Before Sharon Matola was dubbed the “Jane Goodall of jaguars,” internationally known for her conservation work at the scrappy yet serious zoo she founded in Belize, she had joined a Mexican circus, donning a feather headdress as an exotic dancer and doubling as a lion tamer.
Before that, she was a biology student with a predilection for fungi, and before that a jungle-trained member of the Air Force. She began life in Baltimore, where she lovingly tended her pet worms and liberated live frogs from her school's biology lab because she could not bear to see them dissected. She was "more to the animal side of the world than the human side," her brother, Stephen Matola, said in an interview.
Matola seemed to find her purpose in Belize, the tiny Central American country where she landed four decades ago and where she died March 21 at 66. In 1983, on a shoestring and a whim, Matola gathered a minor menagerie of native animals and founded the Belize Zoo, an institution that helped awaken national pride in the country's ecological treasures and has been celebrated around the world as a model of creative conservation.
Matola's sister, Marlene Garay, confirmed her death and said she died in a hospital in Belmopan. The cause was a heart attack.
Matola was in her late 20s when Richard Foster, a British filmmaker familiar with her lion-taming work, invited her to Belize to work on a wildlife film. When their funding was exhausted and Foster left for Borneo, Matola found herself alone with 20 or so animals - among them two jaguars, the small wild cat known as a margay, several piglike peccaries, a few parrots and the long-nosed tapir that is Belize's national animal.
Many of the animals were injured or otherwise unfit for life in the wild, leaving Matola, as she saw her options, with little choice in how to proceed. She fashioned a sign announcing the opening of the Belize Zoo and planted the marker in the ground.
"There was zero planning on my part," Matola told The Washington Post in 1995. "But I was at a crossroads. I either had to shoot the animals or take care of them, because they couldn't take care of themselves."
At first, Matola raised and sold chickens and worked as a nature guide to support the animals. She wooed the zoo's first paying visitors with the help of the staff at a nearby restaurant who sent their customers her way.
She saw it as her mission to share the animals with Belizeans, who had no zoo in their country before Matola opened hers and, in many cases, had never seen wildlife up close. Schoolchildren began making field trips to the zoo. Those unable to travel were treated to presentations by Matola, who zipped around the country on her motorcycle with a boa constrictor. She wrote children's books about a character named Hoodwink the Owl.
Over the years, Matola increasingly earned the trust and admiration of Belizeans, as well as the ire of some business leaders whose development projects she opposed to safeguard the rainforest. One government official, speaking to Smithsonian magazine, compared her to the harpy eagle, which happened to be her favorite animal: "Once she gets her talons into you, she does not let go."
She also attracted the attention of environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and the MacArthur Foundation, which contributed funding for what today is a sanctuary for nearly 190 animals, representing more than 45 species native to Belize, among them the tapir and jaguar, the spider monkey, the coati-mundi, the scarlet macaw, the jabiru stork and two species of crocodile.
"Sharon has plugged a zoo into a national and international effort to save Central America's tropical rainforest," Bill Konstant, a former director of the organization Wildlife Preservation Trust International, told the publication Americas in 1993. "The Belize Zoo is doing exactly what a good zoo should be doing."
Sharon Rose Matola was born June 3, 1954, in Baltimore, where her father was a sales manager for National Brewing and her mother was an administrative assistant. As a girl, she indulged her love of animals by playing with squirrels - one of the few examples of wildlife she could find in the city.
After graduating from high school, she joined the Air Force. She later studied Russian at the University of Iowa before transferring to the New College of Florida in Sarasota, where she received a bachelor's degree in biology in 1981.
Matola told the Orlando Sentinel that she was at a Howard Johnson's restaurant reading a book about animal behavior when a Romanian lion tamer approached her and asked her to become his assistant at the Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota. She accepted.
Several years later, as a graduate student concentrating in mycology, or the study of fungi, she answered an advertisement posted by a traveling Mexican circus seeking exotic dancers.
"It said 'good pay, much travel,' " Matola told The Post. "I called out of curiosity, and the man said they wanted tall, white women to dance in the circus at night, and there was no work in the day. I thought I could go to the markets in the day, do field work and dance at night."
The circus impresario's wife, as it happened, knew Matola from her association with the Romanian and recommended her for the show's lion taming act.
"I don't agree with animal acts, in principle," Matola told the Christian Science Monitor in 1991. "But I justified it that it was better me than someone else" who might not share her respect for the animal kingdom.
That work brought her to the attention of Foster, who she said sent her, unsolicited, a round-trip ticket to Belize along with his invitation to assist him on the wildlife film. She had studied fish taxonomy in Belize during college and later told Sports Illustrated that, after the magic of observing octopus and squid during nocturnal dives off the coast, she had always dreamed of returning.
Matola later worked as a consultant on the movie "The Mosquito Coast" (1986), a jungle drama starring Harrison Ford, who became one of the zoo's financial backers. Another supporter was singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett.
Matola was the subject of the book "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird" (2008). It was an account by environmental journalist Bruce Barcott of Matola's unsuccessful campaign to stop the construction of the hydroelectric Chalillo Dam on Belize's Macal River, a habit for species including the rare scarlet macaw.
Celso Poot, operations and finance manager of what is now the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, said in an email that the zoo employs 32 staff members, down from 58 before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which ravaged tourism in Belize and worldwide. Before the pandemic, he said, the zoo received 75,000 visitors annually, half of them Belizeans.
Matola, who became a naturalized Belizean citizen, lived on the zoo's property and laundered her clothes in a crocodile pond. For a time she shared her office with a three-legged jaguar named Angel - the fourth leg had been amputated - whose enclosure opened to the outside. Once she nursed a sick tapir called April through the night, playing the music of the Doors to stay awake. Some time later, when the animal escaped, Matola cranked up her stereo, blasting the song "Light My Fire" to help the tapir find her way home.
Matola's marriage to Jack Schreier ended in divorce. Besides her siblings, Matola had no immediate survivors.
Early in her years in Belize, a Post reporter asked her if she might ever consider a different life entirely. Even then, she knew she had found her calling.
“I’ll be in Belize all my life,” she said. “This jacket cost 25 cents. Money doesn’t tempt me, except for the zoo.”