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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Menagerie

Pythons, hippos, mice, boars and elephants continue to delight children at Grandfather Durov's Wonderland, an 85-year-old animal theater.

By Nick Allen

The tiny steam locomotive chugs through a snowy landscape and pulls up to the station. A door opens from above the platform, and a dozen white mice meander down the stairs and squeeze onto the train. The lights dim, and the train circuits the track a few times. When the lights come on again, fluorescent paints have transformed the winter landscape into a moon-washed, Mediterranean beach scene. The mice have arrived for a warm holiday in Greece.

Simple but endearing, the "Mouse Toy Railway" show has delighted Russian audiences for more than 85 years at Grandfather Durov's Wonderland, a theater of animals featuring porcupines, boars, hippopotamuses and a host of other unlikely beasts. "You can train absolutely any animal," claims director Natalya Durova, granddaughter of animal trainer and political satirist Vladimir Durov, who founded Russia's most famous animal theater in 1913.

The Moscow theater still thrives today, with 69 different breeds appearing in 14 regular shows a week and special performances all over the city on an almost daily basis. Run by eccentric animal enthusiasts, the family institution hasn't escaped financial crisis, but has managed to maintain its popularity. Over the January holiday season alone, the theater chalked up a staggering 300 performances.

The two elegant, green 19th-century buildings that house the theater contain two stages, a museum, offices and hundreds of cages full of animals. The inner sanctum is Durova's office, filled with antique dressers, busts and oil paintings of family members, yapping dogs and screeching parrots. A constant stream of visitors, apparently related to this count or that writer, file through.

An army general in full dress uniform, laden with medals, recently ushered a group of visitors into one of Durova's guest rooms. A childhood friend, he was there to present her with the Marshal Zhukov medal, honoring her for "bringing kindness into people's lives."

With a rustle, Durova sweeps out of her backroom office and settles into her favorite armchair, beckoning guests to be seated at a marble coffee table. "This table once belonged to Anton Chekhov," she says, lighting up a noxious cardboard-filtered papirosa cigarette, which dances in her hand as she warms to her theme. "I'm not a politician. I don't like politics," says Durova, 64, as she addresses several friends and reporters. "Why do you think my hippopotamus smiles from morning to evening without exception? Because he's not burdened with the political rat race. He lives and swims in happiness."

Once Durova is in full swing, there is no stopping the bewildering torrent of flowery reminiscences and philosophical observations. Two hours later the first guest cracks; a nervous journalist in a headscarf and dark glasses from the tabloid Formula of Love.

"Please tell me something concrete," she pleads. "I have to write an article today."

"The most precious thing in this world is life. ... Not one ruble with its oak-hardness can buy you that," Durova offers, passing a plate of tea cakes. "Our theater cures children. Nervous children come to life, children with cerebral palsy. You can see their hands twitching."

For all the digressions, it is apparent that Durova adores animals and children, and has led an eventful life. Officially registered as a circus trainee at age 4, she performed with her father's troupe under fire at the front line during World War II, and has entertained Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev and current Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Her idiosyncratic nature might be inherited from her grandfather. Whether riding through the streets of tsarist Moscow in a carriage drawn by a pig, or taking his rats to a meet government ministers to ask for funding, Grandfather Durov, as he is called at the theater, was not a man to go unnoticed.

"That's how Vladimir Leonidovich used to receive guests," says the director of the theater's museum, Anna Nikolaeva, pointing to an oil portrait of a distinguished, mustachioed man with a large brown rat on his shoulder and another peering out from his shirt collar.

Grandfather Durov employed unlikely combinations of animals to stage satirical political sketches. In his "League of Nations" skit, a bear, pig, dog, ram, fox, chicken and ferret dined together from bowls at the same table, providing their human masters with a shining example of goodwill and trust. Not everyone appreciated the elder Durov's antics, however. He was run out of Odessa for insulting the mayor and spent two months in jail in Germany in 1914 after using a pig to joke about Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Today Grandfather Durov's League of Nations is preserved in a taxidermic version, the stuffed animals dining together in a small hut in the theater museum. His "Mouse Toy Railway" act continues to be performed several times a day in both the museum and the theater.

It is no easy feat keeping the theater operating financially. "Just imagine what it's like feeding three elephants, two hippopotamuses, two camels, 32 horses," says Natalya Durova, listing some of the 700 animals, performing and retired, living in the complex. "We get gifts of nuts and grass from Krasnodar, Irkutsk and the Far East, truckloads of apples and hay. The whole country sends us food. The Baltic countries send us fish," she says, waving toward the window where outside sits a truck containing a six-month supply of hay, a birthday gift to her from a logging company in Yaroslavl.

