PETA founder held in India over bullfight protest

CHENNAI, India Fri Jan 18, 2008 7:49am EST

Villagers try to hold down a bull during a bull-taming festival on the outskirts of Madurai town, about 311 miles from the southern Indian city of Chennai, January 17, 2008. REUTERS/Babu

Villagers try to hold down a bull during a bull-taming festival on the outskirts of Madurai town, about 311 miles from the southern Indian city of Chennai, January 17, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Babu

CHENNAI, India (Reuters) - Police arrested the head of the animal rights group PETA for a breach of public peace and insulting religious feelings while protesting against a bullfighting festival in south India, officials said on Friday.

Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, was held on Thursday after she blindfolded a statue of Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi to protest against cruelty towards bulls in the ancient sport of "jallikattu".

Organized as part of the January harvest festival of "pongal", jallikattu is India's version of the running of the bulls which takes place every year in the Spanish city of Pamplona.

Fighters and muscular wild bulls -- often pepped up with large amounts of homemade liquor -- dash after each other in the streets of the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Unlike the Spanish version of the sport, the aim is not to kill the bulls but to dominate and tame them, and pluck away bundles of money or other treats tied to their specially sharpened horns.

Police said Newkirk was held on charges of breaching public peace, hurting religious sentiments and damaging statues after she entered a park in Coimbatore town and put a cloth around the eyes of Gandhi's statue.

She then hung a placard saying: "Reject cruel sport jallikattu". She was released on bail.

Newkirk told Reuters she did not mean any disrespect to Gandhi but blindfolded his statue to symbolically shield him from the cruelty of the sport.

"In the name of taming of the bull, 10, 20, 50 people torment the animal and thousands cheer," she said. "You can see fear and confusion in the eyes of the animal as it tries to flee."

India's animal welfare board has also criticized the festival saying men beat the animals and throw burning chilli powder in their eyes, ears and mouth to enrage them.

India's Supreme Court banned jallikattu last year, saying it was cruel and not in keeping with what it described as the country's non-violent traditions.

But that ban was watered down this month, and the court said the popular sport could be held under strict government vigil.

Fighters and spectators have been gored or trampled to death, and the number of injured fighters has often run into the hundreds. The festival has been marketed as a tourist attraction in recent years.

(Writing by Krittivas Mukherjee; editing by Simon Denyer and Sanjeev Miglani)