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Locking horns over the running of the bulls

By Brian Walker, CNN
A participant runs ahead of a Jandilla fighting bull name Capuchino on the fourth bull run of the San Fermin festival, on July 10, 2009, in Pamplona, northern Spain.
A participant runs ahead of a Jandilla fighting bull name Capuchino on the fourth bull run of the San Fermin festival, on July 10, 2009, in Pamplona, northern Spain.
  • 400-year-old tradition facing challenges on many fronts
  • Economic downturn means fewer spectators in the arenas
  • Animal-rights groups have held protests
  • Catalonia government is voting on a ban
  • Spain

(CNN) -- A 400-year-old tradition is facing some new challenges this year at this week's annual running of the bulls in Spain.

Celebrations for the San Fermin festival are already underway, but the first running of the bulls will be held Wednesday in the northern Spanish town of Pamplona.

The city is once again handing out 100,000 leaflets to local and foreign festival-goers explaining how to minimize the risk of accidents during the spectacle.

It's a warning and a reminder of the dangers and even death that can occur when hundreds of runners sprint alongside the half-ton bulls and steers. Last year saw the first fatal goring in more a decade.

For the sixth year now, Pamplona has sprayed the entire 825 meter route with a special anti-slipping chemical to help avoid injury to the bulls and the red-and-white clad runners.

The run in Pamplona started 400 years ago and became popular worldwide after author Ernest Hemingway wrote about it in the 1920s in his book "The Sun Also Rises," also published under the title "Fiesta."

The event is held July 7-14. Six bulls and a pack of tame steers run from the corrals, through Pamplona's old town, to the bullring -- where the bulls will die later in the day in a bullfight.

Including the recent death, 14 people have been killed in the runs since 1924, when record-keeping began.

But while the narrow cobblestone streets of Pamplona are expected to be as packed as ever, the tradition of bullfights, or "corridas" is under pressure elsewhere.

The economic downturn is certainly taking its toll. With nearly one in five Spaniards out of a job there are fewer spectators packing the rings.

And struggling towns are looking for ways to slash spending.

Some local governments are cutting the expensive spectacles to save money for basic services like schools and police salaries.

But there is also pressure brewing to change cultural attitudes about the tradition of bullfighting as well.

Just as most other years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other animal rights groups organized a rally Sunday featuring semi-nude protesters covered in red paint in Pamplona, but also have staged protests outside Spanish embassies around the world.

The tactics may be gaining some traction. A 2006 Gallup poll showed more than 70 percent of those surveyed said they have "no interest" in bullfighting, while 82 percent of those aged 15 to 24 held that same view.

And now the tradition has begun facing legal and political challenges.

The government in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia plans to hold a vote on banning the practice, potentially making it the second region in Spain to outlaw bullfighting after the Canary Islands in the Atlantic did so in 1991.

While Pamplona embraces tradition, one thing you won't be seeing -- or hearing -- this year... the incessant buzz of the "vuvuzela!"

The government there has banned the sale of the plastic horns along the bull-run route, saying they would be dangerous and distracting to the animals.