What many people fail to realize when they come to Belize is that the chance of seeing wildlife, other then birds and insects, are limited. The tangle of vines and thick foliage makes it difficult to see even a few feet off a forest path or road. Also, many tropical creatures are nocturnal, finding safety under the cloak of night. Except for a flash of fur dissolving into the roadside bush, or the snap of a branch and rustle of leaves, most visitors will end up experiencing the habitat where wildlife live instead of viewing the creatures themselves.
But there is one place where you are assured of seeing a jaguar or a tapir in a natural setting. The Belize Zoo is an oasis of ponds, forests, and flowers among the sprawling savannas 29 miles west of Belize City. Here, over 60 indigenous animals are comfortably harbored in large,naturally vegetated enclosures. In fact, during the heat of the day,many of the animals are difficult to see because of the thick cover. This is because the welfare of the animals takes precedence over theviewing ability of visitors. You will often feel that you are in the forest,viewing through the tangle of vines and shrubs to catch a glimpse of ajaguarundi or ocelot. Much like searching for wildlife in the rainforest,patience and persistence are necessary to view the beauty of these creatures at the Belize Zoo.
The animals and grounds are meticulously cared for by the Belizean staff. Shiny pelts, bright eyes and, in most cases, pleasant dispositions attest to the health of the animals. The rained graveled paths will lead you from exhibit to exhibit through natural savanna and pine ridge vegetation,and transplanted rainforest displays. Hand painted signs call attention to the natural habits of each animal, its endangered status, and reminds Belizeans and visitors alike that, "Belize is my home too!". The Belize Zoo is as much a botanical garden as it is a zoological park. The message -- we need to save the habitat to save the animals.
The Belize Zoo is also a focal point for environmental awareness in Belize. Most Belizeans have never seen the magnificence of a jaguar, or the graceful movements of the smaller cats. Sharon Matola, the founder and the driving force behind the Zoo, often recounts an incident that helped convince herthat she was on the right track as she struggled during the early days. An old man with white hair and wrinkles, showed up at the gate after closing. He had come to see the Zoo. At the time Matola was accountant and keeper,janitor and tour guide of the fledgling Zoo. The man had traveled far so Matola let him in and proceeded to give him a personal tour.
At first the old man commented freely at each cage about such well-entrenched myths as anteaters killing dogs with their tongues, or that boa constrictors are poisonous during the day. Soon he grew silent. Finally, as they neared the end of the tour, they stood in front of a sunlit jaguar. Matola noticed tears in the old man's eyes. She recounts him saying, "I'm, very sorry, Miss. I have lived in Belize all my life and this is the first time I have seen the animals of my country. They are so beautiful."
That was in 1983, when the Zoo consisted of chicken wire cages sheltering animals left over from a natural history film. Matola was hired by the film maker to care for the animals, and when the film was completed, she was left to decidehow to dispose of them; many were tame and unaccustomed to life in the wild. With a characteristic energy, charisma and dedication, she began to hang up signs beside the cages, to solicit local funds to buy feed for the animals,and to visit schools around the country to raise awareness of the wealth and deteriorating habitat of Belizean wildlife. As her dream turned to reality, Matola began spending time raising money outside Belize for a new Zoo. She hired and trained Belizeans to care for the animals and run the educational programs.
Today, the Belize Zoo has moved to a new 30 acre site near the old Zoo;employs 17 Belizeans; and is part of larger complex that includes a Tropical Education and Research Center. An innovative visitor center features the freshartworks of visiting school children, displays freshwater aquariums and explains how the sophisticated solar system installed at the Zoo works. A creative children's area outside the entrance pavilion sports spider webs of rope and other playground equipment with natural motifs. The Belize Zoo is a half daytrip from Belize City and may be the only chance you have of feeling what anold man felt when viewing the magnificence of the jaguar.
Images courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography