A Tribute to Sharon Matola: The Founder of The Belize Zoo
Zoos haven’t always had a reputation for putting the best interests of the animals first, but Sharon Matola was committed to the idea that zoos can be a safe place for creatures that otherwise wouldn’t survive in the wild. Matola was born in Baltimore, MD, but her life of adventure would take her around the world. While she’d join the Air Force right after college and enjoy a short tour in Panama, she found the sexual harassment too great and ended up leaving after two and a half years.
After two years studying Russian at the University of Iowa, she would transfer to Florida to study Biology. A fateful meeting early during her studies would result in her meeting a Romanian lion tamer. Alongside her studies, circus work became a recurring theme in the years to follow. She’d later find work taming tigers in Mexico City. Upon suffering a gruesome bite to her midsection, Matola’s initial thought was “That poor tiger!”.
This would be a formative period in Matola’s professional development, as she’d come in contact with significant instances of animal abuse among her jobs in the circus. But it was this work that would lead her to Richard Foster and Belize. The British documentarian needed an animal handler who could work with. Matola saw a rare chance to break free of the circus life.
The job in Belize would only last three months, as Foster run out of money for the project and had to move to a new project in Borneo. Rather than follow, Matola opted to stay behind with the animals. The executives in charge of production were no longer interested in caring for the animals, and rather see them end up mistreated, Matola decided on a bold decision: to create her own zoo.
The first iteration of the Belize Zoo was a crude collection of pens and pathways, but it was unheard of at the time. The most shocking discovery to Matola was how little the locals new about the very wildlife in their country, and she realized that the Belize Zoo could be more than just a way to provide safety and shelter to animals. It could also serve as an educational resource.
When Matola talked about the early days of the zoo, it wasn’t with rose-tinted glasses. Those early years were hard, and the zoo just barely scraped by thanks to Matola’s meager savings and odd jobs she performed to keep it afloat. The Belize Zoo would eventually grow and come to be a well-regarded local institution, but Matola would accept little claim for it.
She seemed too busy to worry about things like recognition anyway. Her later life was devoted to environmental conservation, and that could take the form of anything from directly protesting the construction of the Chalillo Dam to hosting an educational wildlife radio program throughout the 1990s. While Matola passed away on March 21, 2021, she leaves behind a legacy of compassion and commitment to making the world a better place. Her legacy reflects success in that regard.