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VITEZ Bosnia (Reuters) - Renata Pranjkovic, known across Bosnia as the "Bullfight Queen", is one of the few women but best-known personalities in the world of the Balkan bullfight.
The 36-year-old Pranjkovic is a breeder and referee for the bull-against-bull fights, a tradition in Bosnia stretching back for more than 200 years.
Along with her husband Pero, she also trains bulls at their ranch in central Bosnia.
"It's all about love," says Pranjkovic, proudly displaying four champion bulls which the couple trains in the central Bosnian town of Vitez.
"I think our bulls know how much we love and care about them, and they award us with victories," she said proceeding to feed one of the bulls an apple from her own mouth.
Pranjkovic has become one of the main attractions at Bosnia's bullfights, leading the bulls into a pitch dressed in colorful skirts and knee-high boots. This year her bulls won 19 of 20 fights, she said.
Bullfights have long taken place in Bosnia but they differ from Spain's bloody corrida de toros as they do not directly involve humans nor are the bulls killed at the end. In an improvised ring, and sometimes in an open field, the bulls lock horns, push and joust until one turns and leaves.
Nobody knows their origin but similar fights have been organized in Turkey, which had ruled Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans for centuries during the Ottoman period. Such non-lethal fights can be also found in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, as well as in Okinawa, Japan.
Bullfights in Bosnia had been more bloody before new rules were adopted several years ago to blunt the complaints of animal rights activists, forbidding owners to sharpen horns or goad their beasts to fight more aggressively.
Officials now check horns before the fights and veterinarians are on hand to examine the bulls for injuries afterwards. Pranjkovic said her bulls had "more medical documentation than some people".
Her husband Pero added: "They can try to ban bullfights but they will never succeed. It's in bulls' genes to clash heads; they do it on the pastures without human involvement."
Bullfights are almost a weekly event in Bosnia during the summer months, and are organized along with traditional fairs, gathering thousands of visitors.
Bulls often take the names of celebrities, such as footballers Ronaldo and Messi, or political leaders Mussolini, Putin and even Tito, who led socialist Yugoslavia for almost four decades after World War Two.
Pranjkovic is a typical child of Yugoslavia, which fell apart in war in the 1990s with some 100,000 people killed in multi-ethnic Bosnia.
Born in northeastern Serbia to a Croatian mother and Hungarian father, she moved to Bosnia in 2000 in search of work, and married a Bosnian Croat from Vitez, drawn together by a shared passion for bullfighting that cuts across still pronounced ethnic boundaries.
"It's such an adrenaline rush. I can't eat or drink on Sundays from the fear, just waiting to see how the battle will end," said Pranjkovic, who also breeds goats, horses and dogs.
Pero said they were once offered 15,000 euros ($19,000) for their prize bull but they refused to part with the champion.
Big fights can bring in several thousand euros in prize money, generated by ticket sales, betting, sponsorship and funds from Bosnia's 22,000-strong association of bull breeders.
"Women here are ashamed to show up in the arena out of fear they'll be criticized," she said. "But more women are getting out there each time, though it's not easy when you stand next to a bull weighting 1.3 tonnes."
On a sunny September afternoon, their bull Medonja won his fight, one of a dozen organized before hundreds of paying spectators from across the region gathered in a remote forest clearing.
Lamb roasted on spits and boys and old men sold beer and peanuts.
"I inherited the love for this sport from my father, grandfather and great-grandfather," said Kemal Kajtaz, a Muslim Bosniak from the nearby village of Kacuni. He threw himself into the mud to celebrate victory for his bull, Cvijan.
"This is the only sport where it does not matter what nationality one is, the sport that unites and not divides the people," Kajtaz said. "Winning is not the most important thing; people come to drink, sing, socialize, and that's all."
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Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Angus MacSwan