Russian President Vladimir Putin went inside a cage with a small leopard on Tuesday. The head of state managed to find common language with the predator, but some journalists failed to do so, which resulted in a few scratches for them.
Putin arrived at the Persian leopard breeding and rehabilitation center in the Sochi National Park behind the wheel of a Niva SUV. His passengers were International Olympic Committee Executive Director Gilbert Felli and former French World Cup alpine ski racer and three times Olympic champion Jean-Claude Killy.
The preservation's director, Umar Semyonov, told the guests about the center's life in the past few years since Putin last visited it. Illustrating his story with video footage and photos, Semyonov told the visitors how leopards were being studied, how pairs were formed for breeding, and how the animals were being looked after.
The director described the daily routine, from feeding to mating, in detail, noting that adult leopards can mate up to 274 times a week.
"274!" said Putin, impressed. "An example worth following," he dropped addressing a journalist standing nearby.
After the guests watched photographs and videos, Semyonov invited them to go to cages with leopards. In one cage, a leopard was in quarantine and failed to go out to the guests, watching them from its place. In another cage, a predator was very active and jumped valiantly onto the protection net, defending its area. The director said the leopardess had already given birth to male cubs.
A six-month-old cub, Grom (Thunder), was in the third cage which President Putin and guests accompanying him approached. There was a small pause in front of the cage because guests stopped trying to let each other pass out of courtesy, but this looked rather ambiguously at the entrance to the cage with a predator.
The preserve currently has six adult leopards and four cubs. Only Grom already has a name.
Putin, Felli, Killy and Deputy Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak went inside the cage. Putin and Semyonov approached the small leopard, which was nervous, apparently due to a great number of guests. The cub allowed Putin to pet it although trying to growl at the visitors.
Journalists were apparently causing Grom's greatest discontent. Getting tired of camera shutter sounds, the small predator jumped onto journalists, scratching the hand of one of them, and biting another's knee. The guests then preferred to leave the cage, but Putin spent some more time inside, petting the cub and trying to calm him down.
"I like animals, I apparently feel them," the president told journalists.
"We liked each other," he said.
When asked if he would like to give names to the three unnamed cubs in the preservation, Putin said he would not do that as this was a task for experts.
In September 2009, Putin, who personally controls protection of rare animals and regularly takes part in relevant events, already visited the Sochi preserve and released into the cage two male leopards from Turkmenistan. In 2010, Putin was there again and released into a more spacious cage one of two female leopards brought from Iran.
The Persian leopard breeding and rehabilitation center in the Sochi National Park was founded in 2009. On Putin's initiative, the funds for the construction were allocated from the federal budget as part of the program to build Olympic facilities in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi that will host the 2014 Winter Olympics on February 7-23.
The center was one of the first facilities built and commissioned within the framework of Olympic infrastructure construction. The preserve is located on an area of 11 hectares and includes rehabilitation and breeding cages, a quarantine cage and other facilities.
The Persian leopard is an endangered species in the Caucasus. The Russian Academy of Sciences and the World Wildlife Fund Russia in 2006 developed a program to restore the leopard's population in the Caucasus.
The animals' largest habitat is situated in Iran and Turkmenistan. They are also found in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.