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On October 24th, the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center sustained a direct hit from Hurricane Richard, and much of its rustic setting of wire fences and abundant forest were destroyed in the storm's raging winds.

The Zoo, located west of Belize City on 29 acres of tropical savanna, was founded in 1983 by American Sharon Matola as a last ditch effort to provide a home for a collection of wild animals that had been used to make documentary films about tropical forests.

Once again, Matola, the Zoo's director and the main character in the popular book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird, is dealing with a huge challenge.

"Hurricane Richard did a number on the Zoo. We are closed for repairs and renovations and probably will not be able to re-open until December. Thankfully, none of the animals were injured or escaped, but our facility has been hit hard," said Matola, who has lived in Belize for more than 25 years.

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The Zoo is home to more than 125 animals of about 48 species, all native to Belize, which were orphaned, born at the zoo, rehabilitated, or sent as gifts from other zoological institutions.

Hurricane Richard leveled most of the vegetation at The Belize Zoo, downed trees choking pathways among the animal exhibits, flattening wooden decks, platforms, and crushing steel fencing surrounding the animal exhibits. The plumbing system providing water and drainage for the exhibits and the electric fences were damaged.

In normal times the Zoo struggles to balance its budget with the food for the animals and staff salaries literally depending on gate receipts. But the added expense of repairs, combined with the temporary closing of the Zoo, means the financial challenge has never been greater.

"Hurricane Richard may have set back our progress in raising awareness about the special natural resources in this nation, but we are determined to go forward with good planning and enthusiasm," Matola said.

"Our conservation programs are effective and bring forward an important understanding about the biodiversity still thriving in this little nation. The Belize Zoo will definitely still be worthy of being known as "the best little zoo in the world." Assistance to see that our mission continues to soar is deeply appreciated," Matola said.

The greatest needs are truckloads of strong and durable fencing, cement, gravel and large rocks, PVC piping, steel pipe, lumber, wire, nails, and paint, as well as new tools, new water pumps and money to pay workers.

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Marty Offline OP
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Hurricane Richard did not only affect human life when it tore through the mid portion of the country on October twenty-fourth. At the Belize Zoo, most of the enclosures for the animals were destroyed and the facility has had to close to the public. But works to clear away the debris and renovate the zoo have been an unending task as zoo employees feverishly prepare for the big re-opening on December first. News Five's Marion Ali and cameraman, George Tillett, spent the day last Friday getting a close up view of the displaced animals and finding out from caretakers what's in store on opening day.

Marion Ali, Reporting

They say there's no place like home and that was proven true when the animals at the Belize Zoo chose to remain at the location, even though their habitats were either severely damaged or totally destroyed by Hurricane Richard. Most of the twenty-nine acre facility has felt some impact of the storm. The repairs have involved the staff at the zoo with help from volunteers to remove trees and structures that now pose a danger to life.

Jamal Andrewin

Jamal Andrewin, Environmental Educator, Belize Zoo

"When we came in the zoo was unrecognizable-all the parts were entirely covered in debris, trees-they've been uprooted. Normally it takes about five minutes to get from our commissary in the back to the main office in the front-it take you about half an hour by the time you maneuver and find a new path right. We started clearing out and that entailed machetes, cutting down trees moving them out, machinery tractors, trailers, everything basically-all the general machinery."

While the structures and enclosures at the zoo were totaled, none of its one hundred and fifty animals were hurt in the storm. But Richard was only a category one hurricane when it hit, so we asked what mitigation plan is in place if a storm more powerful would pummel Belize.

Jamal Andrewin

"We have two hurricane shelters that aren't very far from their main exhibits that can withstand a category five hurricane. We put that in place a long time ago. As you mentioned, we are right in the center of Belize in open land, flat savannah land and hurricane can easily ravage the zoo as hurricane Richard did and it was just a category one. For Richard, the cats, the jaguars that are usually locked up in the hurricane proof shelters were. The birds were left in their main exhibits. They survived, they did fine. But in the events of a category five or strong hurricane, all of the animals are normally moved to the hurricane shelters. We do this as a last resort. We done it before in the past, for example for Mitch, the animals, the birds especially were moved to the hurricane shelters, but we lost a few birds because it puts incredible stress on these birds to have them captured and moved into these smaller pens all next to all of these different species."

