SOCHI, Russia - Stroking a Persian leopard sprawled on his lap, tough-guy President Vladimir Putin showed his softer side Thursday as he prepared to welcome the world to his budget-busting Winter Olympics that open later this week.
In a pitch-perfect photo opportunity, Putin began his stay at the Sochi Games - a jamboree of sport deeply tied to his ambitions for Russia - by promoting a cuddly image. He checked in at a preserve for endangered Persian leopards and visited a group of cubs born last summer in the mountains above the swelling torrent of activity in Sochi.
"We've decided to restore the population of the Persian leopard because of the Olympic Games," Putin said. "Let's say that because of the Olympic Games, we have restored parts of the destroyed nature."
Putin entered the cage and petted the leopard on the head. "We liked each other," he said.
Some journalists accompanying him weren't so lucky. They apparently upset the big cat, which scratched one of them on the hand and bit another on the knee, Russian news agencies reported.
Putin's first step on the Olympic stage at the leopard preserve was designed as a show of environmental concern during the Sochi Games, which open Friday. The sanctuary was established five years ago as an Olympics-related project.
The leopards are living in Sochi National Park in between the seaside city and the Alpine venues in the towering Caucasus Mountains. Some of the new leopard population is to be released in coming years in hopes of repopulating southern Russia, where they no longer roamed in the 1970s.