Week Three in Belize: The Belize Zoo
by Emma Kelley -- June 30th, 2014
In 1983, an American named Sharon Matola came to Belize as part of a documentary film crew. At the conclusion of filming, there was nothing to be done with the 17 animals used to make the wildlife documentary. The animals had become too tame to survive in the wild, so Matola stayed behind in Belize to care for them. She decided to start a zoo to give the animals a home and teach folks about the amazing wildlife of Belize. At first, the Belize Zoo was nothing more than a backyard menagerie. Today, it covers 29 acres and is home to over 125 animals, none of which are captured from the wild. The animals at the zoo are either confiscated exotic pets, sent or donated from other zoos, bred in captivity, injured in the wild, or orphaned at a young age. The zoo attempts to rehabilitate or recondition animals for the wild, but when release is impossible, it provides them with a home.
We decided to visit the zoo on a warm and cloudy Saturday. The bus from Belize City dropped us off in front of a large sign on a dusty road, with nothing else in either direction as far as they eye could see.
We paid our entrance fee, read a few of the signs telling us about the origins of the zoo and the animals kept there, then made our way through through the exhibits. Each enclosure is accompanied by a clever sign describing the animal and how it came to the zoo. For example…
We saw the National Animal of Belize: the Tapir, also known as the Mountain Cow. The tapir populations of Belize have been threatened by hunting and deforestation. One of the zoo’s resident tapirs was orphaned at a young age in a forest fire.
My favorite part of the Belize Zoo was something I’ve never encountered before. A normal zoo trip usually involves wandering through hordes of other humans to oogle at a disinterested animal, who is usually either sleeping or finding other ways to ignore the zoo patrons. Who can blame them? I can speak from experience when I say there are few things more satisfying than ignoring a visitor who is rudely smacking the glass of an exhibit and shouting to get the attention of whatever is inside (be it fish, turtle, or SCUBA diver). Yet when Sylvia and I approached some enclosures at the Belize Zoo, the animals darted over to us, showing almost as much interest in us as we were showing in them. The toucans, which happen to be the National Bird of Belize, flew right over and gave us a lovely look at their colorful beaks and feathers. I have no good photos of the margay because we spent most of the time running up and down along the exhibit with him. Even the jaguar, with his spectacular spotted coat, was friendly. He paced along with us, only stopping to roll over in what looked like an attempt to eat his foot.
Speaking of our new spotted friend, the Belize Zoo is home to some “problem” jaguars. These are jaguars that repeatedly hunt farm animals and would otherwise be shot by farmers. Instead, the Belize Zoo intervenes. They capture the wild jaguar and ‘rehabilitate’ them so that they may be placed in a North American zoo. Although this is not an ideal solution to the problem, it is a better alternative to this endangered animal being shot and killed.
After a few hours enjoying the wildlife of Belize, we managed to catch a bus headed back to Belize City. We’re moving along with the blue carbon project and my next post will discuss mangrove restoration in Belize. Stay tuned!