Dublin Zoo has blamed Pope Francis for causing a drop of almost 100,000 in visitor numbers this year.
Director Leo Oosterweghel claimed the pontiff “pulled the rug” from beneath the zoo in a year when it also had to contend with the Beast from the East and one of the hottest summers on record in Ireland.
The popular attraction was forced to shut its doors for three days in August during the Pope’s visit, which included a Mass in Phoenix Park, the home of the zoo.
Mr Oosterweghel said: “We took a hit. We’re down. We’re still above the million, but we’re probably down 100,000 visitors.”
Last year more than 1.1m people visited the zoo. That figure is expected to be in the region of 1.01m people at the end of 2018.
“First there was the extraordinary winter, it was hard to recover,” Mr Oosterweghel said.
“Then we had this incredibly hot summer.
“Then his Holiness arrived the last week of August — we were closed for that whole period.”
Mr Oosterweghel said all the confusion over access to Phoenix Park that week depressed visitor numbers.
“People weren’t sure,” he said. “We lost the last week of August which is our biggest week. The end of the school holidays... if the weather is good you have 10,000 people here in one day so we lost out.
“[We had] the bad winter, the hot summer and his Holiness who pulled the rug a little bit.”
But there was a silver lining as Mr Oosterweghel got to experience having a Pope in his back garden.
The director, who has been at the helm for 18 years, lives on site.
“It was amazing to have an empty Phoenix Park, all I had to do was open my window and I could hear him,” he said.
Despite the difficult trading conditions, Mr Oosterweghel said: “We’re still in the black, we’re still in surplus. We’re still over a million — it just shows you how robust the business is.”
He expects numbers to “bounce back” next year and the zoo has an ambitious master plan it is due to roll out in the coming years.
Something which might help push those visitor numbers up next year will be the unveiling of two endangered tiger cubs, which is set to happen sometime in the New Year.
The Amur cubs, who are both females, were born in October after a 106-day pregnancy to first-time mother, three-year-old Tundra, and eight-year-old father Ussuri.
Mr Oosterweghel said Tundra was taking to motherhood very well and her cubs have bonded well with her.
“She’s perfect, she’s just amazing looking after them,” he said.
“Often with cats, the first litter is touch-and-go but these guys, they are powering ahead.”
Mr Oosterweghel said it has not been decided when visitors will be able to catch a glimpse of the cubs, it will depend on when the cubs are ready.“They are still with their mother, they’re weaning now, they are eating meat and they’ve sharp little teeth,” he said.An endangered species, Amur tigers - which were formerly known as Siberian tigers, are native to eastern Russia, China and the Korean peninsula.They are now found primarily in a small part of the Amur river region on the border between China and Russia.It is estimated that about 540 remain in the wild.In the 1940s, numbers had dwindled to 40 due to hunting before a conservation effort boosted the population.Mr Oosterweghel said he keeps a close eye on the cubs via a live feed camera set up in the habitat that he can access on his phone.They are currently in a private enclosure with their mother, while their father remains outside.Like all tiger cubs, they were born with their eyes closed and were unable to see for the first 12-14 days.At two weeks, one cub weighed 3.14 kg and the other weighed 2.79kg. They have been gaining weight every day but it will still take them time before they catch up with their parents.Their mother weighs 124 kilos while their father weighs almost 200 kilos.Team leader Ciaran McMahon said: “They’re doing extremely well. All they do is feed all day constantly off the mother. Their growth rate is quite rapid.”He added that it was significant that both cubs were females.“It’s a big, big lottery plus for us,” Mr McMahon said.Dublin Zoo is part of an international breeding programme designed to ensure the survival of tigers in their natural habitat.Once they reach adulthood, the cubs will be sent to other zoos for breeding with the aim of adding to the declining population.