By Danny Baggott @Dan_Baggie
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Videographer / Director: Александр Крутенков
Producer: Danny Baggott, Ruby Coote
Editor: Sonia Estal
In 2016, Alexandr Dmitriev and his wife, Mariya, decided to adopt a young cougar called Messi and raise him as a house-pet.
The couple, who reside in Penza, Russia, gave Messi a home in their small, studio apartment after buying him in a nearby petting zoo for £2600.
Mariya, 28, told Barcroft TV: “The first time we saw him in the zoo, I think we both had the same feeling towards this animal.
“It was such an excitement, such tenderness. Like, I don’t know, it’s impossible to grasp but it was very strong.
“He’s an amazing cat, it was clear he was different.”
Alexandr, 38, added: “Taking into account he’s quite smart and it’s easy to explain things to him, it’s not that difficult to arrange our co-living in a way that we wouldn’t bother each other.”
Messi follows a strict grooming routine to ensure he doesn’t make too much of a mess around the house – he gets washed in the bath, has his nails trimmed, his teeth checked and he receives a special brush-down every day.
The big cat eats twice a day with a diet consisting of turkey, beef, a bit of chicken breast and some bones.
“He usually eats 1.5kg of the mixture,” Alexandr said.
“His daily food intake costs us about 500-600 rubles.
“We give him different types of meat so that he can get all the necessary vitamins and micronutrients.”
Alexandr and Mariya have established a very close relationship with their unorthodox pet, even allowing him to sleep right next to their bed every night.
And fortunately, the cougar has never seriously bitten his owners, and the couple claim they 100 percent trust their quirky pet.
Alexandr said: "We trust our pet 100 percent. We live together, sleep together. He convinced us with his behaviour that he's a full member of our family and that he wouldn't be doing anything bad apart from some small naughty things.
"We're also quite lucky, because when he's playing he's not sticking his claws out. He's biting very slightly too. When he's really into playing, it's enough to just say 'ouch' for him to stop doing that."
Messi, ironically, loves to play football with Alexandr and Mariya in the living room, often having a game whenever guests visit.
And due to unforeseen health issues, the young exotic is actually around half the size of a fully-grown cougar.
Alexandr said: “Messi isn’t a typical cougar, really.
“He’s got a few health issues, that’s why he is quite small.
“He’s about half the size of a regular cougar.
“But he’s also got a unique personality, he’s very kind and likes contact. He gets on very well with people.”
Whilst Messi usually gets on well with strangers, Alexandr admits that some people make comments and are very wary of getting too close to him.
He said: “When I walk our cougar outside and meet people, they usually can be divided into two equal parts.
“First, those who approach me saying ‘that’s an amazing kitty, can I pat him? Can I touch him?’
“And the second group includes people who stay away as far as they can.”
Alexandr and Mariya had always dreamt of owning a big cat – and Messi certainly hasn’t disappointed their expectations.
And with a growing social media following of 250,000 on Instagram and more than 2 million views on YouTube, Messi has become a local celebrity.
Alexandr said: “We love him a lot because he’s very affectionate.
“It was love at first sight. He’s an amazing cat, loyal and very kind.
“You love someone just because you love them. Not for their beautiful eyes or an amazing fluffy tail.
“You just love them because, Messi is Messi.”