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The curious draw of the killer bull

Ratón, whose fee has shot up since goring a second man to death, is the latest in a long line of animals to have courted controversy with their deadly antics

"I wish I had a bull like Ratón. His owner should charge three times what he does, and get more dough out of him," says Vicente Peris, a retired cattle breeder from El Puig, Valencia, who is convinced he is "the person who knows the most" about the popular Catalan and Valencian practice of bous al carrer (bulls on the street) in all of Spain. This veteran has been gored "in spades" throughout his life, and boasts of coming from a long line of breeders who have provided village festivals with bulls for the last 200 years.

The recent fatal goring of a 29-year-old man in Xátiva by Ratón, a 10-year-old, 500-kilogram bull whose name means "mouse," has reopened the long-running debate on the safety of these traditional street events. In this case, however, there was the added interest of Ratón's particularly bloody rap sheet - he'd already killed another man in Puerto de Sagunto in 2006.

"The bull owner has a product to sell and he takes advantage of the demand"

"I had a cow that wouldn't let anyone step out from behind the fence; she was real bad"

As a matter of fact, the day after the tragedy, Ratón's fee rose significantly, and owner Gregorio de Jesús was flooded with requests to bring his animal to other towns for the local fiestas. The authorities of Canals even boasted about having hired Ratón because "he is known wherever he goes for his bloodthirsty, clever nature." Days later, organizers pulled him from the program after receiving heavy criticism. Still later, it was decided that Ratón will not run after people, but be put on display "so people can see him," said Canals Mayor Ramón Cardona.

The town of Sueca has no such qualms. "I truly regret what happened in Xàtiva, but I don't think it's enough of a motive for Sueca to be deprived of seeing its most famous bull," said Mayor Salvador Campillo. The breeding ranch of Gregorio de Jesús, Ratón's owner, is located in this municipality.

The exploitation of the morbid curiosity created by Ratón comes as no surprise to people who have always been involved in bous al carrer. "The owner has a product to sell and he takes advantage of the demand," says Manuel Vicente, president of the federation of bous al carrer fan groups in the Valencian region. Over the years "there have been well-known bulls, but now with all the media the repercussion is much greater," he says.

One of the most famous animals was Marisol the cow, who lived in the 1970s. "We wanted to kill her, she was so mean as a calf," recalls Vicente Peris, her owner. "But we tipped her horns with wooden balls and she did really well; she wouldn't let anyone step out from behind the protection fences. She was real bad."

But his ranch's best animal ever, says Peris, was Generoso, who brought his grandfather great success. "People requested him a lot, but those were different times, they didn't pay back then what they pay now." The other difference, notes Peris, is that back in his grandfather's time, "two or three people were killed at the fiestas, but nobody found out."

Now, a bull like Ratón gets national and even international media coverage from outlets such as The San Francisco Examiner or Britain's The Guardian. British and US media presented Ratón as "the killer bull."

"Killer? The poor bull is the victim," says Yolanda Climent, of the Valencian Society for the Protection of Animals and Plants. "The only thing the animal is doing is defending himself, he's not out on the streets of his own free will." Climent is surprised that this type of event is on the rise throughout the Valencian region. "I expect it's a way to keep people entertained and not thinking about their problems."

Meanwhile, the owner Gregorio de Jesús is trying to stay away from the controversy. "I'm very dejected, I don't want to say anything," he told this newspaper. "I'm very affected by all this, especially by the man who died in Xàtiva, I'd rather not talk out of respect for his family." But De Jesús, who was a bullfighter in his day, will still take Ratón to his programmed events this season. He would not talk about the next season.