He’s not your usual pet. But Messi, a two-and-a-half-year-old puma, lives like a coddled house cat with married couple Mariya and Aleksandr Dmitriev. The three share a one-bedroom apartment in Penza, Russia, with the hallway converted into the puma’s playpen. But it’s no mean feat housing this unusual house pet as the cougar has reached a whopping 90 pounds (approx. 41 kg) since being adopted.
Mariya and Aleksandr found Messi as a sickly cub at the Saransk Zoo in Penza in early 2017. He was 8 months old and suffered from health problems that he’d sustained since being bought by the zoo five months earlier. Messi was one of three cubs born together in captivity: the Saransk Zoo named all three cubs after famous football players to celebrate their city hosting four matches of the World Cup.
The young couple were drawn to the puma and were very concerned to learn of his poor health. They approached zoo staff and asked if they could buy Messi and take him home. To their utmost surprise, the zoo said yes. “He always thought about having a lynx—never a puma,” Mariya said of her husband’s love for big cats. “It’s hard to explain but we believe that having this puma is part of our destiny.”
The couple are not unaware of the moral implications of their choice to keep Messi in their home. Animal rights activists have also made audible objections and believe that Messi should be living on a wildlife reserve. Others are more concerned for the safety of the couple.
Speaking to The Mirror, Mariya opened up: “We had three days of thinking hard about whether it was moral to keep a puma,” she admitted, “but nothing could fight our sudden wish … we went to the zoo and started negotiations to buy Messi.”
When Messi arrived home, it became obvious just how much care and attention he would need. He was still weak and needed medical care, not to mention regular exercise and a specialized meal program. Mariya and Aleksandr have poured love and diligence into the well-being of their new heavyweight housemate, however, and have all but nursed the cub back to health. Still, owing to his history of poor health in captivity, he is still only two-thirds of the size of a puma in the wild.
“It’s quite dangerous having such a large cat at home,” Mariya expressed, in what many may think of as a huge understatement! But the young couple have made provisions for both their own safety and the safety of others, including purchasing a custom coat and harness for long, safe walks in the outdoors. “He is like a dog,” Aleksandr revealed, in conversation with RT. “The animal hadn’t been really active before … Now we walk a lot, twice a day, as it’s supposed to be. It doesn’t differ much from owning a dog in this sense.” The couple’s hallway also houses a climbing tree, bamboo walls, and a puma-sized hiding hole.
And it turns out that Messi is something of a gentle giant. His conscientious owners attempted to find a wild animal handler to help them ensure that Messi’s behavior remains manageable, but they had no luck: dog training appeared to be the next best bet. They attended training, diligently, and Messi now responds to over 10 different commands.
Aleksandr is delighted that both his and his wife’s faith in Messi paid off. “He convinced us with his behavior that he’s a full member of our family,” he said proudly, “and that he wouldn’t be doing anything bad apart from some small naughty things. He’s very kind and likes contact. He gets on very well with people.”
The unusual family maintain a popular Instagram account where they document the extraordinary daily life of growing puma Messi in his humble Russian home. “He is just an ordinary cat,” Aleksandr remarked. “He has all the habits of a cat.”
As Messi has never lived outside captivity, the couple believe he is happiest and safest exactly where he is. “Messi is a special animal,” Mariya said, with love.
Watch some extraordinary footage of this gentle giant playing happily with his family in the video below!