MOSCOW Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin frolicked with the real-life mascot of the 2014 Winter Olympics over the weekend, an endangered snow leopard that had been injured in the valleys of central Siberia.
The cat is called "Mongol" by local scientists who rescued it after a harrowing ordeal at the hands of poachers.
Putin broke a business trip to Russia's Far East to visit it in the Khakassia region some 3,500 km (2,000 miles) east of Moscow.
"The prime minister decided to look at the study of snow leopards," a statement on official site premier.gov.ru said, adding that Putin sped to the nature reserve on a snow mobile.
Russia's paramount leader, a Judo black-belt, has been cultivating a softer side as a passionate animal lover of late. Last year he hosted government heads from nations where wild tigers roam in an effort to save the animals from extinction, and he has braved rough seas to study whales.
Putin got his wish last month when a snow leopard was chosen as one of three official mascots of the Sochi Olympics, along with a polar bear and a hare.
The snow leopard -- which Putin called his "symbolic choice" for the 2014 Games he is largely responsible for securing -- came top with 28 percent of votes in a live broadcast on state TV to choose the mascots.
President Dmitry Medvedev, widely seen as Putin's junior partner, later hinted he felt the mascot voting was unfair after a senior official said the Kremlin chief preferred a brown bear.
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Steve Addison)