The theater survives mostly on subsidies from the city government. The staff declined to disclose the amount allocated, but said the food budget estimate alone for the first quarter of this year was 577,000 rubles ($96,000).

Almost $400,000 a year on food? The amount seems inconceivable until one considers that an adult elephant alone, on an average day, consumes 40 kilograms of vegetables, 35 kilograms of hay, 10 kilograms of bread, 1.5 kilograms of fruit and half a kilogram of sugar. Each of the theater's two tigers eats 8 kilograms of meat daily.

In comparison, wages for the 150 staff are a pittance, ranging from 200 rubles a month for junior keepers to around 600 rubles for the performing artists. There is the odd bonus for extra performances and occasional tours to Japan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The one perk is free meals at the theater canteen.

While Durova admits to knowing little about the nuts and bolts of financial management, she is convinced the theater will somehow survive and is already grooming a successor: her 8-year-old niece, also named Natalya Durova.

And if the place looks a bit shabby now, Mayor Yury Luzhkov has signed a decree to build a slick new children's complex next to the existing premises by the year 2000. It will include an arena for performing dolphins, an animal training workshop, art and craft studio and even a small chapel.

Despite the grand plans, some staff members are weary of the theater's lack of a cohesive vision for its future. "Money's not the main problem here," says one worker, complaining that the theater revels too much in past glories. "You can't keep harking back to the time when Brezhnev or Gorbachev once came here."

Still, there is no shortage of newcomers who "stay because they have a dream that they'll perform one day on stage," says Lyudmila Yasnova, the deputy director. Aspiring trainers first assist experienced artists during shows, and may then be allowed a turn on the theater's small stage where the smaller animals appear.

Yury Biryukov, 62, has been a trainer at the theater for two years after growing up in the big-top circus. An acrobat and juggler by trade, he now works with horses, camels and hippopotamuses. "I could go and look after horses for rich people and get paid very well for it, but I'm not in it for the money," says Biryukov, speaking with some difficulty after losing his two front teeth while kissing an overly enthusiastic mare in December.

Jumping up, he leads the way into the bowels of the theater, through a maze of low tunnels, corridors and pungent courtyards and into the pens behind the main stage area. Lining the route are rows of tiny cages containing restless wolves and dozing porcupines, pigs and bears. "For many animals it's a blessing they ended up here," says Biryukov, explaining that the theater frequently adopts stray dogs and discarded or confiscated exotic pets like monkeys.

"The cages are not imprisonment for them. They are well cared for, cleaned, fed, walked each day. And they live longer than if they were loose in the wild," he says. "Having said all that, it's still unnatural. So I guess it's 'feefty-feefty.'"

Looking through the bars, it's hard to tell how a porcupine perceives its existence. Several caged mongrel dogs, though, appear content enough, wet-nosed and wagging their tails at passersby. Staff members say incidents of mistreatment by trainers and handlers have occurred, but rarely. "It's usually evident if someone really loves animals," says Biryukov.

When the animals are too old to perform, the theater continues to care for them until death, when they are either disposed of by city authorities or stuffed and kept by their trainers or displayed in the museum. Durova buries some of her favorites at her country dacha.

One rising star in the theater today is Yasha, a 4-year-old chimpanzee from Central Africa. A regular in television commercials and a popular hire for private social events, Yasha, for one, was lucky to have found a home at Grandfather Durov's Wonderland.

Acquired by a rich couple through dubious channels as a toy for their child, baby Yasha quickly became less cute and increasingly unmanageable as he grew up. When he began rampaging in the family's apartment two years ago, his desperate owners came to Durova and persuaded her to take him on.

Yasha now obligingly pours and drinks a bottle of carrot juice at his lunchtime training session, dabs his mouth with a paper napkin and combs his hair. Paid in-kind by his television commercial employers, he has brought a computer and globe to the theater. The computer is now used for administration matters, while the globe is one of Yasha's props: He twirls it in one of his acts.

"Yasha is not just my partner, but my child," croons Durova, giving her hairy, muscle-bound prodigy a kiss on his protruding lips. "All I have to say is, 'They'll take Mama to the hospital,' and he settles down." Durova was referring to an incident when she fainted and the chimp wrapped himself around her, refusing to let the ambulance crew near her for 20 minutes.

Because of Yasha's natural tendency to imitate, his repertoire can be constantly enlarged. With less intelligent species, however, trainers make the best of an animal's peculiar habits and postures. In the museum, for example, a stuffed anteater stands upright. It is a posture the animal automatically assumes when threatened, and combined with the anteater's huge hooked front claws, provided the basis for Grandfather Durov's sentinel routine. A photograph on display shows a uniformed anteater clutching a toy rifle, standing rigidly in a sentry booth.

