MOSCOW — An unlikely friendship between a tiger and a goat who was supposed to be his dinner has charmed Russia.
In a zoo in the far reaches of Siberia, predator and prey have become best buddies. Amur the tiger and Timur the goat's charmed life started in late November, when Amur decided not to eat the goat when it was unleashed into his enclosure.
The intention was that the goat would be a gastronomic delight, not a playpal. But instead the two animals appear to have bonded, sharing a food bowl and appearing to play with each other by romping through Amur's pen.
Before the new year, they had already drawn enough attention that the Primorsky Safari Park set up a live webfeed of the enclosure. But they rocketed to stardom when one of Russia's state-run television networks unveiled a 44-minute documentary ode to their friendship during the slow news week between New Year's Day and Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7, a time when all of Russia is on holiday.
"The situation is really weird. For three years running we have fed Amur a huge number of goats, rabbits, roosters and rams," said Dmitry Mezentsev, the general director of the Primorsky Safari Park, in a telephone interview from the zoo, which is in Russia's far southeast, seven hours ahead of Moscow.
"As a rule, Amur gets prey twice a week. My only explanation is that this couldn't have happened without interference of the higher power," the zoo director said.
The friendship started after the goat, seemingly unfazed that it was on the dinner menu, chased the tiger out of his sleeping place, a converted aviary, and claimed the comfortable area for its own. Amur, apparently confused that the goat was not properly submissive, went to sleep on the roof.
"Amur has never rejected prey before," Mezentsev said. "There was just one case when the goat given to Amur lived through the night. Amur ate him the following morning."
Since their first encounter, the pair has spent their days together, watched by an increasing number of Russians who want to see the strange match.
"Every morning Santa Claus brings a treat of apples and cabbage for Timur, and meat for Amur," the zookeeper said. The zoo has given up feeding goats to the tiger, instead switching to a two-rabbit diet, twice a week, and supplementing with other meats every day.
Timur and Amur enjoy playing with a ball, one snatching it from the other and running away, as the other tries to catch up, Mezentsev said. They are prepping for the 2018 World Cup, which will be held in Russia, he joked.
Amur, a Siberian tiger, has benefited from conservation efforts promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The species, also known as the Amur tiger, is endangered, and there are an estimated 550 alive. But population levels have stabilized in recent years. Putin released three cubs into the wild in 2014. They drew headlines when one wandered into China and snacked on local farmers' livestock before returning to Russia.