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.
If you can’t see Belize’s native animals in the wild, the next best thing is to see them at the zoo.
Just 40 minutes away from Belize City, The Belize Zoo is home to over 150 animals, representing over 45 species, all native to Belize. The Belize zoo, located in the Central Belize Wildlife Corridor, was started in 1983 as a last ditch effort to provide a home to 17 wild animals that had been used in making documentary films about tropical forests.
One of the interesting facts about this zoo is that it keeps animals which were orphaned, rescued, born at the zoo, rehabilitated animals, or sent to The Belize Zoo as donations from other zoological institutions. No single animal was captured in the wild, and they all have a story of how they arrived to the zoo and became an educational ambassador of their species.
While its 29 acres might be small in comparison to other zoos in the world with a similar number of animals, the zoo doesn’t feel overcrowded with animals; and in many occasions, the habitat is as natural as possible.
Of all the animals in the zoo, I was most excited to see the Tapir and the Jaguar, since I didn’t get to see them in the wild while in Placencia and Toledo (though I’m secretly relieved I didn’t have a Jaguar encounter).
Below are some of the native animals from Belize you’ll see at the zoo.
White Tail Deer
April the Tapir
Spider Monkey… My favorite monkey!
Probably one of my favorite things about the zoo were the information signs. They are all written as if the animals themselves were talking to you and had a great sense of humor. Just reading this makes you think if these animals are ghetto!
Kinkajou… So cute!
Junior Buddy the Jaguar. The Jaguar is the largest and most powerful cat of the Western Hemisphere.
Panama the Harpy Eagle. This is an endangered species and it is the largest and most powerful eagle in the world.
The zoo can be covered in less than two hours at a decent pace. The zoo entrance is $30 BZD ($15 US) for adults and $10 BZD ($5 US) for children. If Belizean, the prices are $5 BZD and $1 BZD, respectively.
If you want to make your visit an even more interesting experience, go there by chicken bus. At the Belize Bus Terminal take any chicken bus that passes through the zoo (pretty much most of them) and get off at about mile 28.5 (the driver will stop right in front of the zoo). To return, just wait for a chicken bus on the other side of the road. Each way costs $3.00 BZD ($1.50 US).
After my visit, I might agree that The Belize Zoo lives up to its slogan: “The best little zoo in the world.”
This is my slideshow of the Belize Zoo. By Ellie Simmons.
Hi there. It’s me Ellie. We went to the Zoo in Belize and saw many animals I have never seen before.
Here is my slideshow. I took most of the pictures with also help from my mom and dad and Ava.
Look for my movie of the ocelot. She was so sweet and was like my cat Curry the way she rubbed up on the cage. She kept meowing and I really wanted to touch her but my mom and dad said she was still a wild animal.
The tapirs are neat and funny. They eat two buckets of fruit each morning. Their favorite zoo food is cucumbers.
The spider monkeys thought we were the zookeepers with food. That’s why they stood up in the trees for us.
I didn’t want to see the snakes. We just took a picture of the sign only.
They have lots of ways to help save the animals of Belize. You can go there and pay money for tickets or help keep your town green. It helps all animals around the world. You can also adopt an animal to help pay for care and food.
Note from the family:
The zoo is a great family stop in Belize. The staff are very friendly. The animals are well cared for and the paths are easy to navigate. Take water and bug spray as you are in the animals natural habitat. It’s great to go in the mornings to watch the feeding times. You can also arrange to go in the “cage within a cage” of resident jaguar, Junior Buddy, sponsored by the Belize Tourism Board. The allows for an up close view of Belize’s signature feline
The Belize Zoo is at 29 western highway, Ladyville, Belize. Tel: 501-220-8004. Www.belizezoo.org
Good job Ellie! We are very proud of her and her work. In fact, she and her sister Ava shared the lion’s share of note taking and photography for this project.
Joshanny Clarke, thank you for sharing and please thank your Aunt for preserving this historic Belize Zoo map/brochure all these years.
Tía Orve saved the brochure for over 15 years and I thought it was a good idea to share it with The Belize Zoo.
