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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Zoo Review: Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center

When Baltimore-born Sharon Matola came to the newly-independent Central American nation of Belize in 1983, she thought she would just be helping to shoot a nature documentary.  It being too difficult to film many of the rainforest's more iconic animals in the wild, specimens were captured and housed in large, naturalistic enclosures to be filmed, during which time Matola cared for them and the animals became habituated to her.  When the documentary was done, the rest of the film crew left, leaving Matola alone in Belize... alone, that is, except for a dozen or so animals, now too tame to safely release.

The result has been the Belize Zoo, perhaps the most spectacular zoo in the developing world.

Set along gravel trails shaded by giant trees, the zoo, located halfway between Belize City, the county's biggest town, and the capital of Belmopan, features only animals native Belize.  All are either orphans turned in to the zoo, rescued pets, or other non-releasable rescues.  For many Belizeans, the zoo provides their only chance to meet many of the most iconic animals of their country, including the national animal - Baird's tapir, known locally as the mountain cow - and national bird, the keel-billed toucan.

Matola and her team apparently have decided that nature can't be improved upon, and so they don't really try.  Most of the enclosures are just that - enclosed sections of forest.  The effect has been breathtaking, and, for the first time in a lifetime of visiting zoos, I was actually startled when I encountered some of the animals because it looked like they were loose.  This was helped, of course, by the fact that the zoo attracts a lot of wild wildlife.  At the tapir exhibit, for example, the chow bowls provided for Belize's largest land animals were also being snacked on by agoutis, iguanas, and turkey-like chachalacas, while an aviary's worth of brightly colored birds flittered in and out of the pen.  The zoo features special nocturnal hikes, where I'm told the odds of seeing a paca (locally called gibnut) outside the enclosure are just as good as seeing one in it.

You can spend days exploring Belizean rainforests and not see one-hundredth of this wildlife.  I know.  I tried.

The sole focus on Belizean wildlife is a real treat, especially for a big zoo fan.  The collection is pretty complete - you'll see all five of Belize's wild cats (jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay, and jaguarundi), both of its crocodiles, both of its monkeys, and much more.  You won't see lions and giraffes, to be sure, but you can see them anywhere in the states.  What you can see, however, are animals that are either very, very rare or completely absent in American zoo collections.  There were five species of mammal - including white-lipped peccary and jaguarundi - that I had never seen before visiting here.  I'd seen ornate hawk eagle - in my opinion the most beautiful of the birds of prey - once before.  Here, they had a magnificent enclosure where they were hard at work building a nest.  The same could be said about the most famous bird in the zoo, Boomer, the jabiru stork.  Not only was he magnificent, but his aviary was breathtaking - watching a bird as tall as me fly on lazy wingstrokes and land inches from me, separated only a thin wall of wire, was my highlight of the trip (I mean, besides petting the tapirs).

Besides providing an excellent home for nonreleaseable Belizean wildlife (some of which has found sanctuary in American zoos when Belize Zoo's resources are full), the Belize Zoo has been very active in local conservation.  Matola has worked tirelessly to resolve "problem jaguar" conflicts and help ranchers and big cats coexist.  The zoo has been very involved in the captive breeding and reintroduction of the magnificent harpy eagle, two of which resides in two story aviaries, visible from an elevated walkway.  Sometimes her advocacy gets her in trouble, as recounted by Bruce Barcott in his Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw (scarlet macaws also being visible here).

The Belize Zoo has quickly become one of the country's most popular tourist attractions.  Not as glamorous, perhaps, as the beaches of the cayes, or the unbelievable Mayan ruins, but enough to attract many visitors and make local celebrities out of some of the zoo's residents - Buddy the jaguar, Boomer the jabiru, and the late April, the tapir.  Tourists can further their experience with special tours of the nearby Tropical Education Center.  Matola's proudest legacy, however, is doubtlessly been the thousands of Belizeans, including school children, who have visited the zoo and left with a deeper appreciation of their country's beautiful, wild heritage.

One note of warning for visitors, especially those with children.  The Belize Zoo (the whole country, it sometimes seems) has sort of a natural selection policy about tourists.  At the zoo, you get great views of wildlife, mostly because barriers are minimalistic, being just enough to keep the animals in.  They do nothing for keeping you out.  There are almost zero secondary railings or barriers to keep you back from the front of, say, the puma exhibit, or from offering the king vultures a finger.  In your enthusiasm for taking the perfect photo, please remember to be safe and aware of the animals and your surroundings.

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