No other animal was so celebrated as April the Tapir. Each year, sometime during the month of April, one day was set aside to celebrate her birthday. Visitors and school children got to witness a rare spectacle as April feasted on her birthday cake made of horse chow, honey, watermelon and carrots, garnished with brilliant hibiscus flowers, while the children sing the Mountain Cow Song. The first poster ever developed by Zoo staff in the 1980's depicted a tapir looking lovingly at her calf. This animal that now enjoys a healthy population in our country, once also existed in other parts of Central America, unfortunately not anymore.
Is it any wonder then, why April was the Zoo's celebrity. She has been the most singular factor in driving the message of "Conservation" home. April the tapir, who was the oldest living female tapir in captivity, died peacefully in her sleep on November 1st 2013. And while all at the zoo mourn her loss, we are focusing our attention on celebrating her life and what she meant to Belize, and to many people living outside our borders.
April arrived to the original zoo, one mile from the present location, in April 1983. A hunter found her lying in the Sibun river, unable to move. He brought her to the little beginning zoo. The small backyard menagerie was just three months old, and so was the young mountain cow. Christened “April” by the self-appointed zoo director, Sharon Matola, a hard task was at hand. “April” was in critical condition due to being heavily infested by the notorious screw worm parasite. Now eradicated from Belize, screw worm was known to kill species of wildlife as well as livestock. “April” was yet another victim.
Intensive tender-loving care was provided. Sharon and “April” became roommates. Receiving medication and nourishing banana milkshakes infused with vitamins, the baby tapir slowly progressed and improved. She would live! Word got out that a young tapir was at the little zoo. People would wander in to see her. Back then, what made an impression on “April’s” adopted mom, Sharon, was the lack of understanding which prevailed about the National Animal of Belize. Constantly, she would hear people say that tapirs were dangerous animals. “They can skin you alive with their flexible nose”. Sharon and “April” began working together to change the misunderstandings about these special, gentle, plant-eating mammals. Our National Animal!
Sharon was committed to turning “April” into a star ambassador for her species, which is an Endangered species, too. Her first birthday party happened when she was two years old. Six children attended. Every year, this effort continued, and every year the party got bigger, and bigger….posters were created applauding our National Animal. School children began visiting more regularly, “April” became a major attraction at the zoo. A mountain cow you can pet! And feeding “April” bananas was so very exciting to countless kids.
Years passed, her popularity grew. And when “April” turned sweet sixteen, her birthday party was covered on CNN news! She met royalty and movie stars, and she herself starred in documentary wildlife films produced by Richard and Carol Foster. She was famous both in Belize and beyond our borders.
Today in Belize, people no longer attach false myths to our country’s tapirs. These rare animals are viewed as beloved Belizeans. The important role they play in maintaining healthy forest ecosystems, is understood throughout the nation. One animal, “April” the tapir, provided the springboard for a vital environmental awareness.
In 2012, The Belize Zoo received approval from the office of the Prime Minister to have National Tapir Day recognized and celebrated every April 27th. The seven tapirs still living at the Zoo will continue to see that the messages April brought into light thirty years ago, will continue on with zest.
We will miss you, April. Thank you for all you did on behalf of one of the most special animals on earth: the Central American Tapir, our "Mountain Cow."