Sharon Matola, Who Opened a Zoo within the Jungle of Belize, Dies at 66

Sharon Matola’s life modified in the summertime of 1981, when she received a name from a British filmmaker named Richard Foster. She had just lately give up her job as a lion tamer in a Mexican circus and was again house in Florida, the place she was poking her manner by way of a grasp’s diploma in mycology, or the examine of mushrooms.

Mr. Foster had heard of her abilities with wild animals, and he wished her to work with him on a nature documentary in Belize, the small, newly unbiased nation on the Caribbean aspect of Central America, the place he lived on a compound about 30 miles inland.

She arrived within the fall of 1981, however the cash for Mr. Foster’s movie quickly ran out. He moved on to a different venture, in Borneo, leaving Ms. Matola answerable for a jaguar, two macaws, a 10-foot boa constrictor and 17 different half-tamed animals.

“I used to be at a crossroads,” she told The Washington Post in 1995. “I both needed to shoot the animals or care for them, as a result of they couldn’t care for themselves within the wild.”

Determined, she painted “Belize Zoo” on a picket board and caught it by the aspect of the street. She constructed rudimentary enclosures for the animals, and started promoting across the nation, together with at a close-by bar, the place she requested the house owners to ship any bored vacationers her manner.

Almost 4 a long time later, the Belize Zoo is the most well-liked attraction in Belize, drawing locals, international vacationers and tens of 1000’s of college youngsters every year, to see Pete the jaguar, Saddam the peccary and the remainder of Ms. Matola’s menagerie of native animals.

Ms. Matola died at 66 on March 21 in Belmopan, Belize. Her sister, Marlene Garay, mentioned the trigger was a coronary heart assault.

There’s a good probability that Ms. Matola met each little one in Belize: Not solely did faculties embrace a go to to the zoo on their annual agenda, however she made a behavior of popping into lecture rooms with a boa constrictor in her backpack, typically uninvited however all the time welcome.

Alongside the way in which she turned a fixture in Belizean society, directly an adviser to the federal government and its Jeremiah, difficult improvement tasks she deemed to be a menace to her adopted nation’s pure endowment. Her activism influenced a technology of Belizeans, lots of whom went on to turn into leaders within the authorities and nonprofit sector.

Colin Younger was as soon as a type of many schoolchildren who filed by way of the zoo; right now he’s the manager director of the Caribbean Group Local weather Change Middle.

“Sharon had an outsize affect on Belize,” he mentioned in a telephone interview. “A lot of what children and adults now find out about Belize’s wildlife comes again to her.”

Sharon Rose Matola was born on June 3, 1954, in Baltimore to Edward and Janice (Schatoff) Matola. Her father was a gross sales supervisor for Nationwide Brewing, her mom an administrative assistant at Loyola College Maryland.

She didn’t develop up dreaming of operating a zoo in a tropical nation, however a lot of her life ready her for exactly that position. As a woman she scraped her knees and dirtied her fingernails in pursuit of worms, frogs and butterflies (although as a result of she was extremely allergic to cats, her future love for jaguars was much less of a given).

After highschool she signed as much as be a survival teacher within the Air Drive, which despatched her to Panama for jungle coaching. She fell in love with the tropics, and with an Air Drive dentist named Jack Schreier. They married in 1976 and moved to his household’s farm in Iowa.

Ms. Matola studied Russian on the College of Iowa however quickly moved to Sarasota, Fla., the place she enrolled at New School and switched majors to biology. Her marriage to Mr. Schreier ended a number of years later. Along with her sister, she is survived by a brother, Stephen.

To pay for faculty, and later graduate college, Ms. Matola labored the oddest of wierd jobs — assistant lion tamer on the Circus Corridor of Fame in Sarasota, fish taxonomist and ultimately dancer and lion tamer with a touring circus in Mexico.

The work was harmful — a lion bit her within the abdomen, leaving a everlasting scar — although she preferred her colleagues. However she give up after she was transferred to a different troupe, which she felt mistreated the animals. She grabbed her pet spider monkey on the way in which out; nervous that she wouldn’t be allowed to convey him throughout the Mexican-U.S. border, she paid a smuggler to assist her ford the Rio Grande, the monkey touring on her head. Inside months, she was on a aircraft to Belize.

Ms. Matola took naturally to the straightforward life that operating a no-budget zoo required. She slept in a one-room thatched hut on the property, bathing in a pond she shared with the zoo’s crocodiles. Her workplace mate was a three-legged jaguar named Angel.

The zoo struggled at first. Ms. Matola charged a nominal entrance payment, and to cowl prices she raised chickens and took vacationers on journeys to the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala subsequent door.

Ms. Matola, who turned a naturalized citizen of Belize in 1990, was most comfy in T-shirts, camouflage pants and jungle boots, however she may simply slip right into a cocktail gown if she wanted to be in Belize Metropolis for a night of glad-handing and fund-raising. For years she had a standing weekly tennis appointment with the British excessive commissioner.

As her zoo’s repute grew, so did hers. American newspapers and magazines began to run profiles of the “Jane Goodall of jaguars.” In 1986 the director Peter Weir employed her as a guide for his film “Mosquito Coast”; its star, Harrison Ford, later donated cash to the zoo, as did the musician Jimmy Buffett.

In 1991, with a funds of $700,000 and the assistance of troopers from a close-by British Military base, she constructed a brand new zoo on a 30-acre plot; throughout the street she opened the Tropical Schooling Middle, out of which she ran analysis and conservation applications.

A few of her animals turned nationwide celebrities. When April the tapir was “married” with a male on the Los Angeles Zoo, all 5 of Belize’s newspapers lined the nuptials. (The wedding, unconsummated, by no means took.)

Ms. Matola spoke out when she thought the nation’s atmosphere was in danger. Within the early 2000s she joined a campaign against a hydropower dam deliberate in western Belize, which she mentioned would destroy animal habitats within the jungle and drive up power prices.

The case ended up in British court docket and drew worldwide assist from teams just like the Pure Sources Protection Council. Authorities officers denounced Ms. Matola as an intruder and, as one put it, an “enemy of the state.”

The dam’s developer gained the case, however Ms. Matola was proper: At present, power prices in Belize are greater, and the world across the dam stays polluted. The case earned her awards and invites to lecture throughout the US, notably after the journalist Bruce Barcott wrote about her in his ebook “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird” (2008).

Ms. Matola introduced in 2017 that she was stepping again from her every day roles on the zoo, handing off duty to her all-Belizean employees. By then her arms have been tattooed with scars from numerous bites and scratches, her physique worn down by bouts of malaria and screw worms. Not lengthy afterward she developed sepsis in a reduce on her leg, which left her hospitalized for lengthy stretches.

None of that appeared to matter. She didn’t wish to be anyplace else, she typically mentioned, and he or she would insist till her demise that she was “one of many happiest folks on earth.”

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