Friday, 14 May 2010

Putin and his predators

After eyeing her visitor warily, the Persian leopard bared her teeth and hissed at Vladimir Putin.

"Don't be mad," the prime minister said, gazing steadily into the animal's eyes. "I'm not mad."

For the cat, the staring contest during Putin's visit to Sochi nature reserve earlier this month may have been nothing more than a territorial power play, as the zookeeper explained that her behaviour indicated she was just comfortably marking her space.

For Putin, whom the journalism watchdog Reporters without Borders has controversially recently labelled a "predator of the press," macho escapades with animals, predatory and otherwise, have long been seen as part of a carefully-crafted PR strategy.

But what if Putin simply likes animals - and predators in particular?

"He flies an airplane, he hunts, he dives to the bottom of Lake Baikal, he goes fishing - there's a certain logic to this, maintaining a personal image campaign," said Dmitry Badovsky, an analyst at the Institute of Social Systems in Moscow. "But there's also a sense that he just likes animals."

The leopard, one of two females sent to the Sochi reserve from Iran to help revive the local Persian leopard population, was reportedly destined to mate with one of two leopards sent from Turkmenistan, which were similarly welcomed by Putin last year.

The encounter was one of a long line of photo-ops featuring dogs, cats, cattle, horses, dolphins, beluga fish, tigers, bears, sheep, pigs, reindeer and ponies.

The pony was added to Putin's growing menagerie at Novo-Ogaryovo in 2005 and he christened it Vadik. Other Putin pets include his official pet Labrador, Koni, a couple of poodles and a goat named Skaza.

Putin might like animals but, strangely, he doesn't like dogs - and some dogs don't appear to like him either, said independent analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky. "During one campaign clip in 2000, you could see that his toy poodle, Tosya, was forced to sit in his lap and it was terrified and tried to run away."

Koni, his black Labrador, got along better with Putin, probably because she was a large animal.

"As for predators - he does have a certain relationship with them, on a human level," Pribylovsky said. "He likes to be around them, he associates himself with them. Although they are predators, they make him look more human."

Just days before his meeting with the leopard, Putin pressed paws with a sedated polar bear in Franz Josef Land and kissed it on the ear. "He has a strong handshake," Putin told reporters afterwards.

Then there are the tigers. In September 2008, the prime minister was shown in a Far East forest shooting a tiger with a sedative and saving the television crew from attack. As with other animals he was out to rescue, he placed a collar on the tiger's neck, kissed it and wished it farewell. Just weeks later, on his 56th birthday, he received a tiger cub that he would later place in a zoo.

As for the marine animal kingdom, Putin was once so taken with a beluga sturgeon during an August, 2007 visit to a fishing nursery in Astrakhan that he kissed the fish on the head.
Badovsky said that as part of a larger PR strategy, it is definitely successful in showing the former president as more down to earth.

"It makes him look more positive, open. Children and animals elicit trust, after all. For every separate instance, you can't exclude the political context."

In the case of the leopard encounter in Sochi, it showed his concern for the area's natural beauty ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics - long considered a pet project of Putin's.
As for the polar bear, "It's a symbol of Russia. it's a symbol of our presence in the Arctic. And it's a symbol of United Russia. This means the image can be used in the future for certain purposes," said Badovsky.

Once any particular image is used on television or the Internet, Badovsky said, it can take on a life of its own. Leopards can be associated with the Winter Olympics, tigers with the vast spaces of Siberia and bears with political stability and Arctic expansion.

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