Day 1: 5/28 – Dropped off in TEC
After landing at the airport I was greeted by our smiling program director, Cynthia, and a few of the girls that I would be taking the course with. After an hour so, all of the students were united and we were happily paced on an air conditioned bus to bring us to our destinations. Five of us were headed to the zoo for our Wildlife course while the rest were headed to San Ignacio for the Large Animal course. For the wildlife course, we are staying at the Tropical Education Center (TEC) and doing field work at the zoo across the street.
The education center is about a half mile from the Belize Zoo Entrance. There is nothing surrounding the entrance of the zoo except for large shrubbery, which leaves the contents of the zoo an intriguing mystery that we will soon find out about in the coming days. The education center is a remote place for volunteers, researchers, and students to all stay at, which is affiliated with the zoo. A long dirt path brought us into the tropical shrubbery where a handful of wooden cabins are spread out around the area, connected by rock pathways. There is one bigger building with a small dining area and a classroom upstairs. Showers and bathrooms are their own separate little shacks a little walk away from the building we are staying at. Inside our “cabin” are four rooms, with four beds in each.
The heat and humidity of the area hits you like a brick once you walk out into it, and our cabins with open walls provide us no escape from it. Luckily, however, there is a single fan in each room to provide us some relief. The nights here don’t get much colder than the days, so sleeping becomes an issue when you are sweating while on top of your bed covers.
The wildlife is exotic and beautiful here, with green trees and plant life everywhere and the sounds of birds, frogs, and howler monkeys all throughout the forest. There is a pond right near out cabin and have been told there are crocodiles there, and I am hoping to see one during our two week stay here.
Day 2: 5/29 – Our First Excursion
The first night here was a tough sleep due to the heat, and we were woken up by a bird pecking at our cabin walls and making odd noises. Breakfast was at 8 AM and consisted of eggs, re-fried beans, fried dough, and plenty of papaya, watermelon, and pineapple. Today we took a trip zip lining through the forest and then cave tubing. The caves, which our tour guide referred to as the Mayan word for hell, were beautiful and full of minnow fish and small insect bats. The cool water, which runs down from the mountain from rainwater, was a pleasant relief from the hot sun.
Day 3: 5/30 – First Day of Class
The first official day of the course consisted mostly of lectures. These included lectures/presentations about the importance of zoos in conservation, what animal species have been saved by recent conservation efforts, like the American Condor, and about tracking and fieldwork with conservation and rehabilitation. The main point in many of the lectures was about the importance of zoos, and how they aren’t ill-suited for animals like many people perceive them to be. We discussed how, of course, there are many zoos that aren’t good or up-to-par, however, the goal is to improve these zoos and eventually make all zoos and aquariums more about saving endangered species who cannot survive in the wild and about conservation and biodiversity efforts, rather than for the people’s pleasure. We were then taught about techniques of tracking animals and the importance of ethology (studying animal behavior).
These lectures were exciting and engaging due to them being taught by actual zoo directors, ethologists, and wildlife conservationists. Although being taught in a classroom by a professor still teaches you a lot of information, you can never learn as much from them as you can from someone actually in those fields with a lot of experience. The head of the CELA Belize wildlife course, and our main instructor, is the zoo’s main veterinarian, Dr. Julio.
After our lectures, we got the pleasure of meeting the founder and director of the Belize Zoo, Sharon, who was extremely personable and inspiring with her story of transforming this land. The majority of the animals at the zoo are rescued and we got to personally meet her barn owl, Happy, and her juvenile crocodile, Rosy. Afterwards, we had the opportunity of a life time to tour the zoo at night time, where many of the animals are most active, after the zoo is closed to the public.
Day 4: 5/31 – First Day at the Zoo
The entire day consisted of being at the zoo behind the scenes. A rush of excitement soured through me I was able to walk through the “employees only” gate, which has always been a life-long dream of mine. We were able to witness an oral surgery on one of the tapirs, assisting and observing the vets and keepers tranquilize the large animal and work on it. Then, I was able to assist the one zookeeper, who is the head zookeeper for the zoo’s jaguars. We had cut up all of the red and white meat for the feedings that day, which consisted of 13 plates of meat for each jaguar and very bloody gloves. We then went to the back of the zoo where the 13 other jaguars are kept. These jaguars aren’t a part of the zoo, but are a part of the zoo’s Jaguar Rehabilitation Program. These are the “problem” jaguars, that were either saved from being shot after invading farms, or too old/injured to survive in the wild. Each one had a unique personality, and all performed a “roll over” and “high-five” trick before being fed. This was an amazing experience to be able to first-handily feed and interact with these amazing intelligent cats. Before leaving the zoo, we were also able to observe Dr. Julio do a routine check-up on the zoo’s two margay cats.