All was not lost to the storm as its destruction was a blessing in disguise as Zoo Director, Sharon Matola, says the zoo will be an entirely new facility when it is reopened on December first.

Sharon Matola, Director, Belize Zoo

"We're realizing we're going to build a new zoo and we all have a hand in it and we all understand the behavioral needs of the animals so we are tailoring the zoo we are actually fine0tunign the zoo not only for the animals but for the visitors."

But even while the animals have been displaced, they were still up for making friends when we showed up with our camera today. Toni, an eleven year old boa constrictor measuring nine feet in length, was more than happy to hang out with me for a while.

Even Junior Buddy, a three year old jaguar, whose entire closure was completely ripped apart by the hurricane, did not mind entertaining us for a few treats.

Marion Ali

"How are the animals coping with the different environment until you get it back to what they were used to?"

Sharon Matola

"Good question. Quite a few are confused. I can put this in human terms. When you are used to living in a place for eight nine ten years, and everything is the same, you know where every leaves is, you know exactly where the furniture is and what the furniture is made of and overnight, it's changed. Right after the hurricane, we had a howler monkey and a marge cat snuggled together and it was all out of fear of the newness of everything. There was comfort in the familiarity. They knew each other existed somewhere here and there they went."

Marion Ali

"So they are getting along with each other?"

Sharon Matola

"We took them apart because it was not exactly a natural situation. It was spurn on by the unusual occurrence of the hurricane."

And while some people engage in street crime and others are caught up in the day-to-day running of business, there are still others who possess the spirit of volunteerism and put their efforts toward something positive.

Sharon Matola

"The amount of help and caring that's out there, it's so heartwarming. This is a wonderful country."

Marion Ali for News Five.

The Belize Zoo was founded in 1983 by Matola and encompasses twenty nine acres of land at mile twenty nine on the Western Highway. It is accepting donations of lumber, chain link, meats and fruits for the animals, and funding to rebuild. The zoo charges locals five dollars to visit and a dollar for children while foreigners pay twenty dollars and ten dollars for children.

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It's a jungle out there, Zoo animals ready for human visitors

Since Hurricane Richard's fury left many of the animals at the Belize Zoo without their habitats, staff members at the facility, with the help of volunteers, have been feverishly trying to restore things back to normal. That effort started soon after the storm when the zoo had to close its doors for the clean-up and retrofitting. Well, now the animals and their caretakers are prepped and ready to welcome you and your family or classmates for the big opening this week. The reopening is centered around books and posters highlighting the three-year-old jaguar Junior Buddy, to showcase the plight of jaguars. Environmental Educator at the Belize Zoo, Jamal Andrewin explains.

Jamal Andrewin, Environmental Educator, Belize Zoo

jamal andrewin

"It's called, "The Jaguar - Help Me or Hurt Me" and its message is quite simple. It's to remind Belizeans that there are about six to eight hundred jaguars left in Belize. That's conservative estimates and the population is on decline due to deforestation and persecution due to hunters and farmers right? Apart from this they suffer from the fact that they are hunted as well for their teeth and their claws to make jaguar jewelry. For example, the picture of this jaguar tooth pendant here, we've had reports of it coming from areas such as Lamanai, Placencia, San Pedro, and tourists are targeted. They're approached, they're offered these and - Belizeans as well. So the idea of this process is to remind people that it's completely illegal to purchase these that no jaguar is found dead and the parts are taken. They are more than likely killed and they are killed for these purposes."

The opening is set for December first at the same location at mile twenty nine on the Western Highway. The zoo charges students on school trips a dollar for each child and teacher.

Channel 5

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