Located an hour from Belize City is “the best little zoo in the world“, The Belize Zoo. Whether you’re going to be in Belize for a short stay or a few months you should definitely take the time to visit the Belize Zoo. What started in 1983 as a home for animals who had been used in a documentary has grown into the national pride of Belize, educating Belizeans about the importance of their own natural heritage and the animals that inhabit it.
Sharon Matola started the zoo in 1983 after being left by film makers to dispose of the animals that had become too tame to be able to survive in the wild. From the zoo’s meager, chicken wire beginnings Sharon recalled a conversation with an older Belizean that gave her the inspiration to start the zoo.
“A very old man showed up at the gate after closing. At the time, Matola was keeper, janitor, tour guide, and accountant rolled into one, so she let the man in and gave him a personal tour. At first the old man commented freely at each cage about well-entrenched Belizean myths—how ant-eaters kill dogs with their tongues, or that boa constrictors are poisonous during the day. Soon he grew silent. Finally, as they stood in front of a sun-lit jaguar, Matola noticed tears in the old man’s eyes. “I am very sorry, Miss,” she recalls him saying. “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.”
With no help from the government Sharon started teaching the people of Belize about their own backyard, often taking animals to classrooms on the back of her motorcycle so that she could educate the children about their natural heritage and dispel some of the myths that surround these exotic creatures. Today she’s a national legend even though she hails from North America.
The animals are kept in spacious pens with plenty of cover if they don’t feel like being seen. We were told to arrive early if we wanted to catch a glimpse of the jaguar just in case he might have wanted to take a nap in the shade towards the afternoon. The enclosures are also comically adorned with signs written in a Belizean dialect from the point of view of the animals. The 125 animals housed here are all native to the country of Belize with quite a few of them being on the endangered list. You’ll see all shapes and sizes of cats, from jaguars to to ocelots, plenty of birds, lizards and snakes as well as April, the zoos most famous resident. She’s a tapir and is the national animal of Belize. Check your Belizean dollars and see if you can match up the animals on the bills to the ones in the zoo.
As stated on the official website, “All animal present in the Belize zoo are endemic to the region. They have not been captured from the wild but rather donated by other zoos, removed from the illegal pet trade, harmed by accident or intentionally or have been bred in captivity.” The zoo even has accommodations at the Tropical Education Center that allows for people to spend the night and take part in their nocturnal tours.More information on hours of operation, tours and fees can also be found at the website.
Sharon’s work also extends into the conservation of the habitat of Belize. She was recently part of a failed attempt to stop the Challilo Dam project, a joint Canadian/Belizean project that was supposed to make Belize more energy dependent and reduce the cost of power for the average household. Unfortunately rates have risen for Belizeans while some prime habitat for the Scarlet Macaw and numerous other species have been flooded. To make matters worse those living downstream from the dam are in greater danger should the dam break and their water system has been damaged. You can read all about it in her book.
I was never a huge fan of zoos always maintaining a preference to see animals in their natural habitat. Fortunately for the residents of the Belize Zoo it’s probably as close as they’ll get to being able to live in the wild again. No visit to Belize would be complete without a trip to the Belize Zoo in fact I feel so strongly about it that I think that along with border crossing fees everyone who enters should also pay a fee for the zoo and be given a ticket stub. Don’t miss this opportunity to visit one of the world’s wildest zoos.