Wildlife rescue facilities — dissimilar to most zoos — focuses on the rehabilitation and care of wild animals, saved from illegal breeders, circuses and other types of commercial confinement. In most instances, these centers do not seek to find adoptive homes for the animals, but rather introduce the animals to new lifestyles that suit their needs, and that allow them to live out their lives lives in a loving and nurturing environment.
Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center
Sharon Matola is an animal advocate who is making a difference in Belize. Hired by filmmaker Richard Foster in 1982 to care for 20 animals used in his wildlife documentary "Selva Verde" (Spanish for Green Forest), she was inspired to do something more with the animals, post-production.
Since many were too tame for life in the wild, the idea of creating a new and different kind of zoo came to mind. As the founding director of the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, she raised awareness about the wealth of Belizean wildlife and the country’s deteriorating habitat that was unsuitable for many species.
In interviewing Matola for this post, she drilled down on the purpose of rescue zoos.
“The Belize Zoo is a ‘rescue zoo’ - where every animal has a story, damaged, injured, or orphaned. We do not take animals from the wild . . . we save them. If they were ‘returned to the wild,’ they would not survive,” noted Matola.
“People admire our zoo because animals live in natural and roomy habitats….and they are “Ambassadors” for their species, teaching our public what is out in the wild, and the importance of protecting our remaining wildlife populations.”
It Takes A Village of Children
Over 10 thousand school children visit the zoo annually. As an environmental steward, Matola takes great pride in the 'Eco Kids Summer Camp' she launched and the subsequent impact the program has on the young.
“They most definitely gain a better understanding and appreciation of their natural resources, and Belizeans are extremely proud of their zoo.”
Children can get up up-close-and-personal with the animals. “This is something not usual in stateside zoological facilities. We have a nickname, ‘The Best Little Zoo’ in the World,” given to us by the guidebooks, and it stuck – and it keeps getting better,” says Matola.
With an inventory now of over 140 animals, the zoo is home to some very celebrated jaguars, whose specie is unfortunately “in decline” in Belize.
“Junior Buddy is one of the most popular jaguars born at the zoo. His mother, a ‘problem jaguar’ and sheep killer came to us for entry into our rehab program. In such critical condition, we worked to save her life, not knowing she was pregnant,” noted Matola.
After Junior Buddy’s birth and subsequenttly rejected by his mother, “he was raised mainly by me . . . he loves showing off his beauty to people and visitors come to the zoo specifically to see him. He is a star . . . doing well, a tremendous Ambassador for all jaguars.”
This past February, Junior celebrated his 9th birthday at the zoo.
Most recently, another jaguar caught the attention of the media. Chiqui, an orphaned jaguar cub was saved from drowning in a stream near the Chalillo Reservoir. Presently Matola and her zoo staff are finishing work on this jaguar’s new and permanent home on zoo grounds.
“Chiqui’s” home forest, the Chiquibul Forest, is in urgent need of strict protection and stewardship. As another ‘Jaguar Ambassador,’ she will be unaware of her role: Assisting the people working so diligently to save this important tropical forest. And, once zoo visitors view “Chiqui” and read about her history, all will surely want to staunchly protect the Chiquebul Forest,” says Matola.
Sharon Matola is a role model for conservationists the world over. In The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, award-winning author Bruce Barcott chronicles Sharon Matola’s inspiring crusade to stop a multinational corporation in its tracks from infringing on environmental conservation. Matola was not only unwavering her animal advocacy campaigns, she risked her life to save one of the most beautiful tropical birds in the world.
There is a lot more to Sharon Matola’s story, so I do urge those who are interested in learning more and donating to this very unique zoo, that you visit their website here — and that sometime in the very near future, definitely consider putting the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center on your bucket list.