Putin's New Puppy and Other Snuggly Diplomatic Gifts

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© Pierre Marsaut/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Last week, during their meeting about the South Stream gas transit pipeline and other large-scale energy projects, Bulgarian Premier Boyko Borisov gave Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a Karakachan puppy, which he nuzzled in front of the cameras.

Throughout history, many other world leaders have exchanged animals. From showing might to making alliances, celebrating milestones to spurring conservation efforts, pets have been the diplomatic present of choice for the powerful. (The practice can bring controversy as well, such as this year’s concerns about the transfer of a number of animals, including baby elephants, from Zimbabwe to North Korea.)

This puppy also hearkens back to brave conquests, faraway places and national identity. “In our age of easy travel and global media, exotic animals still delight but rarely truly astonish us,” writes Marina Belozerskaya writes in The Medici Giraffe: And Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Powers. “For much of history when fauna from distant lands was scarce and communication slow, strange beasts could be potent, marvelous, and terrifying.”

Here are a few snuggly (and not-so-snuggly) diplomatic critters:

The puppy joins the collection of Putin’s gift animals this year, including a pair of Persian leopards from Iran, who are in a zoo-run breeding program.
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General Marquis de Lafayette gave President John Quincy Adams a pet alligator, who lived in a White House bathtub.
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The Sultan of Oman gave President Martin Van Buren a pair of tiger cubs (they soon moved to the zoo).
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King Menelik of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) sent animal-lover President Theodore Roosevelt a zebra and a lion.
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The people of Ireland gave President John F. Kennedy a Connemara pony for his son. Caroline named the horse "Leprechaun."
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Premier Khrushchev gave President Kennedy a dog.
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Prince Lorenzo de Medici truly arrived on the royal scene when an Egyptian sultan gave him a giraffe.
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The King of Portugal gave a white elephant named Hanno to Pope Leo X in 1516 in an attempt to secure a trade monopoly in the Spice Islands.
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When Richard Nixon took his historic 1972 trip to China, Chairman Mao Zedong gave him two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. (Nixon sent Zedong a pair of musk oxen in return.)
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The President of Indonesia gave President George H. W. Bush a Komodo dragon. Naga didn’t get along well with the first dog, Millie, and moved to the Cincinnati Zoo where he went on to father 32 offspring.
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While many newlyweds receive a new toaster to honor their nuptials, Catherine de Medici got a live lion from her father-in-law, the King of France, when she married Henry the II.
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Chinese emperor Xian Zhong Zhu Jianshen received many lions as gifts—so many that when Sultan Ahmid of Samarkand gave him two more in the 1480s, he refused them, saying he had too many of the useless big cats already.

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November 21, 2010 - 5:12am
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