The Belize City Zoo

It is always interesting how zoos get started and Belize’s zoo is no exception. In 1983 a documentary was filmed in Belize called the Path of the Rain Gods. There were seventeen animals native to Belize taken from the wild for the movie. Sharon Matola was hired to care for them. After filming ended, these animals were too tame to be placed back in their natural habitat. As there was no zoo in Belize at the time, Sharon came up with the idea of a zoo as a new home for these seventeen animals. She hung up simple signs next to their cages and then looked for funding from environmental groups and individuals interested in environmental issues.

In December 1991, the new zoo opened with new exhibits after funding was secured through many generous donations. The zoo is now self-sufficient financially through admission tickets and employs 17 Belizeans. Some of the zoo-keepers were trained at a special “zoo” school that assists developing nations in preserving their species. In addition to all the animals it is interesting to see all the native plants that are exported to the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world as house plants growing naturally on the zoo grounds.

In Belize many of the indigenous animals are hunted for food or killed because they are considered pests. Sharon felt that it was important to give Belizeans information about the animals and about animal conservation. Signs hang throughout the zoo written from the animals’ perspective and in Creole asking for relief from hunting or dispelling common myths that have caused their populations to dwindle. The sign over the Hawk-Eagle cage reads “I am an Ornate Hawk-Eagle and someone shot me! Yes Mon! Shot Me! And look ya! Not many countries have birds as big and as pretty as we Ornate Hawk-Eagles…Listen…my species loves to eat snakes! Not like you! And my species loves Belize! Just like you!”

Like zoos worldwide, zoo personnel attempt to recreate the animals’ natural habitat. The animals are kept in open topped enclosures that make it seem like you are in the wild with them. This is great for many of the animals, but a little bit scary when getting close to the jaguars.

There are two jaguar sisters in the zoo. One is the more commonly known type with obvious spots and the other is all black. We learned however, that all jaguars have spots. You just can’t see them clearly on the black jaguars. Black fur is a recessive trait and therefore less common. The jaguar has the largest brain per body mass of any cat in the world. They are stealth hunters whose name means “able to overcome its prey with one bound.” Being this close to such a powerful animal is awe-inspiring. Belize has a special area of land set aside as a jaguar preserve and there is a healthy population of jaguars in Belize. The natural jaguar population is an indicator of the general overall health of the jungle ecosystem. If jaguars are thriving, then the animals they hunt as prey are thriving, and the entire environment is in balance. Jaguars historically have been hunted for their beautiful coats and because they are feared.

There are four other cats in the Belize Zoo—the ocelot, puma, margay, and jaguarundi. Most of these cats are nocturnal meaning they sleep during the day and hunt at night. It was hard to spot some of them as they slept camouflaged under branches and shrubs. The spotted coats of many of the cats allows them to blend into the forest floor completely. We learned that the puma is the same species, Felis Concolor, as what we call a cougar, a mountain lion, or a red tiger.

While we watched the ocelot, we noticed a very strong smelly oder. At first we thought the hot bus ride had caught up with us and what we were smelling was each other. As we turned to view the White Lipped Peccary and Collared Peccary we realized it wasn’t us after all but the peccaries or warree as they are called locally. The strong smell is how these animals communicate with each other. They have scent glands on their backs that they rub against each other as an introduction and on trees to mark their territory. The White Lipped Peccary is endangered due to habitat destruction and hunting. They are easy targets because they travel in groups allowing a hunter to kill many animals at once. Today it is illegal to hunt peccary in Belize.

Another star of the zoo is April the tapir. The tapir is the national animal of Belize and the largest land mammal in Central America or the neotropics. Manatees are larger, but they live in the water. The tapir has a long nose like an elephant or anteater, but is actually related to the horse and rhinoceros. Locally it is called the "Mountain Cow." To escape danger tapirs find a stream or river to enter and then walks underwater to the other side of the river. Tapirs are herbivores, meaning they eat plants and not other animals. When their babies are born they have stripes that help camouflage them from animals that prey on them like jaguars. Hunting and habitat loss are the main reasons the tapir population is decreasing all over Central America. Today, there are large forest reserves in Belize to protect the remaining populations. Apparently, tapirs have the ability to shoot long distances when urinating. The sign warns visitors to stand back.