Rabbits are fond of fighting, and thump their feet in battle. With a lot of repetition and carrot offerings, they will just as happily thump away on a small drum. A rabbit gave frantic drum rolls during an open-air show at Moscow's war museum at Poklonnaya Gora in 1995, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Hitler, complete with peaked cap, was played by a wild boar that unrolled a large map of Europe on the stage with its snout.

During a pre-show rehearsal, Biryukov patiently coaxes Mushketyor, or Muskateer, a 4-year-old hippopotamus, with bits of bread and apple to trot around the stage. "Come on, Mukha," he calls out as he raps the drooling hippo's flank with a cane, getting the animal to climb onto a podium, sit upright and then mount the low wall in front of the stage. For the finale of his act, Biryukov rides Mukha along the parapet, waving to the audience.

As Biryukov returns the hippo to its pen, Yury Shakhov strolls up to the adjacent cage containing Masha, a 5-ton Indian elephant. "Go on, Mashenka my dear, take a pee," the trainer murmurs, patting her coiling trunk. Immediately, a couple of gallons of urine hits the ground in a torrent and runs off into a drain.

Masha is a sad reminder of the hazards of handling even docile animals. In October, the 24-year-old beast fatally crushed novice handler Yury Savritsky as he was cleaning her pen. Although there were no witnesses, from his last words he is believed to have turned his back on the animal as she swung around, pinning him briefly against the wall and causing massive internal injuries. The elephant has not been allowed to perform since the accident.

This was the theater's first fatality in 85 years, as far as anyone can remember. Barely a day passes, however, without someone leaving work with a bruise or bite, always because they were careless, says Biryukov, his own hand swollen by a bite from a pony.

Masha raises her leg obligingly to Shakhov as he pets her. "See. She wants to perform. No one has to force her," he says sadly. The elephant may have taken one life, but she saved another. Twenty years ago the fastenings holding the main stage gave way, crushing Durova's leg in a gap and prompting Masha to tumble toward her. But the elephant managed to pluck Durova out of its way instead of rolling on top of her. Durova has pins in one leg from this incident. She also has a stump where a hyena bit off her ring-finger in an earlier accident.

But the show must go on.

At 3 o'clock on a recent afternoon, the jangle of bells resounds around the theater. An expectant hush descends on about 300 children and their teachers, packed into the main stage area.

A troupe of white horses strut in formation. Liza the cow hops to and fro over a fence. Trainer Nina Solovyova has her goats goose-stepping like Russian soldiers at a victory parade.

Solovyova makes her second appearance with a huge boar in a spangly fez. In time to a funky mix of "House of the Rising Sun," the boar deftly spins a plastic hoop from its snout, biffs a beach ball and lays red roses at the trainer's feet. Two snarling tigers take over the stage, springing on command between pillars and prowling along a narrow plank.

"Children. You won't be afraid if I invite more predators out to meet you?" calls out Durova. A unanimous "Nyet" echoes around the auditorium.

Shakhov appears from backstage and heads into the audience with Yulichka, a 2-meter python, draped around his shoulders. Chaos ensues, as children jam up the aisles in their haste to get near and pet the reptile. From the opposite side of the hall, another trainer emerges carrying a basket full of cats and rats. She won't reveal how she trains the species to coexist, only saying, "If a cat has killed once, it's impossible." She claims she hasn't had a single casualty.

"Do you love animals? Will you look after them when they're in trouble?" Durova shouts through a microphone in her husky voice before launching into her own act with recalcitrant pelicans hopping onto her arms and squawking parrots scooting along a wire on miniature cycles and doing loops on perches.

Trainers who came to the theater from the circus say they feel closer to the audience at Grandfather Durov's Wonderland. As much as to entertain, the theater's professed purpose is to teach children that animals must be cared for, not treated as toys for amusement. "A banker's wife wanted to book one whole show just for her son and his friend," recalls Durova. "I told her I can't do that because the animals won't work in an empty building, and sent her away."

To some people, Grandfather Durov's animal theater might seem an anachronism in an era of video games and big screen entertainment. But Biryukov doesn't see any danger of modern age forcing the theater or his profession into obscurity.

"On the contrary, the more people are stifled by technology and progress, the more they need us. We still get capacity audiences," he says. "I've met adult city dwellers who never saw a live horse until they came here."

Grandfather Durov's Wonderland (Strana Chudes Dedushki Durova) is located at 4 Ulitsa Durova. Tel. 971-3047.

Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Mondays.