"She's an extraordinary woman," says Meb Cutlack, editor of the monthly Belize Review. "The impact she's had on Belize is tremendous."
The 37-year-old Matola, who was born in the U.S. but became a Belizean citizen in 1990, is in the tradition of eccentric, fiercely driven Western women who left behind their home countries and devoted themselves to the animals of distant places. This distinguished group includes Dian Fossey (the mountain gorillas of Rwanda), Jane Goodall (the chimpanzees of Tanzania), Birute Galdikas (the orangutans of Borneo) and Joy Adamson (the lions of Kenya). "I tell Sharon Matola stories to my family," says Kathryn Fuller, president of the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. "She's one of a handful of people with an incredible passion and a willingness to pursue a lifelong commitment under what can be pretty difficult circumstances."
Matola lives in a one-room house with a sleeping loft and a thatch roof that is a mile into the jungle from the zoo. Nearby is a small pond in which she keeps fit by swimming, usually naked and heedless of the crocodiles who also exercise there. "They are just babies," she says.
In the early years of the zoo, it was difficult for Matola to leave the animals for even a couple of hours, but now that she has a staff of 15 to help, her range has expanded. She is always heading off somewhere: striking out on British Army or scientific expeditions to remote portions of the Belizean jungles; roaring up the Western Highway to Belmopan, the capital city, where her opinions are solicited with frequency by government ministers (she is now an official—albeit unpaid—land and resources adviser); or careering into Belize City, the country's population center, for a high-society cocktail party.
Matola is a big-boned, attractive woman with long brown hair. At social functions in a country that has half as many people as Atlanta, someone like her is, as her friend Lou Nicolait, director of the Belize Center for Environmental Studies, puts it, "very much in demand—she is just mad enough to be interesting." Matola's company is solicited even by those soiree hostesses who know that Matola sometimes rides into Belize City having forgotten to stuff a portion of her evening wardrobe into her knapsack. She once appeared at an ambassador's party wearing one of Nicolait's hastily restitched curtains as a dress.
"Sharon in a way reflects Belize," says Nicolait. "Belize is a young, healthy, vigorous nation with a lot of assets and a kind of frontier mentality where anything still goes. She's the right person in the right place."
Matola grew up near Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. By age nine she had become a devotee both of the Orioles' portly first baseman, Boog Powell, and of Gerald Durrell, the British author of Matola's favorite book, My Family and Other Animals, an account of Durrell's youth on the Greek island of Corfu, where he lived amid eccentric people and exotic animals. Matola was the sort of child who kept worms as pets and was prone to returning home at the end of a day with skinned knees and a jarful of butterflies.
Soon after finishing high school she joined the Air Force. She lasted 2½ years in fatigues. "I couldn't stand it—too old-boy for me," she says, refusing to elaborate. The Air Force did, at least, afford her one experience for which she is grateful. Included in her training was a stint at jungle-survival school in Panama, her first visit to Central America. "There was just so much life there," she says. "It showed me what an active place the tropics are."
With that in mind she headed off to the snow-blanketed cornfields of Iowa to study Russian at the state university in Iowa City. "I didn't want to be pigeonholed or channeled, as people tend to be in the sciences," says Matola. She spent two years in Iowa and became conversant in Russian, which at the time was one of the international scientific languages. Then she transferred to New College in Sarasota, Fla., and began to study biology. For two months she worked for a Romanian lion tamer, studying conditioned behavior in his cats. Then a fish taxonomy project took her to Belize for three months in 1980.
"I had the same feeling [in Belize] that I'd had in Panama," she says. "There was no development at all. There was so much life. I went diving at night and saw octopus and squid. I thought, If I have a dream, it is to return. Belize seemed to me a place where things were in their natural state. Nature without the wood footpaths and signs you see in Smoky Mountain National Park. Nature undefined."