But there is also romance at the Belize Zoo. For months in 1990, the country's five newspapers breathlessly updated the news that April, the tapir (Belize's beloved national mascot), was getting married to a tapir from the Los Angeles Zoo. "Every time I go into Belize City," Matola said then, "somebody asks me about April's boyfriend." (Alas, April was spurned at the altar; Matola decided the groom's bloodlines were not good enough.) Tapirs are 400- to 500-pound herbivores that have been around since dinosaur days. To everyone but a Belizean, they are remarkably ugly creatures, bulky, long-nosed relatives of the rhino and the horse. April is fairly typical as tapirs go—shy, gentle, willing to kiss a child and happiest when basking in a muddy pond. She was first discovered lying near the edge of a river, infested with screw worms and close to death. Matola took her in as a roommate, shared her bed with April and nursed her to health on a diet of high-vitamin banana shakes.
It has become a tradition that the last Saturday in April is April's birthday. Hordes of schoolchildren descend on the zoo, bringing April bananas and carrots as gifts. Matola always bakes a cake several feet high.
Near the snake cages, a deer walks by. One of the zoo's charms is that you might encounter a strolling deer or even Sally, the toothless mother crocodile who sometimes wanders out of her pond. For years, one of the zoo's deficiencies was space. Snakes, like the deadly fer-de-lance, lived in glass boxes that didn't even permit full extension. Hawks were housed in cramped aviaries. "I didn't like keeping them like that," says Matola. "But you can't learn about animals by looking at a photograph or a postcard."
Last Christmas, Matola opened the gales to the spacious, new 30-acre Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center. Light years of intensive fund-raising had yielded a $700,000 facility that displays the various topographies of the Belizean forest in microcosm. A brisk walk, if you will, through Belize. Based on a plan drawn up free of charge by a Seattle architecture firm, the new zoo maintains the intimacy of the old zoo—a rustic place with dusty paths, teetering structures and the occasional mango tree in bloom—while enabling people to see animals in their natural habitats: paca in river forest, pumas in pineland, jaguarundi at the forest edge. April now lives in a lagoon dug for free by British soldiers. The aviaries are spacious, as are the reptile and butterfly houses. There are trees to climb, so people can look out at an ocelot at play in the brush or at the stunning rust-colored Mayan mountains beyond. The British soldiers also built limestone gravel walking paths, and at one edge of the zoo is a boardwalk, not yet completed, for bird-watching. The children's playground has swings and slides, and workers are constructing a huge climbing web on which a child can sense what it feels like to be a spider, and an enormous model of a flower through which kids can crawl. All of the zoo's electricity is solar-generated.
"When we began building, I was afraid we were removing the closeness between animals and people," Matola says. "We wanted to be homespun and unintimidating. As we progressed, I felt the new zoo enhances the beauty of the animals and gives them a better living environment without removing the closeness."
Matola is strolling through the Community Baboon Sanctuary at Bermudian Landing with her friend the sanctuary manager, Fallet Young. It's midafternoon, and Young, as usual, is commenting on everything he passes. He points to a cahune palm tree, prized for its delicious heart but most famous in Belize as a source of roofing material. "Poor man's zinc," Young calls the tree's long, thick leaves. "Only works when you cut them at the right time of year." Young gestures at one of the dirt mounds that litter the forest floor. "Red ants, man. They can rip your shin off." Matola, who towers over Young, is grinning. Just then a roar rolls over the treetops. Howler monkeys.
Belizeans are fond of confounding English semantics, which explains the presence of a baboon sanctuary in a country that has no baboons; all monkeys are referred to as baboons in Belize. The howlers by any name, though, would be difficult to mistake. A booming, tail-dangling mass of them is high up in a tree above somebody's pineapple orchard. Better than 90% of the farmers in the area have abided by their pledge not to touch the sections of their land that they donated to the monkeys. The Baboon Sanctuary represents considerable sacrifice on the part of these poor Belizeans. By giving up potential cane fields or pineapple orchards, they have assumed significant hardships.
Young and Matola watch the monkeys for a while and then walk back to his office. They are discussing a resort that has an obviously maltreated pet monkey. "Maybe I'll ban their guests from the zoo as long as they keep pet monkeys," she says. "If I'm going to stick to my principles, I may as well be a real bitch."
Early the next morning, Matola is in a speedboat bound for the Turneffe Islands. Belize has the world's second-largest barrier reef and a long strand of 450 mostly pristine islands—called cayes—some of which are bordered by mangrove swamps or by soft sand beaches. In the past few years foreign land developers have put up hotels and recreational facilities on some cayes at an alarming rate. The island of San Pedro, once a charming fishing village, is now also a tourist boom-town. Riding in the speedboat is the coastal zone management committee formed to protect the interests of the cayes. Ray Lightburn, cofounder of the committee with Matola, also functions as the developers' representative. "I'm a double agent," he says.
Matola and the boatful of men—boatbuilding, fisheries and fishermen's representatives, the government's environment minister, a Forestry Department representative—are laughing hard at Lightburn's stream of stories. In between bottles of Belikin, the committee makes a thorough assessment of the area.