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Families enjoy reopening of Dublin Zoo

Members of the public enjoyed a step towards reality today, as Dublin Zoo reopened its doors.

It was an exciting morning in Phoenix Park this morning as Dublin Zoo opened up to visitors after four months of closure.

The Zoo is operating at a reduced capacity with a pre-booking system where tickets can be purchased online. And the excitement this morning was palpable.

Director of Dublin Zoo Dr Christoph Schwitzer said the attraction will operate at a reduced capacity with a fifth of normal visitor levels.

“People have to walk a one way trail. We’ll have 56 hand sanitizing stations across the site.

“We have touchless water bottle fountains so people can refill their water bottles without having to touch anything.

“We’ve got our online booking system so there’s no physical interaction between visitors and staff.

“We’ve got stewards on site guiding people around if anybody doesn’t know where to go,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Cork, one of Ireland's most popular tourist attractions, Fota Wildlife Park, reopened as it admitted it was dealing with historic levels of booking demand.

Fota has resumed operations under the easing of Level Five Covid-19 restrictions - with visitor numbers capped at 500 people in three time slots daily.

So eager were families and supporters to renew their acquaintance with the east Cork park's cheetahs, bison, giraffes, lemurs and rhinos that their website struggled to cope with booking demand over the weekend.

Monday booked out weeks ago with Saturday and Sunday also sold out - and weekend ticket sales for May, June and July also soaring.

Now, Fota is hoping to benefit from a 'staycation' boom this summer - and recoup some of the funding it lost during the pandemic.

The reopening couldn't have come sooner with the park warning last March it only had sufficient funds to continue operations until June.

It desperately needed income from a resumption in park visitors.

Fota director Sean McKeown said the park is almost entirely dependent on income from ticket sales.

“Some 95pc of our income comes from visitors that come to the park, so we are totally dependent on that to actually run the park," he said.

"We had funds to keep us going until June."

"This should be our busiest time of the year. Over recent years some of the busiest days we recorded over the entire season was at Easter."

"It has been very challenging for everyone but especially for our staff who are so dedicated and passionate about the work we do here."

"We really have done everything possible to retain our staff because the workers we have here are so passionate about their jobs and what we are trying to accomplish here."

The park has an over-winter staffing level of 55 personnel but that soars to 150 during the summer when cafes, shops and exhibition centres open.

Mr McKeown stressed that the animals onsite were well looked after since the pandemic hit but the facility really needed to reopen again.

Each month, the food bill alone at Fota is around €15,000.

"For instance, over the space of one month our lions and tigers need about two and a half tonnes of meat, most of it meat on the bone which is better for them," he said.

"Another one tonne of meat, a lot of it chicken, is needed for our cheetahs."

Meat ranks as one of the key cost factors Fota has to deal with.

While there are also significant fodder costs for animals like bison and giraffes, spring grass growth at least helps ease the amounts required.

"Feed is the greatest single cost we face and it is a very complex organisational challenge.

The 100 acre park ranks as one of the world's leading breeding centres for endangered species and boasts 135 different animal species.

A not-for-profit charity, Fota critically depends on its gate receipts which deliver around 95pc of the annual park income.

Fota has an annual turnover of around €6m.

Because of the Covid-19 shutdown, Fota had to suspend work on the long-planned redevelopment of its popular Monkey Island while vital flood protection schemes have also been stalled.

The majority of Fota's animals represent some of the most endangered species on the planet.

Opened in 1983 on part of the old Smith-Barry estate, the park boasts almost 470,000 visitors annually.

Some 50pc of Fota's visitors are tourists and the park delivers a €200m boost to the local economy each season.

Five years ago, Fota opened its new €6m Asian Sanctuary and added a pride of Asian lions to the list of endangered species it is now hoping to breed.

They joined Sumatran Tigers as the park expanded its 'Big Cat' status which, from the park's opening, had revolved solely around cheetahs.

A total of €14m has been invested by Fota in a major expansion of its facilities and animal attractions since 2010.

Since it opened, Fota has established itself as one of the world's most successful parks for endangered species breeding programmes.

Endangered species successfully bred at Fota have been distributed to zoos and wildlife parks across four continents.

Last December, the Office of Public Works (OPW) announced the allocation of €3m in Government funding for Dublin Zoo and Fota Wildlife Park with €1m allocated to Fota Wildlife Park.

This has helped the park but funds were running short and the reopening was desperately needed.

OPW Minister Patrick O'Donovan said he was conscious of the "catastrophic effect" of Covid-19 on the income of the zoo and the Cork park.

Fota Wildlife Park received critical support from the public, visitors, annual pass holders and schools as a result of the ‘Save Dublin Zoo’ campaign which highlighted the difficulties faced by zoological facilities in Ireland.

Fota is a not for profit conservation organisation which participates in the EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) EEP and has been involved in the conservation and reintroduction of some species that are extinct or close to extinction in the wild. These include the Scimitar-horned oryx as well as the European bison.

It is currently the second largest visitor attraction in Ireland outside of Leinster.

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