Belize Biologist Leads Fight to Stop Proposed Dam

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This is a fight about biodiversity. It's about the habitat that these species need to survive. Once you knock down their reproductive grounds, then what?

What inspired your passion for this region?

I was the tapir specialist group chairperson for The World Conservation Union [IUCN, based in Gland, Switzerland]. My duties were to develop a tapir action plan, which took me all over Central America doing survey work. That was when I got to know the river valley.

What brought you to Belize in the first place?

As it happened, after college I answered an ad for a Mexican training circus because I thought that the circus life would enable me to travel throughout the country and survey mushrooms. My undergraduate degree was in general biology with a focus on mycology—study of fungi. I developed a passion for tropical fungi—there was nothing known about this stuff—and I was fascinated by how people, especially in Mexico, use different types of mushrooms for food and medicine.

For awhile it was a perfect arrangement. During the day I would go out for hours on these fungi forays and at night I worked as a dancer and lion trainer.

Eventually our training circus turned into a real circus and settled in Mexico City—there was no mushrooming any more and I left for Florida. Besides, I hate animal acts.

After I returned, I got a letter from documentary filmmaker Richard Foster, who needed an assistant. His letter included a roundtrip ticket to Belize.

Richard kept a collection of about 20 animals that he had used for documentaries that aired in the U.K. and later in the U.S.—intriguing creatures like "Snorkel" the anteater, margay, jaguar and tapir. These animals became the zoo.

What inspired you to start the zoo?

An old man, a native Belizean, visited the collection early on and he had never seen these animals. Then it hit me that the people who needed to watch these documentary films didn't have television.

I had a lot of energy and I thought that starting a zoo was a way to make a bad situation good. Today we have 130 animals native to Belize—I want people to know their wildlife, bond with it and respect it.

No animal is taken from the wild. Some are bred there, sent to us as gifts, people's pets…or injured.

Who provided funding for the zoo?

I went to Washington to raise funds. The NGOs wouldn't give me anything—I had no zoo experience. I went back to Belize.

I raised chickens and sold them to make money for the zoo. I baked bread and sold it. In 1984 I began leading natural history tours for a nature tour guiding company. All my tours stopped at the zoo.

In 1990 I acquired a basic biology station for studying birds—84 acres [34 hectares]. It had a basic infrastructure—dorms, a house—so I turned it into The Tropical Education Center. That's where we make a lot of the money used to support the zoo. There is currently a migratory bird program based there—"birds without borders"—a mycology study, and students from international institutions visit year round.

The zoo costs about U.S. $1 million to maintain. I'm an NGO—I just keep fundraising.

Do you ever have regrets about launching this long campaign against the dam?

The only thing I regret is not being able to spend time with my birds, my macaws. I used to spend up to 12 days at a time in the field to do my research. Not anymore. Sometimes when the lawyers call to talk about the dam I tell someone to tell them I'm spending time with my birds in the zoo.

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