Sharon Matola, who opened Belize jungle zoo, dies at 66

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Sharon Matola’s life changed in the summer of 1981, when she received a call from a British filmmaker named Richard Foster. She had recently quit her job as a lion tamer in a Mexican circus and was back home in Florida, where she was working her way through a master’s degree in mycology or the study of mushrooms.

Mr Foster had heard of his skills with wildlife, and he wanted her to work with him on a nature documentary in Belize, the small, newly independent country on the Caribbean coast of Central America where he lived. in a complex about 30 miles. interior.

It arrived in the fall of 1981, but the money for Mr. Foster’s film quickly ran out. He moved on to another project, in Borneo, leaving 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 told the Washington Post in 1995. “I had to either shoot the animals or take care of them because they couldn’t take care of them. themselves in nature.

Desperate, she painted “Belize Zoo” on a plank of wood and stuck it to the side of the road. She built rudimentary animal enclosures and began advertising across the country, including at a nearby bar, where she asked owners to send any bored tourist.

Almost four decades later, the Belize Zoo is Belize’s most popular attraction, drawing locals, foreign tourists and tens of thousands of schoolchildren each year to see Pete the Jaguar, Saddam the Peccary and the remains of Mme Matola’s menagerie. animals.

Along the way, she became a staple of Belizean society, both an advisor to the government and to her Jeremiah, challenging development projects she saw as a threat to the natural endowment of her adopted country. His activism influenced a generation of Belizeans, many of whom went on to become leaders in the government and nonprofit sector.

Colin Young was once one of the many school children who passed by the zoo; today he is the executive director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center.

“Sharon has had a tremendous influence on Belize,” he said in a telephone interview. “Much of what children and adults now know about Belize’s wildlife comes down to her.”

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

She didn’t grow up dreaming of running a zoo in a tropical country, but much of her life has prepared her for precisely this role. As a girl, she scratched her knees and dirty her nails looking for worms, frogs and butterflies (although because she was very allergic to cats, her future love for jaguars was less obvious).

After high school, she enrolled as a survival instructor in the Air Force, which sent her to Panama to train in the jungle. She fell in love 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 soon moved to Sarasota, Florida, where she enrolled at New College and switched 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 her college education and later graduate school, Ms. Matola worked the strangest of odd jobs – assistant lion tamer at the Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota, fish taxonomist, and ultimately dancer and lion tamer in a traveling circus at Mexico.

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The job was dangerous – a lion bit her stomach, leaving a permanent scar – even though she loved her co-workers. But she quit after being transferred to another troop, which she says mistreated the animals. She grabbed her pet spider monkey on the way out; Fearing that she wouldn’t be allowed to cross the US-Mexico border, she paid a smuggler to help her ford the Rio Grande, with the monkey traveling on her head. A few months later, she was on a plane to Belize.

Ms. Matola naturally embarked on the simple life of running a zoo without a budget. She slept in a one-room thatched-roof hut on the property, bathing in a pond she shared with the crocodiles at the zoo. His office mate was a three-legged jaguar named Angel.

The zoo struggled at first. Ms Matola charged a token entrance fee, and to cover the cost, she raised chickens and took tourists on a trip to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Guatemala, right next door.

Ms Matola, who became a naturalized citizen of Belize in 1990, was more comfortable in t-shirts, camouflage pants and jungle boots, but could easily slip into a cocktail dress if she needed to. to be in Belize City for an evening of bliss. -handing and fundraising. For years she had a permanent weekly tennis appointment with the British High Commissioner.

As the reputation of her zoo grew, so did she. American newspapers and magazines have started to publish profiles of “Jane Goodall of the jaguars”. In 1986, director Peter Weir hired her as a consultant for his film “Mosquito Coast”; its star, Harrison Ford, then donated money to the zoo, as did musician Jimmy Buffett.

In 1991, with a budget of $ 700,000 and the help of soldiers from a nearby British Army base, she built a new zoo on 30 acres of land; across the road, she opened the Tropical Education Center, from which she directed research and conservation programs.

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Some of his animals have become national celebrities. When the tapir was “married” in April to a man at the Los Angeles Zoo, all five Belize newspapers covered the nuptials. (Marriage, not consummated, never took.)

Ms Matola spoke when she believed the country’s environment was in danger. In the early 2000s, she joined a campaign against a planned hydroelectric dam in western Belize, which she said would destroy animal habitats in the jungle and drive up energy costs.

The case ended up in a UK court and drew international support from groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council. Government officials denounced Ms. Matola as an intruder and, as has been said, an “enemy of the state”.

The dam developer won the case, but Ms Matola was right: today, energy costs in Belize are higher and the area around the dam remains polluted. The case has won him awards and invitations to lecture across the United States, particularly after journalist Bruce Barcott wrote about him in his book “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: The Wrestling of a woman to save the most beautiful bird in the world ”(2008).

Ms Matola announced in 2017 that she was stepping down from her daily roles at the zoo, transferring responsibility to her all-Belizean staff. By this time his arms were tattooed with scars from countless bites and scratches, his body worn out by bouts of malaria and screwworms. Soon after, she developed sepsis in a cut in her leg, which left her hospitalized for long periods.

None of this seemed to matter. She didn’t want to be anywhere else, she would often say, and she would insist until her death that she was “one of the happiest people in the world.”

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