Cool cats of Belize

The cage jaguar experience at the Belize Zoo with 'Junior' the 6-year-old jaguar, the ambassador of...

The cage jaguar experience at the Belize Zoo with 'Junior' the 6-year-old jaguar, the ambassador of the jaguar rescue program at the zoo. (Jenny Potter/QMI Agency)

JENNY POTTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:11 AM ET

I’m having second thoughts as I hear the clink of the cage being locked.

I’m inside — along with four other people — waiting for a wild animal to be let loose.

“He’s stalking us,” says Jamal Andrewin, an environmental educator at the Belize Zoo.

Sitting with a bucket of chicken feet, Andrewin calls for the animal to come closer.

Next thing I know, there is a 115-pound jaguar just inches from my face and I can’t help but feel like a scared caged animal myself.

I’m in the Belize jungle with Island Expeditions, which specializes in adventure tourism to this country and parts of Mexico. I am learning about the history, culture and environment of the Central American nation first-hand on the Canadian travel company’s 10-day Glover’s Reef and River of Caves tour.

A group of seven of us, ranging in age from late 20s to 60s, spent the morning scaling ancient Mayan pyramids. We are spending the afternoon getting up close and personal with native Belize animals.

After a few moments of staring to the jaguar’s huge black eyes, I begin to think 6-year-old Junior is more like my house cat than a nocturnal hunting machine.

On Anderwin’s request, the big cat rolls around on the ground, poses belly-up for us, and gives high-fives.

Suddenly, he jumps on top of the cage, and I can see huge sharp claws on paws as big as my hand. When Junior bites into a chicken foot, I can hear him easily snap the bones of the crunchy treat and wonder how easily he could take a bite of me.

Though he knows a few tricks, Junior is far from domesticated.

Born in captivity at the Belize Zoo, Junior became too rough to play with humans at five-months-old, but his exposure to people and willingness to pose for a good picture has made him the ambassador of the zoo’s jaguar recovery program.

Junior is one of a dozen jaguars at the Belize Zoo, which only shelters animals that are injured, found or born in captivity, or in danger of being killed.

Jaguars are the largest and most powerful cats in the Western Hemisphere — and third largest in the world after lions and tigers. With development threatening the natural habitat of jaguars and their prey, the big cats have turned to hunting livestock, and increasing numbers are being shot by farmers.

Andrewin says Belize is a developing country and he doesn’t judge a father who shoots a wild animal to feed his family. The problem comes when animals are over hunted, which threatens the very future of the species and the ecosystem as a whole.

Belizians have many myths and superstitions about wild animals because — for many — their only encounters with them have been negative.

When the Belize Zoo was started in the 1980s by Susan Matola, she discovered many visitors were Belizians who wanted to see their own native wildlife.

The tapir — a vegetarian forest dweller that is now a beloved national animal — once had a nasty reputation for eating human flesh.

To give the endangered animal a new public image, the zoo started celebrating the birthday of April, its resident tapir. They invited school kids every year, and soon the phenomenon caught on. Now 29, April has met politicians and celebrities including Cameron Diaz. CNN even came down to celebrate April’s Sweet 16.

“They do what the ones in the wild can’t — be ambassadors for their species,” Andrewin says.

The Belize Zoo has done a lot to teach a new generation of Belizians and tourists about the wildlife hidden away in the country’s tropical forests. And Island Expeditions supports and generates funds for the zoo’s conservation and educational efforts. Many of Island Expeditions Belize trips also include a visit to the facility. Andrewin fell in love with wildlife through one of the zoo’s summer camps for teens. Now he plans to complete a masters degree in zoology through correspondence while continuing to educate school and tour groups.

NEED TO KNOW

For information on trips, contact www.islandexpeditions.com or 1-800-667-1630. For more on the Belize Zoo, see www.belizezoo.org.


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