STEP Reflection: Belize

Name: Kristen Behrens


Type of Project: Study Abroad


I worked as an intern at the Belize Zoo.  The zoo was more like a wildlife conservation site that the zoos we’re used to here in the US.  At the Belize Zoo, I worked with the other keepers to take care of the native animals housed there.  We fed them, cleaned their exhibits, and provided them with enrichment

My view of the world was transformed while completing my STEP Signature Project.  First of all, the Belize Zoo was very different from any zoo I had experienced in the past.  Even after working at the Cincinnati Zoo, I could not have predicted exactly what this zoo would be like.  For example, all of the animals were native to Belize.  Unlike the US, they did not bring in animals from other countries to put on display.  They only rescued animals from their own country who were injured or threatened.  In addition, the exhibits were very loosely enclosed.  Multiple times during my stay there, animals would get out and had to be chased back into their enclosures.  It was truly eye opening to see how things that I thought I fully understood worked in another country

Secondly, it was my first time out of the country, so I was afraid and felt intimidated by what I thought was the poverty of the country.  I feel bad now for thinking that way because even though their houses were not huge and grand like ours, that’s just how they lived.  Yes, our country is a little better off but it was certainly not the case that everyone there was poor.  I learned that the majority of people mean you no harm.  Like I said, I was afraid when I first arrived because I had been warned to keep a close eye on my belonging and never go anywhere alone.  I was convinced that everyone was out to get me, particularly because many of them were speaking Spanish, a language I didn’t know.  However, everyone I came across while in Belize was very kind and very clearly wanted to help me rather than hurt me.

Several events, interactions, relationships, and activities during my STEP Signature Project led to these transformations.  My understanding about the differences between their zoo and ours came almost immediately.  Walking around the zoo on the first day, it was like walking through the savannah.  And essentially that’s what it was.  They hardly had to change the landscape of the zoo at all to accommodate the animals since the animals were native to the land.  They simply built loose enclosures for the animals to stay in.  Once I began meeting the animals and hearing their back stories, I learned that virtually all of them were rescues.  None of them had been brought into the zoo solely for the entertainment of the public as many have been in the United States.

These differences affected me in a profound way.  They made me realize that the way we run zoos in the United States is not the only way to do it.  Their methods were very different and yet very successful.  It seemed like the animals thrived by living in a captive environment almost identical to their native environment.  It made me wonder if the U.S. could possibly learn some things by looking to the Belize Zoo.

Other events, interactions, relationships, and activities during my STEP Signature Project led to my transformations were my interactions with the people who ran the zoo and the Tropical Education Center.  Like I said previously, I was very anxious about what the people were like in Belize and whether they meant me any harm.  However, after only a single day with these people, I realized they were truly very kind and were only looking for my companionship.  Each night we would sit in the dining hall and play cards and dominoes.  On the weekends, they would give us rides to different tourist locations, even though it was not their job to do so.  During the entirety of my time in Belize, I never felt threatened by anyone.  I travelled the country and met many people who were extremely willing to help me in any way they could.

These events affected me by teaching me that cultural differences do not have to be scary.  I feel more prepared to travel the world now.  I know that I can be aware but not scared of the differences I may see.

Learning more about foreign zoos will most definitely be beneficial when applying to vet school.  Any experience with animals is valuable, particularly when it gives you another viewpoint on something you’ve already seen.  I not only got to work with exotic animals I had never even heard of before, but I got to see an alternate view into zoos.

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