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


Sharon Matola’s lifestyle modified in the summertime of 1981, when she acquired a get in touch with from a British filmmaker named Richard Foster. She had lately quit her career as a lion tamer in a Mexican circus and was back household in Florida, the place she was poking her way by means of a master’s degree in mycology, or the review of mushrooms.

Mr. Foster had heard of her expertise with wild animals, and he desired her to get the job done with him on a nature documentary in Belize, the compact, newly independent nation on the Caribbean side of Central America, the place he lived on a compound about thirty miles inland.

She arrived in the fall of 1981, but the cash for Mr. Foster’s movie quickly ran out. He moved on to an additional task, in Borneo, leaving Ms. Matola in charge of a jaguar, two macaws, a ten-foot boa constrictor and 17 other half-tamed animals.

“I was at a crossroads,” she advised The Washington Publish in 1995. “I both had to shoot the animals or consider care of them, for the reason that they couldn’t consider care of themselves in the wild.”

Desperate, she painted “Belize Zoo” on a wooden board and caught it by the side of the street. She constructed rudimentary enclosures for the animals, and started promoting all over the nation, like at a close by bar, the place she asked the owners to send any bored vacationers her way.

Almost 4 decades later on, the Belize Zoo is the most well known attraction in Belize, drawing locals, foreign vacationers and tens of 1000’s of college kids every single 12 months, to see Pete the jaguar, Saddam the peccary and the rest 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 heart assault.

There is a very good opportunity that Ms. Matola met each youngster in Belize: Not only did colleges include things like a pay a visit to to the zoo on their yearly agenda, but she manufactured a habit of popping into classrooms with a boa constrictor in her backpack, normally uninvited but generally welcome.

Along the way she grew to become a fixture in Belizean society, at as soon as an adviser to the government and its Jeremiah, difficult advancement tasks she deemed to be a risk to her adopted country’s organic endowment. Her activism influenced a generation of Belizeans, a lot of of whom went on to turn out to be leaders in the government and nonprofit sector.

Colin Youthful was as soon as one particular of people a lot of schoolchildren who filed by means of the zoo now he is the executive director of the Caribbean Local community Climate Adjust Center.

“Sharon had an outsize influence on Belize,” he stated in a telephone interview. “Much of what young children and grownups now know about Belize’s wildlife comes back to her.”

Sharon Rose Matola was born on June three, 1954, in Baltimore to Edward and Janice (Schatoff) Matola. Her father was a revenue manager for Nationwide Brewing, her mom an administrative assistant at Loyola University Maryland.

She did not increase up dreaming of working a zoo in a tropical nation, but a lot of her lifestyle ready her for exactly that function. As a lady she scraped her knees and dirtied her fingernails in pursuit of worms, frogs and butterflies (however for the reason that she was very allergic to cats, her long term enjoy for jaguars was significantly less of a provided).

Right after higher college she signed up to be a survival instructor in the Air Force, which sent her to Panama for jungle instruction. She fell in enjoy with the tropics, and with an Air Force dentist named Jack Schreier. They married in 1976 and moved to his family’s farm in Iowa.

Ms. Matola studied Russian at the University of Iowa but quickly moved to Sarasota, Fla., the place she enrolled at New University and switched majors to biology. Her marriage to Mr. Schreier ended a handful of many years later on. In addition to her sister, she is survived by a brother, Stephen.

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

The get the job done was risky — a lion bit her in the abdomen, leaving a everlasting scar — however she liked her colleagues. But she quit soon after she was transferred to an additional troupe, which she felt mistreated the animals. She grabbed her pet spider monkey on the way out concerned that she wouldn’t be permitted to carry him across the Mexican-U.S. border, she paid a smuggler to aid her ford the Rio Grande, the monkey traveling on her head. Inside months, she was on a plane to Belize.

Ms. Matola took naturally to the basic lifestyle that working a no-spending budget zoo demanded. She slept in a one particular-space thatched hut on the house, bathing in a pond she shared with the zoo’s crocodiles. Her workplace mate was a 3-legged jaguar named Angel.

The zoo struggled at 1st. Ms. Matola charged a nominal entrance charge, and to cover charges she raised chickens and took vacationers on journeys to the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala upcoming door.

Ms. Matola, who grew to become a naturalized citizen of Belize in 1990, was most relaxed in T-shirts, camouflage pants and jungle boots, but she could very easily slip into a cocktail dress if she required to be in Belize City for an evening of glad-handing and fund-raising. For many years she had a standing weekly tennis appointment with the British higher commissioner.

As her zoo’s popularity 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 on donated cash to the zoo, as did the musician Jimmy Buffett.

In 1991, with a spending budget of $700,000 and the aid of soldiers from a close by British Army base, she constructed a new zoo on a thirty-acre plot across the street she opened the Tropical Schooling Center, out of which she ran investigate and conservation plans.

Some of her animals grew to become nationwide celebrities. When April the tapir was “married” with a male at the Los Angeles Zoo, all 5 of Belize’s newspapers covered the nuptials. (The marriage, unconsummated, never ever took.)

Ms. Matola spoke out when she imagined the country’s natural environment was at threat. In the early 2000s she joined a campaign towards a hydropower dam planned in western Belize, which she stated would ruin animal habitats in the jungle and drive up vitality charges.

The situation ended up in British court and drew global assistance from groups like the All-natural Sources Defense Council. Government officials denounced Ms. Matola as an interloper and, as one particular place it, an “enemy of the state.”

The dam’s developer won the situation, but Ms. Matola was suitable: Currently, vitality charges in Belize are increased, and the place all over the dam stays polluted. The situation earned her awards and invitations to lecture across the United States, especially soon after the journalist Bruce Barcott wrote about her in his guide “The Final Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: 1 Woman’s Battle to Conserve the World’s Most Stunning Bird” (2008).

Ms. Matola announced in 2017 that she was stepping back from her every day roles at the zoo, handing off duty to her all-Belizean personnel. 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 formulated sepsis in a reduce on her leg, which left her hospitalized for lengthy stretches.

None of that appeared to matter. She did not want to be anyplace else, she normally stated, and she would insist till her death that she was “one of the happiest folks on earth.”

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