Russian President Vladimir Putin may be one of the world's most famous animal lovers: posing with rare tigers, tagging polar bears with tracking devices, and playing with his beloved dog. But now Putin himself has reportedly admitted what many suspected: that those animal photo ops were staged for cameras. Putin is said to have justified the stunts as an effort to promote wildlife conservation.
Putin reportedly made the comments during a rare private meeting this week with journalist Masha Gessen, a vocal Kremlin critic who claims she was fired as editor of a travel magazine after deciding not to cover Putin's latest stunt.
Last week the Russian leader visited an Arctic peninsula where he guided a group of cranes that were raised in captivity to help them learn migratory routes south. Putin flew in a motorized hang glider wearing a white jumpsuit, inspiring a number of Internet memes mocking the event.
In an article published in Bolshoi Gorod magazine, Gessen says Putin told her many of the photo ops were his idea.
"I thought up these tigers myself," Putin is quoted saying, a reference to an incident in 2008 when he claimed to have subdued an animal with a tranquilizer dart after it tried to attack a TV crew. Later reports suggested the tiger was not wild and had been brought from a local zoo
Gessen wrote that Putin was pleased with the outcome because it brought attention to tiger conservation, pointing to steps taken by 20 countries to protect tigers.
"The leopards were also my idea," Putin is quoted saying, an apparent reference to an event in 2011 when he caught and tagged a snow leopard.
"Yes, I know, they were caught but the most important thing is to draw public attention to the problem," he reportedly said.
Previously, Putin's spokesman acknowledged that a dive last year in the Black Sea for ancient treasure had been staged, with artifacts placed in shallow water for Putin to "find."
Addressing that incident, according to Gessen, Putin said "Why did I dive? Not to show my gills off but to make sure people learn history. Of course it was a setup."