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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Circus Animal Trainer With a Gentle Touch

RIGA, Latvia -- Teresa Durova is one of the world's great circus animal trainers. For most of her 69 years, this tiny, forceful woman with graying curls has been a featured attraction in circuses across Russia and Europe.

She has been honored in Mongolia and Marseilles, and most recently, by President Boris Yeltsin, who announced last month that he is awarding her the Medal of Friendship, a tribute dating back to the tsars.

After two years touring France, Durova has arrived -- with porcupines, ponies, pelicans and other members of her menagerie in tow -- in Latvia, where on Jan. 27 she opened the spring season of the Riga Circus.

But backstage between recent performances, this woman who has taught a duo of elephants to serenade her with harmonicas and a squadron of camels to balance on improbably tiny stools, was having difficulty restraining Frenchy, her unruly calico cat, from knocking over her jars of stage makeup and leaping onto the laps of her guests.

"Frenchy!" She scolds him. "I got him in France," Durova says with a smile, lifting him up and clenching him in a tight embrace out of harm's way, then stroking him between his ears with her ring-studded fingers.

The veteran trainer's love for Frenchy -- as well as his animal brethren -- is obvious. And she has suffered much for trying to build an instructive friendship with them -- bites and kicks, bruises and gashes and broken bones, including a broken hip.

Of the array of creatures she has trained, Durova acknowledges a particular affection for elephants, which feature prominently in her show.

"I especially love to work with elephants, because they are so smart," says Durova. "Sometimes I feel that they understand me without words -- just from the eyes they can tell what I want."

The hardest animal to train? "My husband!" Durova declares, slapping the knee of one of her guests and laughing robustly. As it happens, her husband of 20 years, Viktor, works with her in the ring.

Durova recalls some challenging moments with pelicans, a species she finds almost as self-willed as herself.

"I was working in Astrakhan, near the Volga River delta," says Durova. "There were a lot of pelicans there, and I wanted to take some of them. I imagined the pelicans in my performance would sit on platforms still as statues, like decorations while other animals acted around them. People said that pelicans will not sit quietly so, of course, I had even more determination to make them do so," she says, then declaring: "An animal trainer must have an athlete's enthusiasm to win. I prepared that performance for over four years."

Durova was among the first women to enter the arena of training circus animals -- a profession considered too tough for women.

"Circus art is very hard, for all events, mentally as well as physically," says Durova. "I have been in the circus for almost 60 years, and I still always feel nervous before I enter the ring.

"But when I am there, I am at home, I live. When I see happy children's faces at my performance, that is the biggest reward for my work."

Durova orchestrates her beasts with precise, brisk efficiency. Ablaze in sequins, she strides inside the ring with the lordly self-assurance that is her birthright as a member of one of Russia's great dynasties of circus performers.

In fact, Durova is now working in the same ring where her grandfather, Anatoly Durov, Russia's first circus clown to achieve international fame, performed in the circus' inaugural performance in 1888. Often she finds herself preceded in her travels by her famous ancestor, who died in 1916.

"Anatoly worked all over the world," says Durova. "Even today, when I come to a new circus, people still say, 'It's like we know you.'"

Although her early relationship with her clan was strained (her family opposed her desire to train animals), no coaxing is needed for Durova to pull out an album of yellowed family photographs.

The 150-year-old Durov circus dynasty began when Anatoly Durov and his brother Vladimir fled their family estate to become acrobats.

"At the beginning, they were exclusively acrobats, but then they also performed as clowns and with trained animals," says Durova, paging slowly through the photographs. Her great uncle Vladimir was repulsed by the brutal methods used to train animals in his day, and the family still uses the humane approach he formulated, which stressed "talking to them rather than beating them," Durova says.

Durova spent her girlhood in the circus. "Each month was a different city, each month a different school," she recalls. And yet, this child of the circus ended up running away from home to join the circus. Her parents, who wanted her to get a university degree instead, sent her to the family home in Taganrog to get the circus off her mind. "But," Durova says, "after a month somebody sent them a telegram: 'Come soon! Your house is being turned into a zoo!'

"I collected dogs, cats, pigeons, hens, and trained them in the yard of the house."

Durova left for Moscow. "They called the circus and ordered them to send me back to Taganrog," Durova continues. "But when I met the manager of the circus and told him about the performance I was planning, he was so impressed he stood up, kissed me, and said, 'Durova will be in the circus!'"

Today, even as she approaches 70, Durova still performs as many as three shows a day and banishes any suggestion of slowing down.

After several years abroad, she admits she increasingly feels drawn home to Russia.

"I long for a Russian audience," Durova sighs. "I feel I want to be home. The situation in Russia is very hard. It's my duty to make people forget their problems, at least while they watch my performance."