Animal diplomacy

Animals have been used as diplomatic gifts for centuries if not thousands of years. They are an element of soft power in its purest form. Animals are like symbols of power (like lions or bears), strength (like elephants or horses) or beauty (like exotic birds). They help to underline the meaning of official visits and diplomatic relations between a giver and a receiver. Often they turn into a hobby of rich and spoiled monarchs and other rulers.

For instance, archaeologists found skeletons of large dogs in Iron Age (!) burial sites ear Uppsala in Sweden that are considered diplomatic gifts between rich families of the time. Giraffes had been used in diplomacy in Egypt since the ancient times and through the medieval ages and later on. They went as far as to Samarkand, as a gift to Tamerlane in 14th century, or to King George IV of England in the 19th century. It is also said that Cleopatra has given one to Julius Caesar and Romans called it “cameleopard” as they thought it was a strange mixture of a camel and a leopard…

Charlemagne loved wild animals and therefore received monkeys, camels, falcons and many other creatures that he put into his private menageries. He was even presented with an Asian elephant by the Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid. King Henry III of England transformed the Tower of London into a menagerie of animals he received as gifts: a polar bear, elephants, lions, leopards and others. Further kings have invested in the expansion of the menagerie.

Today the issue of care over the animals, the conditions they live in and the way they are treated in zoos, is important when the image of royals and politicians is concerned. Private zoos are not a popular thing, especially in the Western sphere of international relations. If animals are used in diplomacy, they are usually put in official, state zoos.

Probably the most popular “animal diplomacy” of the contemporary times is the one of China that has been developing its panda diplomacy. Using panda bears as diplomatic gifts is not a communist idea, though. There is a proof that a pair of giant pandas were sent by the Empress Wu Zetian (625-705) to the emperor of Japan. The communist regime refreshed the idea in the 1950s when two pandas were sent to the Moscow Zoo to underline the good relations between the communist China and the USSR. The most headline example took place when the US president Richard Nixon, after his ground-breaking visit to Beijing in 1972, received two giant pandas Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling. Pandas lived in the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC. Pandas were also presented to the then President of France, Georges Pompidou, the then Prime Minister of the UK, Edward Heath, and many others. In 1982 the Chinese government decided to stop giving and start renting giant pandas due to the scarcity of the animal (in 10-year-long loans). It did not diminish the popularity of the gift.

Australia has followed the Chinese pattern and has been developing its koala diplomacy at least since the G20 summit in Brisbane when pictures of President Barack Obama hugging a koala made the headlines. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Australia is said to have a manual on animal diplomacy and Julie Bishop, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Australia, in 2016 “ranked koala cuddling first among other soft power strategies that help build a stronger, connected and more prosperous region”. Australia uses also other animals as diplomatic gifts. For instance, Prince George of Great Britain received crocodiles[1] from the Australian government. Also, 4 marsupials were sent to Singapore for half a year in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Singapore. And all of this has probably started on the eve of the World War 2 when a platypus named Winston travelled to the United Kingdom (or even earlier).

Coming back to China, Beijing is not only an animal giver, but also a receiver. On many occasions the leaders of the communist China have received elephants from their Southern and South-Eastern Asian counterparts. Ho Chi Minh, the then leader of Vietnam, has sent elephants to Mao Zedong on various occasions in 1953 and 1960. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, sent an elephant to the Chinese children in 1972. Further two Sri Lankan elephants were sent in 1979. Other Asian animals often used as diplomatic gifts to China include Turkmen Akhal-Teke horses. The Chinese leaders were given these tremendous animals: Jiang Zemin in 2000, Hu Jintao in 2006 and Xi Jinping in 2014.

Asia is rich in exotic, unique animals and hence also other species were used in diplomacy. Probably the most outstanding examples include the gift of Komodo dragons presented by Mr Suharto, the Indonesian President, to Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore in 1980s and to the then US President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

Some leaders are genuinely fond of animals, like Vladimir Putin, who adores dogs and often conducts the dog diplomacy. Boyko Borisov has taken advantage of Mr Putin’s passion and gave him a big Karakachan puppy that is now called Buffy and lives in the home of the Russian president. Interestingly, president George W. Bush also received a dog from Bulgaria.

Russia is good at animal diplomacy. Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister, has given a Siberian kitten to the then Finnish President Tarja Halonen in 2013. Mr Halonen was widely known for his love for cats and his sadness after his two cats died. A few decades earlier Russian, or rather communist, leader, climbed the top of dog diplomacy. After a small-talk-type conversation with Jacqueline Kennedy about Strelka – one of the first dogs that was sent by the USSR into space and came back alive – Nikita Khrushchev – sent the first family of the US Strelka’s puppy-daughter, called Pushinka who became the family’s favourite animal of all.

But dogs are used by Russia also differently.

Once the former US President George W. Bush told the anecdote about his dog, a Scottish Terrier named Barney. When Barney was introduced to President Putin, the latter said “You call that a dog?”. One year later the Bush family visited Mr Putin at his dacha near Moscow, where Mr Putin’s huge hound, much bigger than their terrier, was introduced. Mr Putin was to say “Would you like to meet my dog? He’s bigger, stronger and faster than Barney”.

Probably the same dog was used by Mr Putin at another occasion. Some years ago at Sochi talks on energy, President Vladimir Putin welcomed Angela Merkel with his black Labrador, Koni. Mr Putin knew very well that Madame Chancellor was afraid of dogs at least since she was bitten by one in mid-1990s. The Russian leader clearly wanted to intimidate Ms Merkel and said “I’m sure it will behave itself. It doesn’t eat journalists, after all”.

It seems that animals are an inexhaustible source of inspiration when it comes to diplomacy and the expansion of soft power. They can and are used in many different manners, not just gifts (traditional diplomacy is sooo last season). The sky is the limit! But please make sure that no animal suffered during conducting diplomacy.


This article is a part of the series “The Alphabet of Diplomacy”. Other articles of the series include:

Sports diplomacy

Celebrity diplomacy

The alphabet of diplomacy – Part I


I used following articles while writing this article:

Ingvar Svanberg, “A Russian Polar Bear in Stockholm: Notes on Animal Diplomacy”

Naomi Russo, “Koalas are Australia’s Most Effective Diplomats”

“Animal gifts smooth diplomatic relations”

Lee Tunstall, “A Long History of Animal Diplomacy (It’s Not Just Pandas!)

Lydia Lam, “Putin turns down Japan’s dog gift: 5 types of animal diplomacy”

Jose Diaz-Balart staff, “#5Things: Animal Diplomacy”

Alison Gee, “Pushinka: A Cold War puppy the Kennedys loved”

Tal Kopan, “Bush: Putin ‘dissed’ Barney the dog”

“The time Putin brought his dog to a meeting to scare Angela Merkel”



[1] Speaking about these animals – it is said that President John Quincy Adams received an aligator from the Marquis de Lafayette. The animal lived later in the bathtub in East Room…

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