logo Belize Zoo

A Special Honor for TBZ's Founding Director

September 2011 took on a very special meaning for the entire staff of the Belize Zoo. The 21st of September marks the 30th year of Belize’s independence. Exactly 29 years ago on this same September day, Sharon Matola arrived to our newly independent nation. She did not come to Belize to start a zoo, however. Rather, Sharon was hired to manage the wildlife collection under the care of filmmaker Richard Foster. Together, over a period of months, they developed a natural history film which beautifully depicted the wonders of Belize’s forests. Richard was then assigned to another film project in Borneo, and Sharon was lift with the “retired film stars.”

Despite having little zoology experience in her background, she decided to start a zoo anyway! Why? When wildlife is tamed, they can no longer survive in the wild. Turning the furry and feathered actors out into the forest was not an option, so signs were painted, word was passed around, and The Belize Zoo was born.
The Zoo began before the invention of the fax machine. Belize’s entire Western Highway was not yet paved. There was a severe absence of money to kick start the project. But what occurred fueled a strong commitment in a young, idealistic woman. Belizeans, hearing about “a place where they could see animals,” began turning up at the backyard zoo’s rustic gates. Hey! Sometimes as many as 6 people would turn up at the weekend!

Then, one late afternoon, an elderly Belizean gentleman appeared at the gate. Sharon, at that time, running the zoo herself, allowed him to enter despite the late hour, and accompanied him around the little facility, sharing the various enchanting residents with the old man. His beliefs about the animals he was seeing startled Sharon. “The anteater is dangerous,” he’d remark, “It will force its tongue up the nose of a dog and suck out its brains! And the mountain cow can skin you alive with its flexible nose!” When they came to the pair of jaguars at the zoo, rolling around in the golden afternoon sun, the old man broke down in tears. Struck by the beauty of the moment, he turned to Sharon and said “I’m so sorry, Miss, but I’ve lived in Belize my whole life and this is the first time I’ve seen the animals of my country." That event changed Sharon Matola’s life. The mission was straightforward: How can we preserve the special wildlife of Belize for the future, if the people are unfamiliar with them? The children of Belizean deserve a zoo they can come to and fall in love with the beauty of their natural heritage. From those very humble beginnings, the zoo advanced and, today, is proudly known as “The Best Little Zoo in the World.”

The Belize Zoo is now a major destination in our country, seeing over 50,000 visitors through its gates annually, over 10,000 of which are Belizean students. Having come a long way from being a “road side attraction” of chicken wire mesh cages, it is now a structurally impressive institution, with its weaving pathways bordered by flora, aerial walkways, and lookout platforms, all bringing visitors as close as possible to the fauna of Belize.

As a result of almost 30 years of dedication to education and preservation of Belize’s wildlife, Sharon Matola was honoured in September 2011 during the annual Tribute to Belizean Patriots ceremony, and presented with a Meritorious Service Award by none other than Belize’s Prime Minister. What was Sharon’s response to receiving this distinguished award? “I have never felt so honoured, and I thank this entire nation, both governments and all fellow Belizeans for allowing me the opportunity to contribute to the preservation of nature in such a special way.” TBZ congratulates our Founding Director and fearless leader on a well deserved achievement!

Sharon Meritorious Service award

Share Link: Share: Bookmark Google Yahoo MyWeb Del.icio.us Digg Facebook Myspace Reddit Ma.gnolia Technorati Stumble Upon Spurl Newsvine Squidoo Mixx