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

Sharon Matola’s life modified in the summer time of 1981, when she bought a name from a British filmmaker named Richard Foster. She had lately stop her job as a lion tamer in a Mexican circus and was again house in Florida, the place she was poking her means by way of a grasp’s diploma in mycology, or the research of mushrooms.

Mr. Foster had heard of her abilities with wild animals, and he needed 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 in 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 in cost of a jaguar, two macaws, a 10-foot boa constrictor and 17 different half-tamed animals.

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

Desperate, she painted “Belize Zoo” on a wood board and caught it by the aspect of the highway. She constructed rudimentary enclosures for the animals, and started promoting round the nation, together with at a close by bar, the place she requested the homeowners to ship any bored vacationers her means.

Nearly 4 a long time later, the Belize Zoo is the hottest attraction in Belize, drawing locals, overseas vacationers and tens of 1000’s of college kids annually, to see Pete the jaguar, Saddam the peccary and the relaxation 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 is a good likelihood 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 school rooms with a boa constrictor in her backpack, typically uninvited however all the time welcome.

Along the means she turned a fixture in Belizean society, at as soon as an adviser to the authorities and its Jeremiah, difficult growth initiatives she deemed to be a menace to her adopted nation’s pure endowment. Her activism influenced a technology of Belizeans, many of whom went on to develop into leaders in the authorities and nonprofit sector.

Colin Young was as soon as one of these many schoolchildren who filed by way of the zoo; right this moment he’s the govt director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center.

“Sharon had an outsize influence on Belize,” he mentioned in a cellphone interview. “Much of what kids and adults now know about Belize’s wildlife comes back 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 National Brewing, her mom an administrative assistant at Loyola University 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 in the Air Force, which despatched her to Panama for jungle coaching. She fell in love with the tropics, and with an Air Force dentist named Jack Schreier. They married in 1976 and moved to his household’s farm in Iowa.

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

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

The work was harmful — a lion bit her in the abdomen, leaving a everlasting scar — although she favored her colleagues. But she stop after she was transferred to a different troupe, which she felt mistreated the animals. She grabbed her pet spider monkey on the means out; apprehensive 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. Within months, she was on a aircraft to Belize.

Ms. Matola took naturally to the easy 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 charge, 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 snug in T-shirts, camouflage pants and jungle boots, however she might simply slip into a cocktail gown if she wanted to be in Belize City 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 assist of troopers from a close by British Army base, she constructed a new zoo on a 30-acre plot; throughout the highway she opened the Tropical Education Center, out of which she ran analysis and conservation applications.

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

Ms. Matola spoke out when she thought the nation’s surroundings was at danger. In the early 2000s she joined a marketing campaign towards a hydropower dam deliberate in western Belize, which she mentioned would destroy animal habitats in the jungle and drive up vitality prices.

The case ended up in British court docket and drew worldwide assist from teams like the Natural Resources Defense Council. Government 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: Today, vitality prices in Belize are larger, and the space round the dam stays polluted. The case earned her awards and invites to lecture throughout the United States, significantly after the journalist Bruce Barcott wrote about her in his e book “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 at the zoo, handing off accountability to her all-Belizean employees. By then her arms had 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 lower 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 typically mentioned, and she or he would insist till her demise that she was “one of the happiest people on earth.”

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