Putin’s new pet (project): an endangered snow leopard

Vladmir Putin watches a captured snow leopard

Just a few weeks ago Vladmir Putin casually mentioned that he liked the snow leopard as the official mascot of Russia’s 2014 Olympics. Magically the then-frontrunner, Grandfather Frost, the Russian Santa Claus, was pulled, Time reports. Then, in another coincidence, Russian biologists caught a snow leopard–one of only 150-200 in the country–just in time for Putin to play with while he visited the east.

“What a beautiful little cat,” Putin purred to the 10-year-old cat named Mongol, who was behind a wire pen. Western media always love a good tale and framed it as “local scientists who rescued it after a harrowing ordeal at the hands of poachers.” Actually, the official Russian account is less dramatic and implausible. It says that the leopard was captured in the Sayan-Shushenskoye reserve as part of a planned study. Once captured, they found he had a gash on his neck from a poacher’s snare and other wounds from fights with other cats over mating.

How coincidental was the meeting? The World Wildlife Fund didn’t like the show, saying the cat should have been released just after it was captured March 14, instead of being flown by helicopter to Khakasia to meet Putin, who made a special stop in the area north of western Mongolia on his way to the far east. A video from Russia Today shows the visit and the tiger’s release. Putin is going to track it on his own website.

The Moscow Times said “preservationists had captured [the leopard] to study as part of a project funded by the Russian Geographic Society. Putin is chairman of the society’s board of trustees.”

There is something a little too coincidental about the whole string of events, but not necessarily in a bad way. Putin loves having these incredible encounters with endangered species. But then he goes on to support Amur tigers, beluga whales and polar bears in much more boring, scientific ways. I’d love to have more world leaders have that kind of boyish enthusiasm for wildlife.

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