A sharp account of an eccentric woman’s efforts to save the last 200 scarlet macaws in Belize.
Barcott (The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier, 1997)—a contributing editor at Outside magazine, where this book began as an article—takes readers deep into Belize, a former British colony between Mexico and Guatemala noted for its lush wildlife, English-speaking refugees and oddballs and quiet government corruption. The protagonist is middle-aged Sharon Matola, an American-born former lion tamer who came to Belize in 1982 to work on a nature documentary and remained to establish the Belize Zoo, a home for orphaned and outcast animals. The “Zoo Lady,” who shares her office with a three-legged jaguar, earned the Belize government’s ire in 1999 when she opposed plans to build a small dam in the remote Macal River Valley. Designed to generate much-needed electricity, it would have destroyed the nesting grounds of the nation’s remaining macaws. Barcott details Matola’s anti-dam campaign, which began with letters to officials and newspapers and included protests in Newfoundland (the base for the dam’s owners) and a legal battle that was decided by the Privy Council in London. While Belize officials tried to stop her by proposing to build a new garbage dump adjacent to her beloved zoo (she defeated that project), Matola pressed her anti-dam campaign with support from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Along the way, Barcott explores dam-building, species extinction and the history of the charismatic—but not endangered—macaws. For all her efforts—including revelations of geological deceptions in the dam planning—Matola lost the battle, and the Chalillo Dam, commissioned in 2005, put the macaw nests under water. Matola vows to keep fighting on behalf of wildlife; she is currently working to bring the harpy eagle back to Belize.
An engrossing but sad account of a brave and quirky champion of nature.