It’s All Happening at the (Belize) Zoo

Belize, 2002

After our breakfast of biscuits & banana jam with tortillas and refried beans, Lou announces he is taking us to the zoo. That sounds promising, so we all pile back into the old Mazda and re-trace yesterday’s drive back up the highway.

The Belize Zoo is a teaching zoo. All zoos are teaching zoos, but this one is extra special. For starters, it was founded by a woman working on a documentary film. Having recently emerged from seven years of working on documentary films myself, Lou thought this would interest me.

It certainly does – as for some reason, I had never thought of zoo-keeping as the logical next step in my own career path. But then Sharon Matola’s body of work – unlike mine – included a stint with a Romanian lion-tamer and a circus tour through Mexico.

In 1982, Sharon – a native of Baltimore, Maryland – was hired by cinematographer Richard Foster (Great Migrations; Jaguar: Year of the Cat; Nature) to care for 20 (mostly) tame creatures used in the making of a wildlife film in Belize. After the crew packed up their gear and left, Sharon stayed behind – with all the animals.

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Unwilling to just abandon them, she decided to start a zoo.

And not just any zoo, but one that would teach Belizeans about animals native to Belize, in their natural settings. She traveled around the country, hanging up signs to raise awareness about the astonishing variety of Belizean wildlife and warn the people of Belize about the country’s deteriorating natural animal habitats. Then she set about raising money for her zoo from international environmental groups.

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Her hard work paid off. The Belize Zoo now encompasses 29 acres of tropical savanna and is home to more than more than 170 native species.


Rhymes painted on wooden signs help teach the story of the animals and how to best care for them.


Onsite classes and workshops at the zoo give teachers and students opportunities to use the zoo as a teaching tool and an outdoor classroom.

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As a result of one woman’s idea, hundreds of teachers and thousands of students visit the Belize Zoo each year to participate in their programs and learn how to appreciate and protect Belizean wildlife.

Impressed and intrigued, a few hours slip by as we quietly wander up and down the jungle pathways, reading signs, watching animals in their natural habitats, and taking pictures.


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We emerge with a better and more intimate understanding of the fascinating country we are visiting.

And then Lou says, “It’s time for lunch!”


[to be continued]


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