The Belize Zoo is about 50 kilometres outside of Belize City, down the Western Highway and on the way to Belmopan and the west and south of the country. It’s a painless pit stop if you’re travelling in those directions, or an easy day trip if you’re based in Belize City or Belmopan. And, unless you’re an expert wildlife photographer with a year to spend in the country, it’s the only place that you’ll see the rarer animals of Belize (not to mention the best place to see the rest of them).
All the zoo’s species are native to Belize, so you won’t see any tigers or polar bears, but you will see all of the country’s exotic wildlife, including the species that you’d never see in the wild, like the jaguar. The local nature of the occupants means the zoo is quite small (you can see it all in a couple of hours), but it does give a great introduction to the wildlife of Belize and Central America.
Being in the middle of nowhere (like many places in Belize!), the zoo is surrounded by empty jungle, and its environment is the same as the land that surrounds it. Gravel trails through the forest are one of the few man-made things inside the grounds – rather than metal cages or concrete enclosures, the animals are mainly housed in open, natural-looking areas, so the place feels less like an animal prison and more like a zoological country club.
Like many zoos around the world, Belize’s has animals that have been bred in captivity and ones that have been donated by other facilities. But they also have specimens that have come from private owners, and ones that have been rescued from traps or taken in to avoid angry gun-toting farmers (unsurprisingly, the farmers aren’t too happy with any animal that eats their animals!). And unlike some zoos, Belize’s has never resorted to supplementing its menagerie with captured animals taken from the wild. These conventions, along with the zoo’s Tropical Education Center and successful breeding programmes, have given it a high reputation throughout the Americas.
In 1983 a filmmaking team came to Belize to make a wildlife documentary called Path of the Rain Gods. By the time filming was over, the animals that the team had collected for the film had become tame, the crew were leaving the country, there was no money left, and no one knew what to do with 17 animals that couldn’t be released into the wild. Sharon Matola (the film’s animal handler) stayed behind with her furry charges and started the zoo.
It soon became apparent that Belizeans were largely unfamiliar with the native animals of their own country, and had many misconceptions and superstitions about them (many of which involved killing and eating them!). The zoo’s focus expanded, and it now educates residents and visitors alike about the native wildlife and its conservation, with all Belizean children getting in free (and Belizean adults getting in for a few dollars).
The zoo’s animals include all the Belizean cats, from the jaguar and puma all the way to the tiny jaguarundi (a small ginger cat with a hoarse throaty purr that looks and sounds like an domestic moggy with asthma). Another famous resident is the tapir (the country’s national animal), a fat beast that looks somewhere between a pig and a cow, and has a prehensile snout and a reputation for spraying its urine at curious visitors. There are howler monkeys (who are one of the loudest animals and whose crepuscular roars can be heard for miles). And there are a number of cute furry critters, with exotic names like agouti, gibnut, kinkajou, and coatimundi.
Birds include many colourful avians (Belize is a popular destination for twitchers), such as the ridiculously-colourful scarlet macaw, the equally-beautiful keel-billed toucan (the country’s national bird), the enormous jabiru stork, and the bizarre-looking harpy eagle. All the animals have ‘amusing’ descriptions of their appearance, behaviour or habitat, some of which are as interesting as the animals themselves.
In addition to being the founder and director of the zoo, Sharon Matola (known throughout the country as ‘The Zoo Lady’) is a famous educator and conservationist. Her fieldwork researching the endangered scarlet macaw in central Belize and her opposition to a dam that the PUP government of the day were pushing through brought international attention to the murky world of Belizean politics and business – the dam was roundly criticised by conservationists, engineers and accountants as being environmentally damaging, architecturally unsound and financially dubious. Despite the protesters and their evidence, the dam went ahead anyway, some people in Belize (and some international companies) increased their money and power, the area upriver from the dam flooded (driving away the macaws), and the area downriver from the dam dried up (making it unusable for the local people). And electricity prices went up and the country still buys power from abroad (the PUP’s rationale for the dam was to lower electricity rates and become more energy self-sufficient). The whole engrossing (and disturbing) story of greed, corruption, clandestine deals, secret relationships, and larger-than-life personalities is documented in Bruce Barcott’s excellent book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, which not only tells the story of the dam and its opposition, but is a great introduction to the history, people, politics and environment of Belize, and reads like a thriller as much as it does a non-fiction book – if you’re coming to Belize for any reason and any length of time, I recommend this book.
I also recommend visiting the zoo if you have the time – it’s the kind of place that even people who don’t like zoos (i.e. me) like visiting. The only downside is the price – the locals may get in free or cheap, but tourists and non-Belizeans have to stump up BZ$30 (US$15, or UK£10). But if you don’t mind the price (and whatever price you pay will be helping one of the country’s most important organisations), the zoo should definitely be on your Belizean ‘to do’ list.