I love zoos. My aunt Kathy took us to the zoo in Omaha (a fantastic zoo) probably once a week during the summers when we were young. When I was in kindergarten or first grade, we went on a field trip to the zoo. The teacher got turned around and I ended up leading the group to the next animal. I have visited zoos throughout the world. Seeing hippos mate and searching for Snowflake, the albino gorilla in Barcelona (he had died a few weeks earlier). Following a troop of kangaroos around Ireland's Fota Wildlife park, where the (non-lethal) animals roam freely. Seeing an okapi for the first time in St. Louis. Exploring the back rooms in the aquarium in Omaha when my Dad did a catering event. The confused kids questioning their parents after witnessing an elephant masturbate at the National Zoo.
So, you would think I'd have gone to the Belize Zoo before today. It's not that I haven't tried to go to the zoo, but somehow something always came up. I was scheduled to do a night tour of the zoo (lots of nocturnal animals) but Hurricane Richard closed the zoo for a few months. Whenever guests visited me, I would send them to the zoo on their own since it was easily accessible while I was at work. Another night zoo trip was canceled. Two trips were rained out. My mom broke her arm. We went to the Rio On pools instead. It got to the point that it felt like I was cursed and would never make it.
For my birthday two weeks ago, Margarita and Emile gave me a coupon for a free trip to the zoo complete with kids and lunch. I planned to cash it in today. Unfortunately, as we made our way towards the zoo, the rain started to come down. It began to pour. There was thunder and lightning (we never get thunderstorms here). It looked like the trip would be canceled again. We decided to try to wait out the storm by getting lunch at a nearby restaurant. We were rewarded with a sunny, but smoldering hot afternoon so that I finally got to see the zoo.
The Belize Zoo is unique in that all the animals are native to Belize and none are captured in the wild. They are all either abandoned pets or animals from other zoos or from movie sets. The zoo was damaged pretty significantly in Hurricane Richard in October 2010, but they have built most of it back up. Lots of cool cats - Leopards, Pumas, and the famous Jaguars - plus cool birds and other local animals, such as the tapir and coati. All in all - a great trip.
Finally, I made it.
Apparently, there are deer in Belize. Who knew?
The tapir is the national animal of Belize
Not a whole lot of security at the zoo - so you can pet some of the animals
This bird was just flying around, but let me get real close to take a picture
Absolutely gorgeous leopard
We got there for feeding time - you can see the
chicken in her mouth.
Junior Buddy - The Belize Zoo's most famous resident
If you pay extra, you can get in a cage where they will
have him lick your head from outside the cage.
He was huge - look at the size of the paws
Margarita wasn't joking when she said I'd have kids to take to the zoo
Fancy camera settings
I turned the camera to "ultra vivid colors" and then
captured the second bird flying off - hence the blue blur.
The crocodile was so close to the path and so still,
we thought it was a statue at first - until we noticed him breathing.
Ya know, I must meet a lot of glass-half-empty people because I've asked everyone who I know that's been to the Belize Zoo what they thought about it and most of the replies were along the lines of, "It's small... but I guess it's ok."
What do you mean it's "ok??" This zoo is friggin awesome!! The Huffington Post knows what I'm talking about, they have it listed as number five on their top ten list of best zoos in the WORLD!
Cute signs are just one of the things that made me fall in love with this zoo
Ok, so... the only other zoo that I've been to in my life, that I can recall, is the Philadelphia Zoo - and all I remember from being there is concrete and cages.... and some animals.
It's nothing like that at the Belize Zoo -
"Animals of Belize in their Natural Habitats"
It's true - other than being on nice walkways and going over little wooden bridges, I felt like I was walking through the jungle the whole time I was in there.
No molesting the plants
I don't even know where to start.... I seriously took 374 pictures.
Ok, we're starting with the National Animal of Belize, the Tapir - aka the mountain cow
a lil swimmin action
Looks like a giant guinea pig/ anteater, doesn't it?
I don't usually like birds very much - I don't know why, just never have - but I met the friendliest parrots today....
This one loved to pose for the camera
I found myself doing YET ANOTHER thing I never thought I would do before - hand feeding Scarlett Macaws.... these things are gorgeous!
The pond for the smaller crocs, and LOTS of turtles
the BIG crocs
I was happy to learn that all of the animals kept here have either been orphaned, rescued, rehabilitated, born at the zoo, or donated by other "zoological institutes," - meaning none of them were captured and drug into captivity just to show them off or make money off of them.
Many of them are even safer in the zoo, I suppose, since so many of them are endangered.
I'm still kind of upset that I was allowed to feed the Macaws, but I wasn't allowed to hug a jaguar. I think I would've been fine...
