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It's a Bird, It's a Plane, No, It's ... Super Animal?

A former wrestler, complete with tights and cape, now tries to pin those who mistreat animals

HIS gold lame cape flapping behind, a huge masked man in black tights strides purposefully through the corridors of the Mexico City Assembly of Representatives.

Security guards step aside. Secretaries and politicians stop to stare and whisper "Mira!" (Look!). The press room empties. A small crowd gathers at the drab office of Institutional Revolutionary Party representative Demetrio Sodi de la Tijera.

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The champion of animal rights in Mexico, Super Animal, hands Mr. Sodi a letter seeking his support in a campaign to publicize the plight of abandoned dogs. "They're killing 6,000 a month here in Mexico City alone," the canine defender says.

Sodi's bemused smile disappears. He promises to raise the issue with health officials and support a publicity campaign.

But Super Animal's second demand - to halt the weekly bullfights here - is met with far less enthusiasm. "You've got to stop the public massacre," says the towering figure. What Super Animal doesn't know is that Sodi is an aficionado of la corrida de toros. In fact, he's a bullfight official.

Sodi tactfully accepts the petition, leaving his humongous guest to speak with the press.

"He's got all the right in the world to try to protect animals. But bullfighting is part of Mexican folklore," Sodi says later. "People go to bullfights to participate in a historic Mexican and Spanish fiesta. He's bucking centuries of tradition...."

In the tradition of superheroes everywhere, Super Animal is undaunted by the odds. He joined the ranks of Mexican animal rights activists to put a hammerlock on the "forces of evil."

Back in his modest headquarters, sitting incongruously behind a desk, Super Animal spins his tale in comic-book terms. "I was `born' on Feb. 14, 1993, the day of love and friendship. I'm responding to an urgent call from the animals to protect them, to intervene in their defense."

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While he talks, Patricia, a once-abandoned cat who lives in the menagerie here, rubs her head against his huge hands.

Before being "born again" into this role, Super Animal was a professional wrestler. Indeed, his black-and-gold outfit is typical of Mexican lucha libre wrestlers, some of whom achieve cult status among the Mexican lower class. And like most of his masked colleagues in the ring, his identity is a closely guarded secret.

BUT it's clear Super Animal didn't just decide overnight that defending the animal kingdom was a good gimmick and don a new mask. Built like a prize bull, Super Animal is a 6-foot, 1-inch, 250-pound lacto-vegetarian. "I stopped eating meat and wearing leather in 1986 after visiting a slaughterhouse," he says.

Nor is Super Animal operating alone. He's the point man for the National Animal Liberation Front (FNLA) formed in November 1992. Most of the 70 members once belonged to other animal protection groups. FNLA President Gerardo Palomero says the organization was born out of frustration over the "cowardice" of other groups.

For example, Mr. Palomero claims that one Mexican group campaigning against cruelty in slaughterhouses also has a business selling the captive-bolt pistols and ammunition that knock the cattle unconscious before the slaughter. Palomero says he has run into opposition from this group in the past when he sought to shut down or fine slaughterhouse owners who don't use the guns or use them improperly. "They don't want us upsetting their clients - the slaughterhouse owners," he says. (The National Association

for the Enforcement of Animal Protection Laws could not be reached for comment.)

Funding for the FNLA activities comes out of the members' own pockets. Super Animal pays his bills, he says, out of income from unnamed businesses he owns.

Super Animal and the FNLA are mounting a multipronged attack. They have sent letters to the Mexican president and Mexico City's mayor. Publicly and personally, Super Animal is delivering letters to members of the Mexican Congress proposing a federal law against cruelty to animals, including banning cockfights and bullfights. "There are only six states [out of 31 in Mexico] that have animal protection laws, and none deal with these two issues," Super Animal explains, ignoring the opinionated quacks of Ter esa, a resident duck.

The FNLA claims bullfighting is driven more by business interests than popular tradition. "We believe 80 percent of the Mexican population is against it," Palomero says. To prove the point, the FNLA wants to hold a referendum in Mexico City and later on a national level.

Palomero has no illusions about the enormity of its task. "It will be difficult. It will take years. You can't change a mentality overnight."

In between showdowns with matadors, Super Animal plans to continue to file lawsuits against slaughterhouse owners that do not comply with government rules. He'll push for better conditions for circus and zoo animals. And he'll keep riding to the rescue of all mistreated animals.

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