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


Sharon Matola’s soul changed in the summer of 1981, when she got a call from a British filmmaker named Richard Back. She had recently quit her job as a lion tamer in a Mexican circus and was back to the quick in Florida, where she was poking her way through a master’s degree in mycology, or the look of mushrooms.

Mr. Foster had heard of her skills with wild animals, and he desire her to work with him on a nature documentary in Belize, the small, newly unrelated country on the Caribbean side of Central America, where he lived on a concoct about 30 miles inland.

She arrived in the fall of 1981, but the readies for Mr. Foster’s film soon ran out. He moved on to another project, in Borneo, discontinuing Ms. Matola in charge of a jaguar, two macaws, a 10-foot boa constrictor and 17 other half-tamed animals.

“I was at a crossroads,” she expressed The Washington Post in 1995. “I either had to shoot the animals or take be fond of of them, because they couldn’t take care of themselves in the unrestrainable.”

Desperate, she painted “Belize Zoo” on a wooden board and stuck it by the side of the street. She built rudimentary enclosures for the animals, and began advertising around the nation, including at a nearby bar, where she asked the owners to send any bored out-of-towners her way.

Nearly four decades later, the Belize Zoo is the most popular lure in Belize, drawing locals, foreign tourists and tens of thousands of equip children each year, to see Pete the jaguar, Saddam the peccary and the stay of Ms. Matola’s menagerie of native animals.

Ms. Matola died at 66 on Trek 21 in Belmopan, Belize. Her sister, Marlene Garay, said the basis was a heart attack.

There is a good chance that Ms. Matola met every babe in Belize: Not only did schools include a visit to the zoo on their annual agenda, but she generate a habit of popping into classrooms with a boa constrictor in her backpack, in many cases uninvited but always welcome.

Along the way she became a fixture in Belizean league, at once an adviser to the government and its Jeremiah, challenging development projects she deemed to be a warning to her adopted country’s natural endowment. Her activism influenced a generation of Belizeans, sundry of whom went on to become leaders in the government and nonprofit sector.

Colin Teenaged was once one of those many schoolchildren who filed through the zoo; today he is the big cheese director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center.

“Sharon had an outsize upon on Belize,” he said in a phone interview. “Much of what kids and adults now positive about Belize’s wildlife comes back to her.”

Sharon Rose Matola was had on June 3, 1954, in Baltimore to Edward and Janice (Schatoff) Matola. Her chaplain was a sales manager for National Brewing, her mother an administrative assistant at Loyola University Maryland.

She did not nurture up dreaming of running a zoo in a tropical country, but much of her life prepared her for on the nail that role. As a girl she scraped her knees and dirtied her fingernails in tracing of worms, frogs and butterflies (though because she was highly allergic to cats, her following love for jaguars was less of a given).

After high school she put ones signature oned up to be a survival instructor in the Air Force, which sent her to Panama for jungle training. She prostrate in love with the tropics, and with an Air Force dentist named Jack Schreier. They match up in 1976 and moved to his family’s farm in Iowa.

Ms. Matola studied Russian at the University of Iowa but readily at some time moved to Sarasota, Fla., where she enrolled at New College and switched majors to biology. Her wedding to Mr. Schreier ended a few years later. In addition to her sister, she is survived by a fellow-creature, Stephen.

To pay for college, and later graduate school, Ms. Matola worked the freakiest of odd jobs — assistant lion tamer at the Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota, fish taxonomist and in the end dancer and lion tamer with a traveling circus in Mexico.

The exploit was dangerous — a lion bit her in the stomach, leaving a permanent scar — though she derived her colleagues. But she quit after she was transferred to another troupe, which she see mistreated the animals. She grabbed her pet spider monkey on the way out; worried that she wouldn’t be allowed to illuminate him across the Mexican-U.S. border, she paid a smuggler to help her ford the Rio Grande, the primate traveling on her head. Within months, she was on a plane to Belize.

Ms. Matola lured naturally to the simple life that running a no-budget zoo required. She snored in a one-room thatched hut on the property, bathing in a pond she shared with the zoo’s crocodiles. Her house mate was a three-legged jaguar named Angel.

The zoo struggled at first. Ms. Matola charged a pretended entrance fee, and to cover costs she raised chickens and took tourists on tours to the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala next door.

Ms. Matola, who turned a naturalized citizen of Belize in 1990, was most comfortable in T-shirts, faade pants and jungle boots, but she could easily slip into a cocktail rig out if she needed to be in Belize City for an evening of glad-handing and fund-raising. For years she had a prominence weekly tennis appointment with the British high commissioner.

As her zoo’s position grew, so did hers. American newspapers and magazines started to run profiles of the “Jane Goodall of jaguars.” In 1986 the steersman Peter Weir hired her as a consultant for his movie “Mosquito Coast”; its foremost, Harrison Ford, later donated money to the zoo, as did the musician Jimmy Buffett.

In 1991, with a budget of $700,000 and the serve of soldiers from a nearby British Army base, she built a new zoo on a 30-acre organize; across the road she opened the Tropical Education Center, out of which she ran up on and conservation programs.

Some of her animals became national celebrities. When April the tapir was “married” with a spear at the Los Angeles Zoo, all five of Belize’s newspapers covered the nuptials. (The marriage, unconsummated, not under any condition took.)

Ms. Matola spoke out when she thought the country’s environment was at hazard. In the early 2000s she joined a campaign against a hydropower dam planned in western Belize, which she communicated would destroy animal habitats in the jungle and drive up energy expenses.

The case ended up in British court and drew international support from assortments like the Natural Resources Defense Council. Government officials implicated Ms. Matola as an interloper and, as one put it, an “enemy of the state.”

The dam’s developer won the case, but Ms. Matola was correct: Today, energy costs in Belize are higher, and the area around the dam leftovers polluted. The case earned her awards and invitations to lecture across the Joint States, particularly after the journalist Bruce Barcott wrote around her in his book “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Put aside the World’s Most Beautiful Bird” (2008).

Ms. Matola announced in 2017 that she was stepping towards the rear from her daily roles at the zoo, handing off responsibility to her all-Belizean staff. By then her arms were tattooed with marks from countless bites and scratches, her body worn down by turns of malaria and screw worms. Not long afterward she developed sepsis in a cut on her leg, which left-hand her hospitalized for long stretches.

None of that seemed to matter. She did not in need of to be anywhere else, she often said, and she would insist until her passing that she was “one of the happiest people on earth.”

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