Animal Lover? This Belize Animal Sanctuary Wants Volunteers Like You
When traveling through Belize, animal lover Cristal Dyer spent a few days at the Belize Zoo (a bit of a misnomer since it’s more like an animal sanctuary). She discovered they offer an internship, and, after she left Belize for Mexico, she applied for the program and was accepted.
“It was all I could think about,” Cristal says. “I could spend a month hanging out with these amazing animals.”
She had expected to spend her days chopping vegetables and cleaning during her month-long internship (don’t let the word ‘intern’ put you off — this is a program for all ages, not just college kids). But her experience at the zoo was much more hands-on and she spent most of her days taking care of animals.
“I really loved and getting to know their different personalities,” she says. “They rotated me through the different types of animals, so we started off with birds and then mammals, so monkeys and tapirs. And then we went to the more dangerous animals.”
But hang on, what’s a tapir? Cristal says it’s kind of like a cross between a hippo and a horse. The species at the Belize Zoo is called the Central American tapir and you can find them from the south of Mexico down to Panama. There’s also a type of tapir in Malaysia, but they look a little bit different.
“They like to be scratched underneath their neck,” Cristal says. “If you get really close to them, which I did towards the end, they’ll let you scratch their stomach just like a dog.”
Cristal spent a lot of time working with birds, including toucans, eagles, and vultures, and says the parrots were particularly intense.
“They laid some eggs recently and they’re being very protective, so when you go in to feed them in the cage, they just go absolutely insane and attack,” she says. “I would have to wear my sunglasses inside because the birds would literally be trying to peck my eyes out. They would be landing on my head. So by the time I got out, my hair was sticking up everywhere. But they never they never hurt me. It was always really bad timing because there would always be a tour group that would come up at the same time and they would love to take videos of me.”
Sharon Matola started the Belize Zoo as a sanctuary for the animals that had been used in a documentary in the 1980s. She was the wildlife expert on set and when the documentary finished filming, the animals were going to be abandoned. Sharon didn’t want to let that happen because these animals were used to seeking out humans for food, which could get them killed.
“She decided to keep them on a piece of land that she bought and eventually the zoo grew and grew, so now she has about 55 species of animals,” Cristal says. “She uses it as a way to teach the local people, as well as tourists, all about the native wildlife.”
If you visit Belize Zoo, your money will go to taking care of beautiful creatures like Junior Buddy, the zoo’s 11-year-old jaguar. “He's adorable and he does these experiences with visitors to the zoo,” Cristal says. “You can go into his enclosure, but you're in a cage. So it's like you're the jaguar and he interacts with you a little bit. One of the best things he does is a ‘jaguar kiss’ where he licks you on the forehead.”
Interested in interning at the Belize Zoo? Visit belizezoo.org for more info. Internships are available for a minimum of two weeks, maximum of four weeks.
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