‘Best little zoo in the world’? Belize it.

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Toucan at the Belize Zoo.
Toucan at the Belize Zoo.

Look, I’m a zoo snob, OK?

I can’t help it. I’m from San Diego, home of one of the greatest zoos in the world — The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. The zoo is so big it has outdoor escalators, overhead trams and regular bus service. On its webcams I have my choice of killing time at work watching pandas, elephants, orangutans, condors or polar bears.

I used to volunteer for one of the zoo’s biggest animal research fundraisers of the year.  Couldn’t get enough of the place — starting with frequent visits when my kids were very young.

The jaguar (Panthera onica), mightiest cat in the Western Hemisphere.
The jaguar (Panthera onica), mightiest cat in the Western Hemisphere.

Over the decades I watched the Zoo migrate from concrete-and-bars prisons to naturalistic environments for its animals, gathering together species from common habitats into zones — Rainforest, Northern Frontier, Panda Canyon, Elephant Odyssey, Urban Jungle and more.

Don’t get me started on the Safari Park.

The whole Zoo thing is huge, including research facilities. The Zoo has more than 3,700 animals while the Safari Park tends 2,600 animals on 1,800 acres 30 miles outside the city. Both have an enormous number of rare and endangered plants and trees. And its membership rolls number a half-million people.

Puma -- not as friendly as it looks apparently.
Puma — not as friendly as it looks apparently.

But I don’t live in San Diego now. I live in Belize and we have a zoo, too — The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center.

And you know what? Big isn’t always better.

We went on Tuesday, after picking up a couple of old San Diego friends at the Cruise Ship Village. Preston and Bob didn’t have long in Belize, so the zoo and lunch then a quick drive back to the terminal so they could catch their ship seemed like a good way to spend the time.

It wasn’t until we got to the zoo that it occurred to me that Bob and Preston might be zoo snobs, too.

Our national animal, the Central American Tapir, is in danger more from automobiles on the Western Highway than any other predator.
Our national animal, the Central American Tapir, is in danger more from automobiles on the Western Highway than any other predator.

Turns out they are not big fans of the San Diego Zoo, where they find the man-made habitats a bit too artificial and sanitary.

Playful Spider monkeys at the Belize Zoo. More fun to watch than a barrel of monkeys  -- well, unless it is a barrel of spider monkeys. That would be fun ...
Playful Spider monkeys at the Belize Zoo. More fun to watch than a barrel of monkeys — well, unless it is a barrel of spider monkeys. That would be fun …

Here’s the deal, we all loved the Belize Zoo. The reasons are many:

    • The inhabitants — about 150 animals on 29 acres — are all from Belize. Many are rescued animals. Quite a few are endangered in their natural habitat. None were hunted down and pressed into captivity for the amusement and edification of tourists. In fact, the whole zoo started in 1983 to care for 17 animals left behind by a crew filming a natural history documentary.

“…none of the animals were taken from the wild. They have either been injured, orphaned, born here, given as gifts from other zoos or are confiscated pets from the government (it is illegal in Belize to keep wildlife as pets),” according to the zoo’s brochure.

  • The habitats are real. Because the animals are all local, the environments in which they exit are very real. No fiberglass rocks and fake rivers and streams. What you see in every enclosure is real Belize.
  • You are up close and personal. You can smell the bad breath on a puma. They’re that close. No moats or Plexiglas walls between visitors and the animals. In fact, it is kind of unsettling how close you can get to some animals that clearly see you as lunch. “You know, they could get out of there if they really wanted to,” is what we kept saying to each other.
Playful Spider monkeys at the Belize Zoo.
Playful Spider monkeys at the Belize Zoo.
  • But they don’t and they didn’t.  And, wow, did we all love this zoo — from the jaguars to the Harpy eagles to the ocelots to the spider monkeys to the Jabiru storks to the tapirs and toucans. And like sugar on top, the signs written in local dialect (with a stab at poetry here and there) were both entertaining and informative.
  • You also have to appreciate the heroic effort involved in keeping this institution going. It is non-profit, takes no money from the government and is dependent on the generosity of strangers, visitors and benefactors. You can feel the strain of making ends meet when you see a small charge for everything from getting close enough to petting some animals, to getting a picture taken, to getting special tours.
  • The zoo engages with 12,000 students a year, teaching them how to appreciate and care for the animals that are as much a part of Belize ans its 330,000 citizens. Belize Zoo gets 54,000 visitors a year.
  • And the entire zoo is wheelchair accessible.

The Belize Zoo’s tagline is “Best little zoo in the world.”

I have to agree with that.

Belize Zoo signage offers the most fun you'll have reading anywhere. And it is informative.
Belize Zoo signage offers the most fun you’ll have reading anywhere. And it is informative.
White tail deer with unusual antlers at Belize Zoo.
White tail deer with unusual antlers at Belize Zoo.
Ocelot has found his Camelot at the Belize Zoo.
Ocelot has found his Camelot at the Belize Zoo.
Four minutes up the road from the zoo are a couple of restaurants -- Cheers and Amigos. Both recommended by friends. We picked Amigos for the open air patio dining with a great view of the mountains to the south. Decent stewed chicken, too. Form left are our San Diego pals Bob and Preston, me, Rose and Caira.
Four minutes up the road from the zoo are a couple of restaurants — Cheers and Amigos. Both recommended by friends. We picked Amigos for the open air patio dining with a great view of the mountains to the south. Decent stewed chicken, too. From left are our San Diego pals, Bob and Preston, me, Rose and Caira
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