Belize Zoo



of an Exhibit

by Justine Roberts

Published on January 10, 2011

  • Description:

    In Belize many of the environment education and exhibition projects are the project of a private business or (often) expat American or Canadian. The Botanic Gardens, Butterfly Houses, Natural History Museum, Iguana Breeding and Education Center, and Belize Zoo were all started this way and they all share a home-grown, ad hoc, almost seat-of-the-pants charm. This may help explain how come one of the key experiences at the Belize Zoo is being peed on by the male Tapir.

    The Zoo is remarkable in many ways. When you first come in you can pay a little extra to “help feed the animals”. Visitors can then sign the donor wall. Staff told me it would take about 4 years before the wall was filled with signatures and ready to be repainted.

    There was a large snake sunning itself in the main courtyard when we came in. All of the animals are native species and the animals are often taken in after growing too big to be a pet, or rescued and rehabilitated. Staff are easy to find and knowledgeable. And the setting is very simple but calls attention to the elements which make it special – a giant tree blown down by a hurricane has been left lying in the path and stairs built up over it to create a viewing platform, and one section of path is sheltered by a living green tunnel.

    Animal enclosures are relatively small compared to the style of American Zoos, and while they contain trees, or water, or even in some cases jungle-gym type wood climbing structures, they do not attempt to replicate the natural habitat of the animals. The upside of this is that the animals tend to be very easy to see. And staff will offer the Howler Monkeys a banana, or call to the Mountain Lion to get it to talk, as often as requested.

    The fencing itself is surprisingly open. Low, wooden fences form a provisional barrier for adults but are too open to stop kids from reaching, and serve as an easy ladder. The wire mesh interior fencing, where used, is often electrified but there is nothing to stop someone from touching it other than signs. In other words, it would be very easy to climb into, reach into, or otherwise directly engage many of the animals including jaguars, coatimundi, fox, crocodiles, boar, and others.

    Signage is hand painted and written in rhyme. Which makes it complicated to read. And that accounts for the Tapir experience. By the time you finish reading – and actually comprehend – the sign warning you to stand back, you have most likely already been charmed by the Tapir approaching you, wondered at it turning around, and then told yourself there is absolutely no way it could possibly. . . By then it is too late.

    I am not a zoo afficianado but I suspect such a zoo would not be able to exist in the States. The safety issues alone were significant. But everything about it felt of-a-piece. It had that “sense of place” that makes such an experience memorable, perhaps even a touchstone in a trip that had many highlights. I know that my children told everyone who asked about our vacation about the Tapir before discussing any of the other adventures we had.

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