While Europe and the United States have imposed sanctions against Russia to weaken President Vladimir Putin, his latest loss comes from a different source: On Thursday, an endangered Siberian tiger named Kuzya crossed the Russian border to China, apparently searching for food. It was one of three tigers Putin had personally released into the wild back in May.

There are now concerns about the tiger's safety. China's official Xinhua news agency quoted local officials who were quick to say that the tiger would experience no shortage of food. The officials even said they would "release cattle into the region to feed it," if necessary. To make matters worse, on Friday, a second of the tigers was found near the Chinese border.

It's a strange moment between China and Russia, which have recently seen relations flourish as the Russian president became a pariah in much of the world. Could Putin, a renowned animal lover, take it personally?

While the Russian president may be a former KGB agent and expert in martial arts with a reputation as a fierce political leader, he has frequently shown his softer side around animals. He has a number of pet dogs (which he occasionally uses to intimidate rival leaders) and loves to be photographed with a variety of animals.

Putin's love of animals beguiles political scientists. "Putin is very much at home with these animals," Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, told The Washington Post, before adding: "He knows that they are great for photo opportunities."

And photos there certainly are: Putin has been photographed with a huge variety of animals, from polar bears to dolphins and many in between.

For Jan Kubik, chair at the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, there are a number of different ways to interpret Putin's animal photos. In an e-mail, he pointed out that photos portrayed Putin as a "nature lover who rides a horse shirtless."

Kubik goes on to explain that he had seen "at least three more types of images falling into the following categories: a loving pet owner (all those puppies), a consummate animal handler (horses, tigers) and the rescuer of endangered species (flying with Siberian cranes, saving a Siberian bear)."

Those pictures could convey three underlying messages, according to Kubik:

"One idea is that he is trying to formulate – subconsciously, perhaps – yet another way of distinguishing Russia from Europe. Consider half-naked Putin on horseback. He is a mysterious hybrid of a powerful animal and (rational) human. But the image is also heavily sexualized. A virile lover, if needs be, but also a fertile father. The father of a nation that is close to nature, tough, muscular, energetic. Quite different from those effeminate European males.
Second, he seems to be saying: 'I love animals. So, I am not such a heartless dictator, as the Westerners tend to think I am.'
Third, he says: 'I have a heart, but my love is tough, manly.' His message is: I am not a softie. I love animals (so I can love people), I can guide them, as a consummate leader, but I can also easily tame them as tough ruler. So, the message is tough love."

Putin has had his mishaps with animals before – in 2012, his attempt to fly a glider and lead Siberian cranes on their seasonal migration failed and the cranes turned back (he later compared anti-Kremlin protesters to the "weak cranes"). But rarely has the problem involved another nation, in particular one with which Russia is enjoying a burgeoning relationship.

Fears may be overblown, however. Loomis emphasizes the significance of photos which show Putin with a gun: He may be an animal lover, but he's also a hunter.