Best little Zoo in the world.

Posted: August 5, 2014 by Central America Overland Expeditions in Expedition/Travel
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Hailed as the best little Zoo in the World, is it?

 

I’ve been to a lot of Zoos. The Berlin Zoo, The Seattle Zoo, The National Zoo in Washington DC, and all of them are wonderful and have their own unique aspects. However I did not know what to really expect at the Belize Zoo. All I knew from everything I’ve read is that it was going to be small, unique and different. From the way the Belize Zoo began, to its exotic list of residents and the story on how they got there, all I did know is that we wanted to see it.

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Located just past mile marker 29 coming from Belize City on the Western Highway, you can’t miss it. It’s unpretentious entrance and parking lot doesn’t give a clue as to what you are about to encounter.

 

What makes this zoo so special is the story behind it. First, all of the wildlife housed at the Belize Zoo are native to Belize. Tapirs, Toucans, Boa Constrictors, Harpy Eagles, Jaguars and Howler Monkeys are just a few of the many residents that call the zoo home. Secondly, these residents have NOT been bought or captured from the wild but rather donated by other zoos, removed from the illegal pet trade, rescued, orphaned, abandoned, or are born here in the zoo. Lastly, the Zoo started in 1983 as a last ditch effort to provide a home for a collection of wild animals which had been used in the making of documentary films about tropical forests,( more on this later ). Thus began “The backyard Zoo”, as it was quickly realized that its Belizean visitors were unfamiliar with the different species of wildlife which shared their country.

Also you can’t mention the Belize Zoo’s history and very existence without giving credit to one remarkable lady, Sharon Matola. A biologist and environmentalist from Baltimore, Md. Matola, is the founder and driving force behind Belize’s Zoo. Arriving in Belize after a colorful career that included a stint with a Romanian lion-tamer and a circus tour through Mexico, in 1982 she was hired by filmmaker Richard Foster to care for 20 animals being used in the making of a wildlife documentary film. When shooting of the film was completed, she was left to decide how to dispose of the animals. Many of them were too tame for life in the wild, so the idea of an unusual Zoo cropped up. Matola hung signs around the country to raise awareness about the wealth of Belizean wildlife and the country’s deteriorating habitat and she went outside Belize to raise money from environmental groups.

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Today, The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center is settled upon 29 acres of tropical savanna and exhibits over 150 animals, representing over 45 species all native to Belize. The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center receives over 54,000 visitors annually, 12,000 are school children as part of the progressive education programs, and popular zoo events include: Birthday parties for April the Tapir, Junior Buddy the Jaguar, and Panama the Harpy Eagle.

 

In addition to the normal tour, there are special tours also available. “Animal Encounters” allows you can get up close and personal. Conducted by the director, Matola will take you inside the cages with some of the animals for an interactive and personal tour that you’ll certainly never experience anywhere else. You’ll feel like Steve Irwin for sure. As a matter of fact when Steve Irwin visited the Belize Zoo he was given the grand tour by Matola and there is an autographed picture of Sharon and Steve near the entrance.  Have you ever hand fed a Tapir, have a Jaguar walk over head while you’re the one in the cage? These are just a few of the very unique opportunities you’ll experience.

 

We also appreciated that our admission fee helped to contribute to the care of these animals. Additionally the Zoo is the first and only nature destination in Belize that is accessible to visitors with physical disabilities and all pathways allow for use by wheelchairs, strollers, and walkers.

 

In the parking lot you’ll find picnic tables, a small playground and bathrooms. Once inside there’s the Harpy Café and Gift Shop with local crafts, souvenirs, snacks and refreshments. There are also nocturnal tours available.

 

We found the Belize Zoo intimate, unique, educational and felt honored to have an opportunity to meet Sharon Matola, the staff and all of the Zoo’s residents. Every aspect of the Belize Zoo is unique and unlike any Zoo we’ve ever encountered. Say hello to Bud the Tapir when you visit. He loves a good scratching behind the ears and under his neck while eating on carrots.

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