Belize Zoo founding director Sharon Matola passed away today at St. Luke’s hospital in the City of Belmopan says an official press release. “It is with immense sadness in our hearts that The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center announces the passing of our Founder and very own hero, Sharon Matola. Sharon passed away at the St. Luke’s Hospital in Belmopan, Belize today 21 March 2021. While we deeply appreciate the outpouring of love and support that you all would wish to share, we ask for patience, and respect of the privacy of The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Centre family, and kindly await our indication of memorial services that will be announced at a later date. For your prayers, support, and love, we thank you.”
In a televised interview on 12 December 2012, Matola described how she came to Belize “I came here as an animal trainer, but yeah, I had no idea that I was going to start a zoo. In the beginning, I did it all by myself. I didn’t have this large an animal population here. Now, I’ve got a keeper staff, Belizeans that are very committed and very earnestly involved in the zoo, and they do it all. 30 years ago, there was nothing. 30 years ago, there was a person running it for 2 years. That was me. I still feed some of the animals myself because I still train them. I am still an animal trainer, and that’s why, you can come into the zoo and get it with Junior Buddy, the jaguar, and get a kiss because I work with them. So, we all work together.” Before she moved to Belize to establish the Zoo, Matola lived in Baltimore, Maryland where she married a dentist but things did not work out and she hoped a boxcar to Florida.
The U.S. Embassy Belmopan celebrated Ms. Sharon Matola -the Embassy’s “Woman of the Year 2019. Chargé d’Affaires, a.i. of the U.S. Embassy Mr. Keith Gilges hosted an official ceremony and reception on 19 April 2019 to recognize and honor the Embassy’s “Woman of the Year 2019” Ms. Sharon Matola. The event featured remarks by Chargé Gilges, Minister of State for the Ministry of Fisheries, Forestry, the Environment, and Sustainable Development Hon. Omar Figueroa, the Co-Founder of the Belize Center for Environmental Studies Ms. Lou Nicolait, and the Founding Director of the Belize Zoo and the Embassy’s “Woman of the Year” 2019 Ms. Sharon Matola.
The U.S. Embassy selected Ms. Matola as our “Woman of the Year 2019” for her tireless dedication and steadfast commitment to conserve and preserve Belize’s natural heritage through zealous advocacy and education. As Chargé Gilges highlighted, “Not only is Sharon a truly outstanding woman and an exemplary role model to Belizean youth, but also Sharon’s herculean efforts and a lifelong dedication to conserving and preserving nature make her an ideal person to celebrate now, on the eve of Earth Day.” Minister Figueroa emphasized Sharon’s immense, positive impact across Belize and stated that Sharon is, in fact, a “Woman of the Year” every year.
Few Belizeans know her life and what brought Sharon Matola to Belize. An interviewer many years summed up Sharon in a memorable headline “Florida Biologist Sharon Matola Signed On With The Air Force, Danced In A Circus And Tamed Lions, All Before Walking Into A Jungle To Establish The Only Zoo In Belize.”
Genesis Of The Belize Zoo
What would you do with animals left behind after a documentary project? Well, Sharon Matola started a zoo and in this talk, she tells us all about the journey. With her love for protecting our furry, feathered and scaly friends, Matola rekindles our love for these animal ambassadors. Sharon Matola is the Founding Director of The Belize Zoo and is passionate about directing her life so that the natural world benefits from her living and working profile. While this strong desire to protect wildlife has always been a part of her being, the finest and the most rewarding part of her life is sharing her work and passion with the people who visit The Belize Zoo.
She takes special time to create a fun and magical experience with the kids who visit. They never forget, their joy is overwhelming, and their bonding to the animals of their country is heartwarming and inspiring to me. She considers herself luckiest person in the world. This talk was given at a TEDx event.
Matola grew up in Baltimore, where she was an Orioles baseball fan and an avid collector of whatever wildlife a girl could dig up in the suburbs around Memorial Stadium, where the team then played. “Worms, stray cats, insects,” she remembers. After high school she joined the Air Force and was stationed at La Zaragoza Air Base (detailed information in Spanish) in Zaragoza, Spain. The ratio of 13 women to 2,000 men was difficult and Matola quit. But the 2 1/2-year tour of duty was not without its highs: A short stint in the jungles of Panama “had an everlasting effect … I loved it, and always wanted to go back.” Sharon finished her degree in biology and worked in various circuses including in Mexico where a tiger bit her before moving to Belize to work with British cinematographer Richard Foster, and eventually established the Belize Zoo.
Belize Zoo Manager Celso Poot in a press interview on 22 March 2021 summed up Sharon Matola’s work in Belize. “The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education was basically Sharon’s life. She visited Belize in 1982 and in 1983 started the Belize Zoo. Later on in 1987 they added the Topical Education Center. Sharon dedicated her life to the protection and conservation to Belize’s wildlife and their habitat through the educational ambassador animals at the Belize Zoo. Back in the 90’s Sharon was the lead expert for the Central American Tapir in the world and after the battle with the Challilo Dam – she basically put tapir research and scarlet macaw research aside and focused on the Belize Zoo.”
Best friend and fellow conservationist Lou Nicolait observed in a televised interview that “Matola’s idea of a zoo was different. She didn’t want animals to be unhappy and locked up – all her animals at the zoo are all rehabilitated animals that wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild if released. She curated the zoo in such a way that the animals are still in their natural habitat. She created many books – telling stories of the raptors, tapirs and other species – building that awareness and love for our animals in our Belizean children. Matola was always known for throwing the best birthday parties – like the April the Tapir bash every year – it was highlight for students or when she hosted dignitaries like Princess Ann back in 2001. And while the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center remain her single largest contribution to the country and people of Belize – her impact and her legacy are immeasurable.”