MOSCOW - Vitaly Tikhonov sounds vaguely wounded at the suggestion that he spends his days teaching cows to jump through flaming hoops for his Moscow circus act.
"Cows!" he says, his voice rising with disdain. "Cows would be easy. But yaks! Yaks are aggressive. You never know when a yak might attack you."
What Tikhonov does is devote his working life to teaching lumbering, half-ton yaks to jump through fiery hoops. He is a splendid example of what makes Russian circuses so wonderful. Standing in the single circus ring, he embodies the virtues of hard work, brute patience and a little wacky imagination. Let American circuses dazzle with razzmatazz and money. Here in Russia, a man and his idea triumph.
Not only do Tikhonov's yaks jump through fire, but they also run around the ring with bears on their backs. While they do this, a porcupine races merrily around the edge of the ring. Tikhonov also has a tiger that drives a motorcycle, a yak that waltzes, a llama that bows and a dog that dances.
"Of course the bear would try to bite the yak if he could," he says, "but while the yak is running, the bear can't stand still enough to bite."
Tikhonov loves his yaks, mostly because he is the only one who has an act built around them. "Of course, I have my favorites," he says. "Akulya, especially, has always treated me well and protected me from attack." He has given them names such as Little Star, Little Night and Smoky.
"Yaks have the skeleton of a buffalo, the hair of a goat, the tail of a horse and the head of a bull," Tikhonov says. "And they make the sound of a pig." He snorts lightly, in illustration.
"They are very slow, but for a short distance they can get up to 60 kilometers an hour. Then they stop and rest for an hour. Yaks are difficult and dangerous. They can attack with their horns and their legs."
Tikhonov travels to Tuva, near the Mongolian border where this wild ox is found, to buy his yaks. Two years ago, he paid $700 for a yak. "I don't know what they cost now," he says. He gets them when they're a year old.
"I pick them for their beauty," he says. "Their character isn't clear."
Tikhonov, now 62, got into the yak game as a young man. He had grown up in the circus and graduated from circus school as an acrobat. His wife, who died of cancer a year ago, trained dogs. His grandfather was a juggler. His mother and father trained tigers and European bison.
"My father was the first to take buffalo into the circus and the first to use buffalo and tigers together," he says. "He was looking for new ways, and he didn't want to copy anyone else. He gave me four yaks when I was 22, and I started to develop a show."
Today, Tikhonov's son, Viktor, 21, works in the act, playing matador to the bull-like yaks. He has recently returned to work after three months in the hospital recuperating from a broken knee. One of the yaks rammed him with its horn. Tikhonov himself has had so many broken arms and other injuries he can't count them all.
The Tikhonovs also have a bear that does tricks while holding a rooster. The rooster performs, too - chasing a clown out of the ring. When the yak appears with a bear on its back, a silver fox jumps over fences and a dog with a cat on its back runs exuberantly around the ring.
"Oh, it's hard," Tikhonov says of the dog and cat working together. "We have to put a pad on the dog to protect it from the cat's claws. It takes forever. We feed them together, we hold them so they'll walk side by side, but still the cat would like to attack the dog."
When they get a new group of yaks, father and son begin by taming them. They give them milk in a long trough, resembling a stream. They feed them hay, barley, carrots, cabbage, potatoes and beets.
"We spend a month getting acquainted. As we give them food, we begin to understand their characters. After a month, we separate them so we can communicate with each one separately," Tikhonov says.
"Once they get used to us, we start to take them into the ring. It takes time to get them to run in circles. We shout and we have long sticks that make a noise they don't like.
"We shake the sticks in front of them, but we only hit them in urgent moments. We have to protect the audience from possible attacks. It has to be a law - they don't go beyond the ring.
"The training is every day, except Saturday and Sunday. Training, feeding - the process goes on constantly."
Tikhonov depends on rewards of food to get his animals to perform. He doesn't hit them unless they attack. Animals won't perform out of fear, he says.
Eventually, he makes them jump over a small fence. Then he gets them to jump through a hoop. After they do that, he'll put a small flame on top of the hoop, gradually making it larger and larger. It takes a year to train them, and the yaks don't reach their full potential until they're 5 years old. They retire at age 12.