There's no doubt what Vladimir Putin's favorite birthday present is this year - a rare Ussuri tiger cub.
State television showed the Russian prime minister tenderly petting the 2-month-old female cub on Friday at his residence outside Moscow. The cub, weighing only about 20 pounds, was curled up in a wicker basket with a tiger-print cushion.
Putin said a good home will be found for the tiger, presumably in a zoo or wildlife preserve. He hasn't decided what to call her, but is leaning toward Mashenka or Milashka.
Putin refused to say who gave him the cub for his 56th birthday, which was Tuesday.
He called Russian journalists to his country home late Thursday without telling them why. Past midnight, after asking them "not to make noise, make a clatter or squeal," Putin ushered the curious journalists into the room where the tiger cub was waiting.
As president and now prime minister, Putin is known for his tough talk and macho image. But children and animals seem to bring out a softer side.
His dog, a Labrador Retriever named Koni, is often with him, even during meetings with world leaders. He told journalists that Koni has not yet met the tiger cub.
In August, Putin had occasion to pet a full-grown female Ussuri tiger after shooting her with a tranquilizer gun. He was visiting a wildlife preserve in Russia's Far East and shot the 5-year-old tiger as part of a program to track the rare cats, also known as the Siberian, Amur or Manchurian tiger.
Once the tiger was asleep, Putin placed a collar with a GPS tracking system around her neck. Television footage showed him patting her cheek like a pet.
Fewer than 400 Ussuri tigers are believed to survive in the wild, most of them in Russia and some in China. They are the largest tiger species, weighing up to 600 pounds.
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Copyright 2008 Associated Press