VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI received a rare, scaly visitor Wednesday during his weekly general audience: an endangered Cuban crocodile.
Officials from Rome's Bioparco zoo presented the 84-year-old pontiff with the young croc at the end of Wednesday's audience. Zoo official Yitzhak Yadid held the iguana-sized reptile in his hands as Benedict looked on.
The Cuban crocodile, or Crocodylus rhombifer, has seen its numbers fall by 80 percent in recent years and currently only survives in Cuba's Zapata and Isle of Youth swamps. It is classified as endangered by the United Nations convention on endangered species.
The croc who attended the papal audience had been seized by Italian forestry authorities late last year after it was discovered in an Italian private collection, zoo officials said. Forestry authorities handed it over to the zoo for safekeeping and rehabilitation.
The animal will be returned to Cuba in March, coinciding with Benedict's planned trip to the island.
The Cuban crocodile can reach 3.5 meters in length when fully grown. Benedict's 40-centimeter-long visitor is believed to be about four years old.
Rome zoo officials bought the animal to the papal audience to show off the zoo's conservation efforts as it celebrates its centenary.