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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tragedy Claims Elephant Trainer's Life

The show went on Wednesday at Moscow's world-famous Grandfather Durov's Wonderland animal theater, but without a budding young trainer who had been looking forward anxiously to making his debut onstage.

Yury Stavritsky, 22, was buried Tuesday -- the victim of an accident involving Masha, an adult Indian elephant with which he had been rehearsing.

"I still haven't come to terms with this," said theater director Natalya Durova. "It's a great sorrow not only for his family but for us, too. He wanted to become a trainer, and he could have been -- he was the sort that could really have been a star."

Stavritsky was cleaning Masha's quarters Friday when the five-ton animal pinned him against the wall, apparently unaware of his presence.

Hearing him cry out, staff raced to the elephant's large pen to find Stavritsky in shock, but still conscious enough to complain of back pain. He died later Friday in a hospital.

Stavritsky had been expecting to appear on stage later that day to assist in the elephant show, and he had called home to tell his family just minutes before the accident, said his mother, Lyudmila, who visited the theater and Masha after her son's death.

"He loved the elephant, and I am sure Masha did not mean to harm him," she said. "Neither I nor my family harbor a grudge against her."

Members of the theater staff described Stavritsky as a quiet, pleasant person and said he and Masha took to each other immediately when he was given a tryout as a keeper two months ago after finishing military service.

"He told me after the army he had had enough of people and only wanted to work with animals because he loved and trusted them," said Durova, the daughter of theater founder Vladimir Durov, whose troupe has astounded audiences around the world with its ability to train virtually any kind of animal.

Durova has trained animals for more than 50 years and is well aware of the dangers.

Displaying a stump where a hyena bit off her ring finger, she recounted how 24-year-old Masha had once saved her life when a stage collapsed. As she and the animal began rolling off the tilting platform, Masha grabbed her with her trunk and whisked her out of the closing gap. Durova now has pins in her right leg, which had been trapped before the elephant pulled her out.

Accidents with elephants are not uncommon in zoos and circuses, said the veteran trainer, but said this was the first fatal incident at the theater.

She said Masha has not taken part in any shows since the accident, but will star again in the future.

This year the theater celebrates its 85th anniversary. It employs about 150 people and keeps about 700 different types of trained animals, both performing and retired.

Later this month, prominent eye surgeon and former presidential candidate Svyatoslav Fyodorov will return to the theater and perform a second operation on a younger elephant as part of a process to remove cataracts from its eyes.