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 obtained a name from a British filmmaker named Richard Foster. She had not too long ago stop her job as a lion tamer in a Mexican circus and was again residence in Florida, the place she was poking her means by way of a grasp’s diploma in mycology, or the examine of mushrooms.

Mr. Foster had heard of her expertise with wild animals, and he needed her to work with him on a nature documentary in Belize, the small, newly impartial 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 challenge, 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 maintain them, as a result of they couldn’t maintain themselves within the wild.”

Determined, she painted “Belize Zoo” on a picket board and caught it by the aspect of the highway. 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 homeowners to ship any bored vacationers her means.

Practically 4 many years later, the Belize Zoo is the preferred attraction in Belize, drawing locals, overseas vacationers and tens of hundreds of faculty kids annually, 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, stated the trigger was a coronary heart assault.

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

Alongside the way in which she turned a fixture in Belizean society, without delay 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 era of Belizeans, lots of whom went on to grow to be 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; at the moment he’s the chief director of the Caribbean Neighborhood Local weather Change Heart.

“Sharon had an outsize affect on Belize,” he stated in a cellphone 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 working 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 Power, which despatched her to Panama for jungle coaching. She fell in love with the tropics, and with an Air Power 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 appreciated her colleagues. However she stop 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; anxious that she wouldn’t be allowed to deliver 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 airplane to Belize.

Ms. Matola took naturally to the straightforward life that working 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 price, 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 might simply slip right into a cocktail costume 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 status 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 advisor 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 highway she opened the Tropical Schooling Heart, out of which she ran analysis and conservation packages.

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 coated the nuptials. (The wedding, unconsummated, by no means took.)

Ms. Matola spoke out when she thought the nation’s setting was in danger. Within the early 2000s she joined a campaign against a hydropower dam deliberate in western Belize, which she stated 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 Assets Protection Council. Authorities officers denounced Ms. Matola as an outsider 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 guide “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 each day roles on the zoo, handing off accountability 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 minimize on her leg, which left her hospitalized for lengthy stretches.

None of that appeared to matter. She didn’t wish to be wherever else, she usually stated, and he or she would insist till her dying that she was “one of many happiest individuals on earth.”

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