Cuts drive Russian animal trainer wild

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LITTLE Polina Terekhova walks up to the cage and gives a bun to Dasha the elephant. Then she puts her hand through the bars again to feed her father, Alexander, who is in the eighth day of a sit-in to protest at a wave of redundancies among trainers at Moscow's Durov Animal Theatre.

'I'll stay in this cage until the management restore our jobs,' says Mr Terekhov who, after working at the Durov for 22 years, seems oblivious to the stench. 'I'm perfectly comfortable on this camp bed next to Dasha. She is like a second daughter to me.'

Many cultural and scientific institutions, which used to rely on subsidies from the former Soviet Union's rulers, are facing hard times and being forced to cut staff. But the atmosphere is particularly bitter at the Durov. Mr Terekhov complains that the management failed to consult the staff about the lay-offs. The director, Natalya Durova, who drinks tea in a drawing room which reeks of dogs, says he is behaving like a terrorist. Earlier this week she asked the police to drag Mr Terekhov from the cage, but they said they could not get involved in a labour dispute.

It is all very sad since the Durov, which has every kind of beast from mice to wild boars, used to be a place of wonder for Moscow children. It was founded in 1911 by Vladimir Durov, the grandfather of the present director, whose grave in the Novodevichy Cemetery is covered with carvings of monkeys.

Durov believed circuses were cruel because they forced animals to perform unnatural tricks - but that it was possible to develop animals' natural behaviour and show this on stage accompanied by educational talks. For example, he observed that racoons washed their paws before eating and created a popular act with the animals dining to illustrate their daintiness.

Dasha, whose 'natural' party piece is kicking footballs and catching them with her trunk, has been at the theatre since the government of Laos gave her to Leonid Brezhnev as a present 11 years ago. There is no question of her being put down, only of her being sent to breed at a zoo in Kiev. But her trainer argues: 'That's unfair to her. She is used to me. In the zoo she will lose the habit of performing.' He adds that she is cheap enough to keep. All she eats is 25 kilos of vegetables and five kilos of bread a day.

Maybe Mr Terekhov should consider a solution adopted by Andrei Skrynnikov, a trainer from another circus who, when he lost his job, took his animals home to live with him in his two-room flat. Two vultures, two pythons and a monkey occupy one room while he shares the other with two brown bears called Misha and Vanya. He keeps the bears clean by giving them showers in his tiny bathroom and then takes them to entertain children in parks or guests at parties and weddings.