"He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast."
-- Samuel Coleridge  [Rime Of The Ancient Mariner]

Driving in Belize continued to be an experience, as proven on the early morning haul from Orange Walk to Hattiesville. Aside from the omnipresent, unmarked speed bumps, I encountered fog, children on the side of la autopista a.k.a. the highway dancing like Michael Jackson as vehicles whooshed by, blockades of cattle, mopeds & people waiting for the bus.  Unknowingly, my car was spit onto the Western Highway & ended up at the Belize Zoo twenty minutes prior to its opening.
When traveling, I always arrive early -- first -- to avoid the hordes of people.  Tuesday through Thursday, cruise ships dock in Belize City, sending thousands of pushy tourists to the country's best attractions (i.e. the Mayan ruins, snorkeling & the Belize Zoo). Moreover, in a tropical climate the animals are most active when it is cooler outside & I wanted to wake up with them.  Since Belize Zoo is an open-air facility, I walked right up to the counter & played dumb.  The sweet, middle-aged American lady working the register informed me the grounds would not be open for another 25 minutes.  However, when the employee left me unattended with paths beckoning me into the sanctuary, I refused to stay put.
A performing Scarlet Macaw greeted visitors at the entrance, along with bickering White-Fronted Parrots and masked Red-Lored Parrots.  Other bird life included the ghastly, enormous vultures, the iridescent Blue Crown Mot Mot, some species of owl, "punk rock chickens" a.k.a. Currasows & the Harpy Eagle -- the largest eagle in the world -- whose cold gaze & size had me spooked.
Of its two hallmark animals-- as evidenced on the "1,000 Places To See Before You Die" calendar -- Belize's toucans were the harmless species. These droll foul showcased every color of the rainbow: blood red on the tip of their beaks and tails; bright yellow faces and chests; tropical orange on their over-sized beak; lime green around their eyes; and neon blue feet.  The Keel-billed Toucans hopped, kangaroo-like across branches.  Next door, were their lesser-known family members, the Collared Aracari Toucans.  The Aracaris -- with muted, woodsy colors -- were certainly shown up by the gorgeous Keel-billeds, the national bird.

Belize Zoo was tiny in comparison to other facilities its size.  Mathematically, it was more on level with a petting zoo or family farm.  However, every square inch of this place was packed with foreign wildlife such as the Central American deer.  There was a Morelet's Crocodile so long it wouldn't fit into frame & made me thankful our boat to Lamanai never capsized!  I finally saw a Tapir a.k.a. Mountain Cow -- an animal I had only read about in children's stories until now.  The most charismatic animal in the zoo was one Ocelot in particular who purred & stroked the fence for so long, tempting me to stroke it, but I refrained for many reasons.  The Ocelots were smaller versions of leopards but had more of a house-cat's face. 
I appreciated that Belize Zoo proactively tried to protect each species by identifying its habitat, diet & environmental threats. The laudable thing about the park was that it functioned more like a sanctuary.  There would be no giraffes nor elephants nor anything not endemic to Central America.  Furthermore, the species here were not bred for this life. Instead, they were rescues or -- in the case of Junior the Jaguar -- abandoned by their parents.

 Despite its resemblance to swine, the White-lipped Peccaries proved to be quite aggressive.  Only after my boyfriend nearly lost his GoPro & had his hand snipped off, did we notice the sign about the Peccaries' irritability.  I spotted a Puma in the brush with a sleek, tan coat whose soft "meow" made it seem much more innocuous than it probably was.  However, the animal that stole my heart was a Tayra a.k.a. Bush Dog.  With beady eyes, a pronounced underbite & looking like a transmogrified Ferret, I admit the Tayra was unsightly... but that's why I adored it!  Two bear-like ears stuck out from its fuzzy head & its physique reminded me of another cute animal: the red panda.

