Posted: Friday, April 2, 2021. 10:23 am CST.
By Aaron Humes: As a native of the Baltimore-Washington D.C. ‘Capital Beltway’ area, founder of the Belize Zoo and conservationist Sharon Matola, 66, was given an obituary in the venerable Washington Post, newspaper of record for the area.
As the obituary covers much ground we have already covered, we will highlight here just a few of the notes made by the Post.
Matola, who died after a heart attack on March 21, has been dubbed the “Jane Goodall of jaguars,” and lived a colorful life before settling in Belize, including joining 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 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.
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.
As for the founding of the Zoo, memorably a result of an association with late filmmaker Richard Foster, Matola told the Post in a rare interview in 1995, “There was zero planning on my part… 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.” So, she sold chickens and worked as a nature guide, wooing first paying visitors with the help of the staff at a nearby restaurant who sent their customers her way.
A whirlwind of a life followed, including trips around the country to make presentations to students, building the trust and admiration of Belizeans and occasionally earning the ire of business leaders and government officials in thwarting their plans for development that would impact the rainforest. But that trust and support led to funding for a sanctuary of nearly 190 animals, representing more than 45 species native to Belize.
The Zoo counts among its backers the actor Harrison Ford, star of the 1986 film The Mosquito Coast on which Matola was a consultant, and singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett. It hosted 75 thousand visitors before the pandemic, half of them Belizean, and employed 58 workers (now down to 32).
Matola, a naturalized Belizean citizen, loved all her animals but shared a special bond with one in particular. She nursed a sick tapir called April through the night, playing the music of the Doors to stay awake. Sometime later, when the animal escaped, Ms. Matola cranked up her stereo, blasting the song Light My Fire to help the tapir find her way home. April became the Zoo’s biggest attraction with her annual birthday parties before her death at the age of 30.
Matola’s sole marriage to Jack Schreier ended in divorce. Besides her siblings, she 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.”
Matola was laid to rest privately, with a public memorial planned for later.
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