They may not appreciate it, but the host of wild animals who have shared encounters with Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin over the course of his political career enjoy a certain kind of celebrity.
There's Mongol the endangered snow leopard, who "frolicked" with Putin last year shortly after being rescued from poachers. He's now an official mascot of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
And there's the polar bear who made headlines in 2010 when he was on the receiving end of a caress from the now-outgoing prime minister, who bravely fitted the heavily sedated animal with a tracking collar and admiringly called him the "master of the Arctic."
And then there's Serga, the Siberian tigress who was photographed with Putin after being tranquilized midpounce by the gun-toting, conservation-loving prime minister.
A video on Putin's website recounts the event, which took place when the tiger was caught in a trap set by researchers during a 2008 visit by the prime minister to the Ussuri reserve in Siberia.
"Vladimir Putin decided to walk closer to the trap, and appeared on the trail at the very moment when the tigress leaped out," the news announcer says. "He fired from a special tranquilizer gun, hitting the beast in the right shoulder..."
Putin later tagged the sleeping tiger with a satellite-tracking device. Since then, Serga has occasionally returned to the media spotlight with news of her own, most notably the birth of three cubs in 2009. (The "Vladivostok" newspaper ran the story under a banner headline reading, "After Meeting Vladimir Putin, A Tigress Has Given Birth To Three Cubs.")
But animal activists and the Russian blogosphere now say that Serga, commonly referred to as "Putin's tiger," is in fact a substitute cat -- and that the original tigress was not wild but rather a zoo animal who was borrowed for the stunt and later died as a result of a sedative overdose.
PHOTO GALLERY: Vladimir Putin's Lessons In Machismo
A shirtless Putin famously hunts in the foothills of the Sayan Mountains in the Republic of Tuva in August 2007.
Putin helps scientists tag a Siberian tiger in August 2008.
Putin swims the butterfly during a vacation outside the town of Kyzyl in southern Siberia in August 2009.
A shirtless Putin rides a horse during a vacation in the Republic of Tuva in August 2009.
Putin inside a submersible during a dive into the depths of Lake Baikal in August 2009.
Putin throws a Japanese judo expert during an exhibition in Tokyo in September 2000.
Putin and scientists measure a polar bear on the Franz Josef Land archipelago in April 2010.
Putin inspects the cockpit of the new Sukhoi T-50 stealth fighter jet at Gromov Airfield in June 2010.
Putin rides a horse near the town of Abakan during a trip to the Republic of Khakassia in south-central Siberia in February 2010.
Putin climbed into a firefighting plane and helped crews dump water on wildfires in the Ryazan region in August 2010. "Is it OK?" he asked after pushing a button to release the water. "It was a direct hit," the pilot responded.
Putin takes part in an expedition to Ubsunur Hollow Biosphere Preserve to inspect the snow leopard's habitat in the Siberian Federal District in October 2010.
Putin hits the slopes at the Krasnaya Polyana ski center outside Sochi, venue of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Putin rides with motorcycle enthusiasts during a visit to a motorbike festival in the southern city of Novorossiisk in August 2011.
Putin holds two amphoras he "found" while scuba diving in Russia's Taman Bay in August 2011.
Dmitry Molodtsov, a St. Petersburg-based ecological engineer, is the founder of bigcats.ru, a website devoted to tigers and other wild cats.
He says he has concluded from photographs and Internet articles that the actual tiger in the Putin pictures was not the wild Serga but Aralia, a zoo tiger who was sedated and held in a trap for nearly six hours before her encounter with the prime minister.
"When you look at various pictures of Serga -- the tigress they're now saying is Putin's tigress -- it's easy to see that the pattern on her coat doesn't change over time," Molodtsov says. "Depending on the time of year, a tigress becomes fluffier -- in winter, of course, her markings are more indistinct -- but nothing more than that. And the tigress who was with Putin -- and some witnesses have suggested it was another tigress, Aralia -- had completely different markings."
If true, the substitute-tiger story may further chip away at a reputation that Putin has built for himself as a thrill-seeking, nature-loving man of action.
In addition to his animal encounters, Putin has piloted fire-fighting planes, navigated a submarine, and retrieved ancient Greek artifacts from the bed of the Black Sea.
But not all of Putin's stunts have proven watertight. Late last year, Putin's own spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, admitted that the Black Sea antiquities miracle was an orchestrated event, but shrugged off the incident as "normal."
Nevertheless, Putin still has his defenders among the animal-loving community. Natalya Remennikova, the coordinator of the Siberian tiger-conservation project that Putin so famously participated in, says no substitute tigers were used in Putin's brush with big cats, and that Serga herself is alive and thriving.
"Serga was definitely the one who was tagged in 2008 with the help of the prime minister. This tigress is alive, and she's doing well," Remennikova says. "She's living on the territory of the Ussuri reserve. People who don't have reliable information -- especially people who don't know much about science -- try to make everything political."
Not everyone is convinced.
Molodtsov, for one, says after his suspicions about Aralia the zoo tiger, he has begun tracking the fate of Mongol the snow leopard, as well.
"I hope that everything with him is OK," he says with worry.
-- Anastasia Kirilenko and Daisy Sindelar