Established in 1983, the Belize Zoo (tel. 501/220-8004, www.belizezoo.org , 8:30 a.m.–4 p.m. daily, US$15) is settled on 29 acres of tropical savanna and exhibits more than 125 animals, all native to Belize. The zoo keeps only orphaned animals, those injured and rehabilitated, those born in the zoo, and those received as gifts from other zoos.
The environment is as natural as possible, with thick native vegetation, and each animal lives in its own wild-looking compound. New displays include the rare harpy eagle; ask about the zoo’s restoration program to put these raptors back into forested areas in Belize.
The zoo is at Mile 29 on the Western Highway. It is included in many day tours from Belize City and often as a stop during your airport transfer to or from your lodge in the western or southern parts of Belize. Independent travelers can jump off the bus from Belize City  or Cayo  (bus fare from Belize City is only US$1–2).
Zoo director Sharon Matola’s accidental career began when, as a former lion tamer, she agreed to manage a backyard collection of local animals for a nature film company next door. However, after she had worked only five months on the project, funds were severely reduced, and it became evident that the group of animal “film stars” would have to be disbanded.
Sharon says that not only had these wild cats, birds, anteaters, and snakes become her friends and companions, but semitame animals, dependent on people for care, could not just be released back into the wild. As an alternative, she thought, “This country has never had a zoo. Perhaps if I offered the chance for Belizeans to see these unique animals, their existence here could be permanently established.”
A zoo was born. From the very beginning, the amount of local interest in the zoo was incredible. The majority of the people in Belize live in urban areas, and their knowledge of the local fauna is minimal. The Belize Zoo offers Belizeans and tourists alike the opportunity to see the native animals of Belize.
In 2010, Hurricane Richard tore through the zoo, destroying many of the cages and structures. With super-human efforts, the zoo staff and an army of volunteers participated in the immediate reconstruction. (Literally an army—in addition to Belizean volunteers, tour operators, students, ambassadors, and Belize Zoo fans from abroad, U.S. Special Forces and British Forces Belize took part.)
The zoo was up and running again in only six weeks, but still has a lot of work to do. The zoo continues to do amazing work with Belizean wildlife, but needs all the help—and visitors—it can get. Enjoy your time there.
In collaborations with the organization Panthera, the government of Belize, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Belize Zoo runs the only problem jaguar rehabilitation program and in situ jaguar research program in the world. Problem jaguars (which prey on livestock and domestic animals) are trapped and brought to the zoo for behavior modification training—instead of a bullet. In difficult cases, the animals are transferred to zoos in the United States (both the Milwaukee County Zoo  and the Philadelphia Zoo  have received problem cats from Belize).
Across the street from the zoo, the Belize Tropical Education Center (tel. 501/220-8003, tec [at] belizezoo [dot] org) was created to promote environmental education and scientific research. Meetings are held here for zoological news, reports, and educational seminars attended and given by people involved in zoology from around the world.
The center is equipped with a classroom, a library, a kitchen and dining area, and dormitories that can accommodate as many as 30 people (rates from US$15 pp). Great nature trails weave through the 84-acre site, and bird-watchers can avail themselves of a bird-viewing deck. Also available are canoe trips, nocturnal zoo tours (a real treat), and natural history lectures. Cafeteria-style meals (cooked for the zoo staff) are available for purchase.