For a fee they would have taken you into his cage and put you in another enclosure in the middle of his cage. There you could have fed him and touched him. Hug him....well I don't know about that or if that would be a good idea.
The zoo in Belize is a great place to visit and I would visit again the next time I go by it. This time I would allow more time because you could really spend 4 hours or more there easily.
“Make sure you pull your hair back from your forehead,” instructed Sharon Matola. “Hair will most definitely be an issue for Junior.”
Junior Buddy was the gorgeous jaguar who presently sat purring above us, only a wire cage keeping him from joining us in the box we sat in. We were at the Belize Zoo, considered the “best little zoo” in the whole world. Junior was just one of the many animals we had seen during our behind the scenes visit with founder and all-around amazing Zoo director Sharon Matola.
But back to the foreheads (hair pulled back): I went first, one trembling hand pulling back my hair, and then slowly, I put my forehead against the cage right next to his big, furry face. Through the cage the roughest yet gentlest tongue began LICKING MY FOREHEAD!! It was the most excruciating and exhilarating experience – here I was, in a zoo with jungle-like environment, and mere threaded metal holding back hundreds of pounds of big cat with a 900lb crushing power per inch of tooth, and he was licking my forehead like any old kitty.
My companions were thrilled and they too eagerly offered up their foreheads. One of them was so delicious Junior drooled all over her. I have to admit I was just a smidge jealous – I wanted Junior to drool over me. But there you go, either in the zoo or jungle, even a jaguar didn’t think I was drool-worthy; sigh.
The Belize Zoo's (TBZ) famous jaguar Junior Buddy shows off his somersaulting trick, an example of enrichment training that Sharon Matola has spearheaded at TBZ.
Junior is one of the most well-known jaguars throughout Belize, and is a perfect example of enrichment training. Junior Buddy was born at the zoo to a problematic sheep-killing jaguar, and his mother rejected him a mere two days after being born. Jaguars are highly intelligent creatures, and the zoo staff, especially Sharon, have found creative ways to keep his mind agile. One of the fun tricks he has learned is somersaulting. Yes, big ole kitty tumbling just doesn’t seem to be right, yet there he was, doing tricks for us (there is video evidence below!). Treats are in order after such impressive tricks, (he also loves applause, but treats are so much nicer) and we can’t help but feel awe when a jaguar gently takes a chicken gizzard or neck from our hands after it’s shown off its impressive skills.
Of course, we didn’t just get to see Junior Buddy. Oh no, our trip took us all through the zoo, saying hello and handing out peanuts to the iridescent Scarlet Macaws, admiring deer ‘in velvet’, feeding delicious papayas to the delightful tapirs (our national animal). We pinched our noses as we ran by the peccaries – whoo boy they were stinky! – but they were in heaven rolling around in their mud. The spider monkeys decided NOT to swing for us, preferring to peek out from behind the brush on the ground. Cheeky little buggers!
The beauty of The Belize Zoo is that it is a haven for many creatures that have been abandoned, orphaned, rescued, rehabilitated, sent from other zoological institutions or born at the zoo itself. 29 acres of heaven for over 150 animals and over 45 species, and we got a glimpse of a percentage of them all while listening and enjoying Sharon’s interaction with them. I couldn’t think of a more loving mommy to all the creatures. Just seeing her converse, feed and encourage the different animals as she walks down the paths leading to their various hangout spots – it is easy to see how in 1983, there was massive effort to save animals whose purpose was over for some, but still had long lives to enjoy.
We got to step into Panama the Harpy Eagle’s cage too, feeding him bits of chicken gizzard. He was originally to be part of the Belize Harpy Eagle Restoration Program, and was sent to the zoo after hatching in captivity in Panama (at the Peregrine Fund Headquarters). He had a damaged eye upon hatching, so he could not be released, and as such, the zoo took him on as an ‘Ambassador’ for Harpy eagles in Belize. He is a gorgeous bird, with fierce talons, beautiful feathers and impressive wingspan. While we hand fed him gizzards, he made a strange chirping sound, and at one point ‘flirted’ by fluffing his feathers and ever so slightly shuffling side to side. This behavior is considered unusual as he was expected to lose his ‘people-skills’ after about two years. Instead, the regal bird has remained comfortable with humans 10 years later, enjoying his annual November birthday party wherein schoolchildren get to observe and learn more about this magnificent bird.
