère and other student-toreadors can partake in the fighting demonstrations planned for them. The mayor of the southwestern town of Hegetmau vows to push ahead with a youth performance featuring Lagravère this Wednesday. Arles mayor Hervé Schiavetti, meanwhile, says he's rescheduling events cancelled at local schools over the weekend. He says bullfighting is too important to regional tradition to relinquish. "The raising and selling of bulls has played a large role in our economic, social and cultural past, and they still figure large in this seasonal festivity," explains Schiavetti, who says the ACA's move to scuttle shows by Lagravère are as widely resented as the push to ban bullfighting. "It's seen here by most people as an injustice and a mean-spirited effort to impose one kind of thinking on attitudes and events rooted in tradition." Kids, the pro-bullfighters say, are no more exposed to injury in events than children who play rugby.

Perhaps. But until professional rugby matches end with losing players dead and their ears and other appendages cut off as trophies, that comparison doesn't quite hold. And given Michelito's proven talents as a precocious slayer of bulls, his supporters' claims that he's just a little kid being denied the innocent pleasures of sport will probably be a fairly tough sell as well.