The zoo celebrates April’s birthday on the first Friday in April and many school children come to the zoo to celebrate. Children crowd around the cage and watch as a special cake made of vegetable mash is fed to her.

There are many birds in the zoo. Many of their enclosures have net spread over the top to keep the birds safe and to keep them in their zoo home. These enclosures are large enough for the birds to fly and have large trees inside for perching. We saw Keel-billed Toucans, that you may recognize from a popular cereal box. Toucans have a large colorful bill that is made out of something similar to fingernails. The toucan’s large bill is hollow, so it doesn’t weigh much more than feathers. Keel-billed toucans are the national bird of Belize and are still found in the wooded areas in most of Central America. We saw the toucans eating watermelon, but they eat all kinds of fruit and berries as well as an occasional snake, lizard or insect.

The Scarlet Macaw is one of the largest and most beautiful birds in Belize. The bright colors and long life span (up to 100 years) make them targets for poachers who sell the birds as pets. You may have even seen one in a pet store where you live. It is now illegal to sell or keep Scarlet Macaws as pets, but it may be too late. There are less than 200 of them remaining in Belize and they need a large forest for their population to be successful. In addition to the population being reduced through poaching, habitat loss has made it difficult for them to survive in the wild. They are one of the most endangered bird species in Belize. We saw flocks of Blue and Gold Macaws when we were on the Amazon, but we only saw one Scarlet Macaw.

Jabiru are huge birds that mate for life and return yearly to the same nests. A large black bill and red collar with a huge white body make them easy to identify if you are ever lucky enough to see one in the wild. However, they are the most endangered bird in Belize and live in the wetlands. We could not get a good picture of the Jabiru, but did get one of the Roseatee Spoonbill.

We also saw Brown Pelicans, Red Lored Parrots, Yellow-headed Parrots, Barn Owls, Black Hawks, Mottled Owls, Great Egrets, Roseatee Spoonbills, Black-belly Whistling Ducks, King Vultures, and the Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

There are two types of monkeys living in the zoo—the spider monkey and the howler monkey. The spider monkeys we saw were swinging through the branches, making us think they were showing off for us. Spider monkeys are endangered and their population was dramatically reduced due to an epidemic of yellow fever. The sign next to the spider monkeys pleaded with people to not keep spider monkeys as pets. Taking them for pets as well as hunting and habitat destruction are the main threats to spider monkeys today. We can see why a person would want one for a pet as they are so cute. Yet they actually make very bad pets because they need lots of space and the company of other monkeys to be happy.

We almost missed the howler monkeys because they were sleeping in the treetops. The locals call them baboons although they are not true baboons as are found in Africa. They looked so funny hanging with their tails hooked around a branch and their arms and legs dangling down. We wanted to hear their howling, but like in the Amazon, they normally howl only at dawn and dusk. We have missed waking up to the howlers on our last two expeditions. Howlers have a special reserve in Belize to try and protect the remaining population.

One of the main objectives of the zoo is to teach the children and people of Belize about conservation and their native animal populations. Each year hundreds of school children visit the Belize Zoo to observe the animals and interact with the display activities. Inside the Visitors' Center there are many displays designed to teach students about the animals. The zoo holds an environmental fair where schools compete for computers and other prizes and provides local teachers with training on how to teach conservation topics to their students. Hopefully, visiting students will develop respect and appreciation for their native animals and their need for habitat protection.

There is a manatee skeleton hanging from the roof of the Visitor's Center. It is almost a complete skeleton. Looking at the skeleton, you could never imagine how odd-looking manatees actually are. Michael noticed, because of Caryn’s lecture the other day, that the finger bones were not on this skeleton.

Like animals worldwide, those native to Belize also suffer from habitat destruction. Of the 40 types of animals now living in the zoo, many are endangered. What do you think is the best way to protect these animals?