American Zoo Director Saves Belize’s Wildlife

When Sharon Matola arrived in Belize, she discovered that most of the nation's schoolchildren couldn't recognize Belize's national animal, the tapir. So she set out to change that -- by creating the country's very first zoo.

When American Sharon Matola first arrived in Belize to work on a documentary film in 1981, she was entranced by the country’s exotic wildlife, but surprised to discover that most of the country’s citizens didn’t know much about it.

“I would go into schoolrooms when I first came to Belize, and ask kids to draw me a picture of a tapir, and they couldn’t do it,” she told ABC News. The tapir, a bizarre-looking mammal with a long snout, is Brazil’s national animal.

Matola decided it was time to raise awareness of Belize’s beautiful wild animals. How? By creating Belize’s very first zoo.

Such an undertaking is never simple, but it didn’t help that Matola had no experience in the field. “I didn’t care what people thought,” she told ABC. “I knew that there was a very important need for a facility like this, and I just went head on into it.”

The zoo has grown from its humble beginnings, and today is home to more than 100 animals, and is known as “The Best Little Zoo in the World.” Though passionate about all of the animals, Matola’s biggest focus is on the jaguar: She has saved the lives of 10 of the endangered species and introduced them to breeding programs in U.S. zoos, leading some to christen her the “Jane Goodall of Belize” for her conservation efforts.