- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

LA GLORIA, Texas — Like most men, they are possessive and unyielding. Unlike most men, they can be fooled for only 20 minutes. That is why their dates always have a predetermined time frame — and a dramatic climax.

“A lot of people don’t realize it, but these bulls are really out to kill you,” Kate Leffler says.

Mrs. Leffler is the only active female bullfighter in the United States, and despite her blond ponytail, she has earned respect in the macho world of Latin American and Spanish matadors.

The San Mateo purebred bulls bide their time at the La Querencia ranch, gloomy and furious at the sight of a stranger.

Fred Renk, owner of the ranch, where he has built a bullring and a bullfighting school in this tiny South Texas town, says a bull’s instinct is to go after everything that moves within the territory it considers its own. That is why the key to a matador’s survival is to wave a cape in front of the raging animal while keeping his body perfectly still.

The problem, Mr. Renk said, is that bulls usually begin to figure out the trick after about 20 minutes.

That’s when the bull, cheered on by the crowd, forgets the cape and charges the matador. More than 1,000 pounds of muscle, bone and fury combine in one final thrust toward a victory.

The matador must confront the animal from the front and, ideally, end the duel with one graceful plunge of the sword.

How did the fortysomething Mrs. Leffler end up in this testosterone-filled world of medieval ritual and gore? She says it can be summed up in one word: karma.

She recalls a family vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, more than seven years ago when she saw her first professional bullfight.

“It had bravery, elegance, dignity and passion — all at once,” she said.

Her life has not been the same since. She averages six hours of training every day. She has taken lessons at Mr. Renk’s school, practicing together with his son, David Renk, the seventh American in history to go to Mexico and earn the rank of full matador.

Mrs. Leffler’s first bullfight was in Madera, Calif., in 1998. It was a so-called “bloodless” fight, in which the bull is not killed. Many bullfighters say this style of fighting, albeit legal and politically correct, makes little sense and is infinitely more dangerous to humans because the animal learns from its experience in the ring.

“It’s a cardinal rule in bullfighting,” Mr. Renk said. “A bull fights only once. If you let him into the ring a second time, he will ignore the cape and will immediately go after the matador. And believe me, it ain’t gonna be pretty.”

In Mrs. Leffler’s “bloodless” experience, a “previously used” cow lifted her with its horns 20 feet into the air but failed to tear her flesh.

Mrs. Leffler’s first “bloody” fight was in July 2002 in Cadereyta, a small community in northern Mexico. She said it still haunts her because she had no experience of putting to death anything except a cockroach.

Still, the judge awarded her one of the fallen bull’s ears, calling her “a very brave woman.”

Judges can reward toreros, a Spanish word for bullfighters, by giving them one or two ears, or both ears and the tail.

Mrs. Leffler’s next fight was a few months later in Reynosa, Mexico. It went better, but was more dramatic because the bull turned out to be bigger and meaner.

“I remember David Renk shouting to me from the stands, ‘Kate, if you don’t kill him right away, he’ll kill you,’” she said, breathing a deep sigh as if reliving the fight.

In the end, the wounded bull knocked her off her feet and came crushing down on top of her, breaking her collarbone and soaking her with its blood.

“Would you imagine what it took to persuade the dry cleaners in San Francisco to take my fighting suit?” she said with a laugh.

In her other life, she was what the conventional San Francisco society would describe as a balanced, well-rounded person with a husband, a child and a good job as a restorer of Victorian houses.

Why trade it all for the hot breath of a half-ton killer beast on your face?

Mrs. Leffler calls it “art” — the art of confronting mortal danger with elegance, dignity and skill, and then turning the tide with one decisive move.

It’s about being able, she says, to dance with death — and slip away from its embrace at the last moment.

And yes, it’s about bravery and character.

“Life is a bull, the world is a bullring and we are all bullfighters,” says Rosita Morales, a 74-year-old native of El Paso, Texas, who dazzled many a bullring in Mexico in the 1950s and is now one of Mrs. Leffler’s mentors.

And fight they must — cuts or bruises and even smashed ribs notwithstanding.

Under a bullfighter’s code of honor, if a torero is still standing, he or she must keep performing, Mrs. Leffler says.

She says bulls have taught her a lot about confronting death and appreciating life’s simple pleasures.

Overall, it’s a cathartic experience, Mrs. Leffler says. “It’s like having a perfect day multiplied by 100.”

Her dedication to “the art” has taken its toll. Her marriage has long since collapsed. She sees less of her son, although he is an adult now. To make time for travel, she takes fewer home restoration contracts.

She owns few things except her truck, her cat, a Scientology book of wisdom and her capes. And yes, her most prized possession — the bull’s ear.

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