BELIZE Zoo founder Sharon Matola remembers a time in 1984 when, trying to keep the new zoo from folding, she was juggling bank overdrafts and dodging creditors in crowded streets here. Driven by dejection and the wet Caribbean heat, she says, ``I had to have a good cry.'' Her boo-hooing against the side of a building was interrupted, she says, ``when out of nowhere this little ragged girl tugged at me and asked, `Is April OK?'''
April is the zoo's tapir - a celebrity specimen of the Belize national animal, which is also an endangered species. Except for April, most Belizeans have never seen a tapir in the flesh within the borders of this small country.
From its beginning in 1983, the zoo promoted April as a symbol of the tiny Central American nation's pride in its environmental riches. Thousands of schoolchildren annually celebrate her birthday and parade past her pen. Even adults asked about April will light up in recognition and point out the tapir on the Belizean dollar bill. The government has just put April on a brand new postage stamp.
This is a major turnaround, says Matola, in a country that for generations taught its children that the shy, slow-moving vegetarian tapirs, known here as mountain cows, could use their noses to skin people alive. This myth - an invitation to slaughter - and dozens of others about wild cats, snakes, foxes, and the wildly colored jungle birds are being dispelled by the zoo.
For such a funky little operation, the Belize Zoo has a major hold on this nation's heart - and a growing reputation in world conservation circles as an example of how to endear third-world resources to their populations.
``The zoo is the most important environmental tool in the country,'' says James Nations, vice president of Conservation International, ``because so many people see animals and learn respect for them and it makes them less likely to destroy their habitat.''
``She has really tapped into something that works,'' says Warren Iliff, director of the Dallas Zoo. ``It is the forerunner of the way zoos should be, especially in third world countries,'' he says.
Environmental authorities credit Matola for shaping the zoo in a way that communicates with, rather than dazzles, the average Belizean. The educational importance of zoos can be obscured in developing countries where it is difficult to spend money to feed and house wild animals when most people have a hard time feeding and housing themselves.
In Belize, though, which has managed to save most of its forest from destruction and has the world's second-longest coral reef, eco-tourism has become key to the economy. The government, seeing the importance of national awareness of and pride in the environment, has backed Matola morally if not financially.
The modest, outdoor zoo is a collection of 70 indigenous rain forest animals - mostly orphans left when a documentary film company abandoned a nature film project here. They are described by handwritten signs - and by Belizean guides - in homespun Caribbean English and penned with simple chain-link fencing under the shade of jungle mango and cashew trees. The zoo is miles outside the capital city, off the main road.
A yellow-headed parrot greets visitors with ``Hello.'' His cage sign reads: ``I am very noisy.... I am very noisy every day. I live to be 50 years old.'' It is information designed to prevent the popular practice of taking the birds for pets. The ``voices'' of other animals are scrawled across signs everywhere along zoo pathways.
Matola is ``the zoo lady,'' a major national figure. Not only has she built the operation and its staff, but she raises funds tirelessly around the world because the Belizean government cannot afford to pay for the zoo. She is developing a captive breeding program and an environmental education center. She is a major figure here in promoting new ecological reserves and parks, and is involved in jungle exploration to identify other locations for them. Last December she became a Belizean citizen to show h er commitment to her work here.
It all started with an ad in a Florida newspaper for dancing girls in a Mexican circus - that is, if you can take a magical realist's perspective. Matola took a circuitous and unlikely route from a middle-class Baltimore girlhood to the founding of the zoo.
``Girls wanted to dance in Mexican circus. Good pay. Much travel,'' read the ad that caught Matola's eye as a student at New College of the University of South Florida in the late 1970s.
``I had to call,'' says the long-legged Matola with a grin and an I-can't-help-it shrug. She's quick with her logical explanation.
``I was going to do my master's thesis on mushrooms in markets,'' she says. ``I could be collecting data in the daytime, and paid to dance at night.''
Arriving in Mexico with other dancers who carried makeup buckets, Matola was loaded down with fungus kits, dissecting equipment, and rolls of waxed paper for collecting mushrooms. When circus management found out that her biology studies included work with a Romanian lion tamer at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey winter quarters in Florida, they added the cat act to her dancing duties.
`I DON'T agree with animal acts, in principle,'' Matola says. ``But I justified it that it was better me than someone else'' who might mistreat the animals. While the circus was ``magic for the people'' of the rural villages, Matola says, she was disappointed by the treatment of the animals.
She left the circus to become the handler for the menagerie of Belizean animals a documentary producer was using for a nature film. When financing fell through and the filmmaker left for another assignment, the backers instructed Matola to dispose of the animals - and the zoo was born.
Matola, whose sense of adventure seems matched only by her sense of humor, talks about years of ``groveling'' to support her idea. Gradually, she has built the zoo into a $200,000-a-year operation. She progressed from raising and selling chickens for money to fund-raising speaking tours around the world. Once, while working as a natural history consultant on the movie ``Mosquito Coast,'' she persuaded the filmmakers to donate $6,000 worth of building materials.