The tiny Central American country of Belize — no bigger than the state of Massachusetts — claims to have more birds, trees and plants than are found in all of the U.S. and Canada. Yet, it had no zoo, until an American woman with an extraordinary vision arrived.
Deep in the jungles of Central America, lurk wild beasts and exotic birds few people will ever get to see, especially in the jungle — which is what makes the little Belize Zoo such a wondrous place.
Watch more of Jeffrey Kofman's report tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. EDT.
Sharon Matola bounds over a wire fence into a muddy enclosure that houses Navidad, one of the zoo's tapirs (pronounced "TAY-peer"). With her odd, very long, snout, Navidad looks like a pig that collided with an anteater; in fact, she's a tropical cousin of the horse.
"She would eat bananas till she fell over," says Matola, as Navidad snatches one banana after another, deftly curling that snout around the object her desire.
In this country of fewer than 300,000 people, 40,000 people a year come to the remarkable little zoo to see Navidad and the other animals, birds and amphibians on display. All of it is the single-minded vision of Matola. Born in Baltimore, she is the founder and director of Belize's first and only zoo.
"I was astounded," says Matola. "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. They had no idea what a tapir looked like."
Those tapirs are the national animal of Belize.
The theme here, she says, is simple: "Every animal in the Belize Zoo is Belizean." You won't find a polar bear or a giraffe on display here. And you won't miss them.
In the immaculate cages of the 29-acre zoo, you will find jaguarondis, scarlet macaws, spider monkeys, the jabiru stork, and a pair of very entertaining otters who dart in and out of their pond with infectious curiosity.
Matola didn't plan to open a zoo when she arrived here in 1982. As a young woman, she worked in a circus as a lion tamer. She came to Belize to work with animals on a nature documentary — those animals would become the first residents of the Belize Zoo.
"I didn't know anything. I've never worked in a zoo. I was not a zoo person," she says, admitting she had a lot to learn.
From its modest beginnings, the zoo has grown to more than 100 animals, 22 employees, and a budget of just under $1 million a year, all of it from tickets sales, private foundations, and donations.
It is Matola's work with the majestic jaguars that has really put the Belize Zoo on the map. This endangered species still roams in the jungle, but in the eyes of poor farmers, they are pests.
At the back of the zoo, a handsome, but ferocious, jaguar called Wild Boy is kept in a cage far from the public. Until he came here, he lived in the wild, where he was a persistent and unwelcome pest, killing the cattle of poor farmers. Matola took him in.
"He would have been doomed, because he was a repeated known cattle killer," Matola says, as she feeds him scraps of raw chicken that he devours eagerly. "The cattle ranchers are small farmers, and that's their livelihood, and how they feed their families. So, they lose any feeling of compassion for this animal … He would have been killed."
And so began the Problem Jaguar Rehabilitation Program. Through it, Matola has saved 10 jaguars from certain death. She trains them to be less aggressive, and ships them off to zoos in the U.S. With only 44 jaguars for breeding in U.S. zoos, the new arrivals are needed and welcome.
Matola would rather see the animals left in the wild, but that is clearly not an option.
"If we didn't take this animal out of the wild, he would be killed," she says. "We take him out of the wild. We change his behavior. We send him off to a zoo that is in desperate need of fresh, genetic input, to establish a healthy captive population. He lives happily ever after. The cattle rancher isn't bothered. They can view him in the states, learn about jaguars, and problem jaguar issues that face countries like ours. Who loses?"
Two of those problem jaguars have already been sent to zoos in Milwaukee and Philadelphia, with two more on the way to the U.S.
Because of her groundbreaking work, Matola has been called the Jane Goodall of jaguars, after the pioneering advocate for chimpanzees.
She says it wasn't always like this. Initially, she had to fight skeptics in the worldwide zoo community who saw her as an unqualified outsider.
"I didn't care what people thought," she says. "I knew that there was a very important need for a facility like this, and I just went head on into it. And I think it shows that you can accomplish something if you stay focused, and follow your dreams."
It's no wonder they call the Belize Zoo, "The Best Little Zoo in the World."
For more information: www.belizezoo.org