Normally on a trip to the zoo, you catch a glimpse of exotic animals you’d rarely encounter anywhere else. But, what if, while you’re oohing and ahhing over the majestic snoozing rhino or the lazy, leaf chomping giraffe, an amusing thought pops in your brain: “I wish I could take one home.”
Rarely does anyone have the nerve to take a zoo animal home, but one couple from Penza, Russia had a soft spot for large, intimidating animals. After setting eyes on one particular predator, they were dead set on making him a part of their cozy little family…
Mariya and Aleksandr Dmitriev had geared up for an afternoon date at their local petting zoo in Penza, Russia. Like your typical zoo-goers, the couple was looking forward to interacting with exotic furry critters they wouldn’t see on a trip to the pet store.
But as the pair went to each animal enclosure, taking in ferocious polar bears and mischievous monkeys, one particular creature caught their attention in a freeze frame, love-at-first-sight kind of way.
The object of their affection? Well, it was a true heart breaker: a fuzzy 8-month-old feline named Messi. Despite being an exotic puma, his gentle nature and obvious longing for head scratches held the couple’s attention long after they’d left that evening.
Logically, Mariya and Alexander knew that pining for a zoo creature was a waste of energy. They could go back and visit, but they’d eventually have to let the wild creature slip from their minds. Messi belonged in the zoo.
Still, they wondered if it would be possible to take the cat home. Even though Mariya was smitten with the larger-than-normal kitten, it was Aleksandr who always dreamed of raising one of the exotic creatures.
Mariya explained her husband’s childhood fantasy, “He always thought about having a lynx — never a puma. It’s hard to explain but we believe that having this puma is part of our destiny.”
But Messi, the couple knew, came with problems: Having been born the runt of his litter, he had only reached about two thirds the size of his puma brethren. Worse, he suffered from quite a few health issues.
Gary J. Wood / Flickr
Those medical needs coupled with the fact he’d been born and raised in captivity, made it impossible for him to integrate into the wild. The petting zoo couldn’t continue providing for Messi, which led them to consider the worst— euthanasia.
But after three days weighing the pros and cons, Aleksandr and Mariya approached the Penza Zoo with an offer to purchase Messi — an offer to give him a permanent, if a bit unorthodox, home.
Sitting down with zoo officials, Mariya and Aleksandr were fully prepared to be laughed out of the office. But much to their delighted surprise, when they explained their proposition to adopt Messi, the petting zoo accepted without scrutiny!
I_am_puma / Instagram
Rescued from possible death, Messi was now headed for a brand new journey as a bigger-than-average house cat. Mariya and Aleksandr’s dreams were granted, and the reality of being an exotic pet parent was the next lofty challenge.
In many ways, adopting Messi was similar to the adjustment period of getting any new pet. His parents took every necessary step to make the sizable feline feel at home. He didn’t even totally hate bath time!
Apart from managing his ailments, Mariya and Aleksandr got their fur baby up and moving. Clad in a special coat and harness, Messi was led by Mom and Dad on lengthy walks to increase his activity level.
Now a puma on a leash is bound to turn a head or three, but Messi took to the domesticated strolls like a playful Labrador. Twice a day, as part of his regular routine, Messi enjoyed his exercise.
Still, getting Messi to obey commands didn’t come as easy for the family. After all, there wasn’t a guidebook in the library outlining crate training for your puma. At a loss for where to turn, they signed up for a local obedience course.
Once enrolled, Messi proved a star pupil, albeit he looked a little different from his peers. After the conclusion of the course, he learned 10 commands, and made some unlikely dog friends!
I_am_puma / Instagram
Despite what the haters said, Mariya and Aleksander were totally confident in their choice to adopt a nontraditional animal. “He’s a full member of our family,” Mariya said. “He’s very kind and likes contact. He gets on very well with people.”
Luckily their big kitty is more of a lap cat since the one bedroom apartment offered some challenges for Messi’s personal space. The hallway served as an easy conversion to Messi’s puma den, all decked out with bamboo walls, a tree, and a hiding hole.
Messi slunk seamlessly into the family’s life, save for one glaring exception: Mariya and Aleksandr already had an existing cat, a sphinx named Kira, who was not a fan of her new older brother!
For a while, the parents chose to keep Messi and Kira separated. Since he was only a kitten, Messi was packed with playful energy that Kira refused to reciprocate. “She doesn’t want to be friends with Messi and hisses at him whenever she sees him,” Mariya said.
Even though their lives were transformed thanks to their puma pet, Mariya didn’t recommend others take the leap to adopt a wild animal. Messi was a one-of-a-kind personality, and they doubted other creatures would share a similar house-cat psyche.
Messi the pampered puma caught so much attention, Mariya and Aleksandr created Instagram and YouTube accounts to document his daily cat-tivities. With over 750 thousand followers, he was quickly chasing down his FIFA namesake as the most popular Messi!