Our trip included observing an otter, ocelots, and an adorable (if diva-like) toucan who has remained at the zoo due to beak issues. She had no problem enjoying a bite or two of raisin, but she decided we were not worthy of her company as she flew around ignoring us. It must have been the rain that decided to come down that afternoon – I’d be grumpy too if I was being teased with snacks and had to get a little rain on my glossy feathers for a bite or two!
Our highlight was meeting one of the storied animals of the year: Bosch the rescued Black Jaguar. The sad story of Bosch, now renamed Lucky Boy, is an example of human cruelty to wild creatures – and his now-happy life is proof of the wonderful work of The Belize Zoo, and the wide network of conservation organizations that came together to save the life of this magnificent creature.
Imported from Mexico and brought to Belize to a ‘Jungle Lodge’ where countless other creatures were kept for an ‘interactive’ experience, Lucky Boy was abandoned by those whose responsibility it was to care for and feed him along with many other creatures. He was discovered abandoned, in a most pathetic state, mere skin and bones, and the chances of his survival were slim.
Now months and countless hours and days of efforts from so many people around the country and world, and Lucky Boy has a glossy coat, his weight is up and he is a fierce-looking jungle cat living the life at The Belize Zoo. He was our last stop before we had to catch our bus into the city. We watched as Sharon sat right in front of him, cooing and loving on him. His response was remarkable – sitting still, getting a little close to where Sharon sat before him, and putting his face up to her – a positive response to wonderful treatment at The Belize Zoo. Really, when you take into account the number of people who work at the zoo, and the close, positive encounters they have with the animals on a daily basis, it’s easy to see why this little zoo, is indeed the Best Little Zoo in the world.
The Belize Zoo is located approximately 29 miles west of Belize City on the George Price highway. Contact them at 822-8000 or email them at [email protected] Your local tour guide can arrange for a visit to the zoo when you travel to Belize – and we highly recommend that you visit. Once you go, you will understand why this little zoo is such a wonderful place for the animals and people of Belize.
Click here to read the rest of the article and see more FABULOUS photos in the San Pedro Sun
CCTV went to the Belize Zoo to interview Sharon Matola, and to see the wildlife at the best little zoo in the world. Lucky Boy, along with many other animals at the zoo, are featured.
It’s been called one of the best small zoos in the world. The Belize Zoo is situated in a thick jungle near Belmopan, a region known for its efforts to save the jaguar. CCTV’s Franc Contreras has our report.
Direct contact with nature at the Belize Zoo. Here visitors get just that with mammals and reptiles that have sometimes encountered difficulties when mixing with their human neighbours. The Belize zoo has the world’s only program designed to help problematic jaguars, like Field Master. Out in the wild, he had trouble finding food. So he started eating dogs. He’s one of 13 endangered jaguars now living here, under the care of zoo director Sharon Matalon.
Sharon Matalon, Belize Zoo Director, said, "I always get reports of Jaguars getting shot because they go into someone’s cattle pasture."
She trains these large cats to get along better with people, and eventually becoming ambassadors for their species.
Voice of Sharon Matalon, said, "900 pounds of pressure for one inch of tooth, awesome predators. "
They have the power to kill, but can also be trained to show a gentler side. This rare, black jaguar was left to die from hunger when Matalon first saw him. She now calls him Luck Boy, and is planning to make him one of the zoo’s top attractions.
Franc Contreras, Belize Zoo, said, "Protecting Belize’s wild-life is serious business. And the zoo will go to just about any length to promote their well-being. Including letting visitors dress up as the zoo’s star creature. "
Belize is a tiny country covered with pristine jungle. But many people here have never seen their native wildlife --- like the rare Jabiru Stork -- up so close.
Sharon Matalon, said, "What better shows the glories of nature than these animals Do we want a world without them No."
Her job is getting that message out to the next generation, so that they will learn the value of nature in their midst. FC, CCTV, at the Belize Zoo.
"The Best Little Zoo in the World,The Belize zoo is a great adventure. If you can only do one thing while you are in Belize then go to the Belize zoo. The animals in the Belize zoo are rescued or hurt not captured for display. The Belize zoo needs our help to continue its work saving and rehabilitating animals and birds.
Make sure you check out this cool little place, if you have kids and you want an adventure for them then bring them here and let the jaguar lick their forehead.. it is really cool. When we go back to Belize next year we will return the the Belize zoo again it's so worth while."