It was over an hour before I saw any other human life inside Belize Zoo  The fog dissipated with the rising sun & the Howler Monkeys remained silent in their trees.  The scene was so serene that the Kinkajous slumbered the entire time, in an inextricable ball of fur & limbs.  Therefore, you can imagine my terror when suddenly, a brown something darted out of the bushes cutting off the path ahead.  Only later, after seeing an Agouti a.k.a. Bush Rabbit enclosure, was I able to confirm that was the escaped animal I saw previously on the walking trails... or maybe it was a healthy Agouti visiting its imprisoned brethren? 
As the fauna awoke, the megacats patrolled their perimeter to smell the changes that occurred overnight while they were locked up.  Like how parents come home from a vacation & survey for any item out of place, so did the Jaguarundi & other Jaguars.  It was evident the Coatimundis (both Quash & the rare, Albino variety) had been up for awhile wreaking havoc.  As Junior the Jaguar lazily rolled in the grass, next door the rambunctious Coatis picked fights, smelled buttholes, wrestled, squeezed through every hole & assaulted my camera.  In fact, a travelmate saw my videos & freaked out because so many volunteers at her organization had been injured by them.  At 08:30 there was more action in the Coati enclosure than throughout the entire park combined.

However, the zoo's tranquility was shattered by an ear-splitting bark that sounded like the gears of a massive machine grinding.  I assumed the cautionary sound was a generator or air-conditioner malfunctioning as I recorded the Howler Monkeys, but no, this was the mighty call of a cantankerous Black Jaguar.  There was only one Black Jaguar at Belize Zoo, and Lucky (so named because he was a rescue) was significantly bigger than Junior, a typical Jaguar.  If you were lost in the rainforest it actually would be a good sign to hear Lucky's call because it meant you could discern where he was.  For when Lucky was in search of food he became disturbingly silent.  Out of the flora -- though I could barely see him -- skulked Lucky to do rounds on his territory.  His onyx fur glossed in the sunlight but assured he blended in well with the forest.  Now, if you were lost in the rainforest at night, I guarantee you would never see nor hear this gigantic predator coming.  Though Lucky was a beautiful beast, his deadpan stare & hollow green eyes reminded me of the killer he was destined to be.  In Belize, Jaguars are kings of the jungle and the country's second icon.

The other reason for showing up at Belize Zoo in advance was to purchase the "Jaguar Experience" since only four were offered daily (there are other animal "experiences" too). I enthusiastically recorded in my journal "best $25 [USD] ever spent!" Although there were balloons & celebratory banners still posted around the park for Junior the Jaguar's sixth birthday, these were only distractions to the apprehension I felt invading Junior's home. I was warned multiple times to duck underneath the electric wire (the gatekeeper joked it was the most dangerous part of the Jaguar Experience), but I swear as soon as I set one foot into that cage I was unnerved.  My eyes kept flitting from one corner to the next, especially when the trainer fumbled with the keys to my cage!

Inside the human-sized crate I exhaled & felt safe at last.  A few minutes later Junior emerged, smelling every inch of the structure & marking it.  Although Belize Zoo housed 15 Jaguars, only four were rehabilitated enough to be in the public's eye.  Junior was a lifer at the sanctuary because his wild mother had rejected him. Yet, this was a blessing in disguise because most captive Jaguars live for over twenty years.  Roaming free in the country, Jaguars are murdered for their coat or by farmers so Belize Zoo actively tries to trap them to save them from death.  Junior displayed his domestic side by begging & growling for treats.  Junior leapt atop the crate in one smooth, effortless move -- the same way he crushed the pollo a.k.a. chicken parts he was rewarded with for somersaulting & licking the top of my boyfriend's head. 

Junior was a beautiful beast with his leopard pattern spattering every inch of his body except his snout.  His fur was soft as was his lengthy, bushy tail.  Junior's teeth were long, pointed & durable enough to slice through the real treats: birds, Agoutis, iguanas & Armadillos.  He used his spotted, over-sized paw like a hand to push the pollo into his mouth, but underneath all the padding & fur were [trimmed] sharp nails.  While Lucky's eyes were terrifying and pale with tiny, black pupils, Junior's eyes were hazel with rings of tan, brown & green and dilated pupils.  Despite years at the Belize Zoo, Junior's eyes still hinted at an irrevocable wildness when I looked into them.