I_am_puma / Instagram
For years, Mariya and Aleksandr fostered dreams of parenting a massive wild animal, and in their case, their instincts proved correct: Messi was a cuddly cougar. Others have adopted exotic pets with mixed results.
Many people would not expect Bonnie Hart, a 64-year-old former truck driver who lived in Texas, to lead a risky life. She was a grandmother who owned a dog and a nice property. By all accounts, she was pretty ordinary. But looks can be deceiving…
Talk to Bonnie for just a few minutes and you’d notice a very different side of things. What was so odd about this seemingly average grandma? It all began the day Bonnie saw her dog heading toward her property with two strange creatures trailing close behind…
She couldn’t have expected what she saw. “I’m sitting on the porch, drinking coffee… and here comes my black dog,” she recalled. “Wrapped behind him are two little black things following him.”
Bonnie didn’t know what she was looking at upon first glance. “I thought they were other dogs,” she continued. “And as they got closer, I went ‘Holy moly, they’re bears!'” That’s right—two bears followed her tiny dog home, and they were quickly approaching her house!
Barcroft Animals / YouTube
Amazingly, the bears didn’t attack her or her dog. In fact, they stuck around! Bonnie didn’t know their backstory, but she decided to keep them as pets, naming them Pebbles and Bam Bam. If that seems crazy, you’ll be stunned to learn what else Bonnie did…
Bonnie was also the proud owner of Anushka, a beautiful white tiger! She housed the big cat in a pen in her back yard ever since she was first gifted the tiger as a cub. Just looking at the two of them together would be enough to make your jaw drop!
Soon enough, Pebbles, Bam Bam, and Anushka were fully grown, and Bonnie since settled into her life as their permanent caretaker. Yet, as with most exotic pet owners, there was a great deal of risk involved. It didn’t scare Bonnie; she took her responsibility seriously.
Bonnie clearly loved and felt comfortable around her unusual pets, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t aware of the risks. “I have tranquilizer guns so we can tranquilize them if we have to,” she admitted.
Still, Bonnie didn’t think it was likely that she’d have to take those measures anytime soon. “Nobody’s going to be hurt, not unless you just climb into the pen and be stupid,” she insisted. She wasn’t shy about detailing her relationship with each of the animals…
“Pebbles can get a little cantankerous at times, and she’s slapped me with her claws, she’s bit at me a couple of times, but nothing, like, attacked me.” Bonnie knew things could get out of hand if she wasn’t on her guard—which made her next actions all the more shocking!
Despite the dangers, Bonnie actually allowed her own grandchildren to play with her pets! The kids agreed that it was risky. “I think it’s a little bit crazy that she likes having tigers and bears,” one of her granddaughters, Clara, admitted.
Another granddaughter, Raeanne, felt a bit differently. “I think it’s really cool. I mean, it’s definitely a different experience,” she said. “Bears are my favorite animal. Like, overall.” Not many grandmas would let their family get in a cage with one, of course.
Interestingly, the grandkids’ relationships with the bears were not the same as the ones they had with Anushka. “I don’t go in the tiger pen,” Raeanne admitted. “Because, you know, it’s a tiger.”
Bonnie’s family members weren’t the only ones who enjoyed her animals. Some people liked to visit them on a regular basis. “My neighbors, they love it,” Bonnie said, adding that they even brought their families along sometimes. While Bonnie seemed accommodating to her visitors, you wouldn’t want to try to get between her and her pets…
What would happen if somebody tried to take her animals away from her? Bonnie claimed she would, “Shoot them. Point blank. Come on my property and try to take my animals? I don’t care if it’s tigers, bears, horses, or dogs, somebody’s going to get shot.” Got it.
Aside from all of those risks, caring for her pets cost a great deal of time, effort, and, of course, money. “You’re looking at $1,000, $1,500 dollars more a month just to feed these animals,” she explained. That was more than some families spend!
Anushka’s carnivorous diet was particularly demanding. “I feed her probably between 14 and 20 pounds a day,” Bonnie said. “And she eats beef, pork, chicken, stuff like that.” Just like any good grandma, Bonnie treated Anushka to exactly what she liked.
Bam Bam and Pebbles, on the other hand, had tastes that were a bit more refined. “These bears…” Bonnie began, laughing. “I’ve tried fish. I’ve tried salmon. They don’t want it. They want their berries, their watermelons, their cantaloupes, their candy…”
They were predators, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have a sweet tooth! “They love cookies, marshmallows, they love anything that’s sweet, and they will almost mug you for honey,” Bonnie said.
Bonnie might have seemed, as her granddaughter Clara put it, “crazy” for keeping bears and a white tiger in her back yard. Still, when she interacted with them, her actions clearly came from a place of love!