Her undergraduate degree completed, Matola enrolled in the master's program at the University of South Florida, up the road from Sarasota in Tampa, where she specialized in mycology, the science of fungi. One day she was reading the local newspaper and chanced upon an advertisement seeking women to dance in a traveling Mexican circus. "I phoned up," says Matola, "and an elderly man answered. He said, 'We need a tall white woman.' I thought, I could be going to markets during the day to see mushrooms, working toward my master's. I could travel free, and I love to dance. It seemed perfect. I thought, I can use the circus the way Darwin used the Beagle.
"I went with five other women from the Sarasota-Tampa area. They all had makeup cases. I had rolls of wax paper and fungi books." They flew into El Paso, where they were picked up by the wife of the circus owner. As it turned out, the woman had passed through Sarasota when Matola was working for the Romanian lion tamer. "The next day," says Matola, "the circus owner asked me if I wanted to do the lion act."
Matola was put in charge of six tigers and four lions and was a dancer besides. "It was great fun kicking up my legs," she says. "No one knew who I was. When I danced I was in a red-sequined bikini, a red-feathered headdress and silver high heels. It made me worry about myself. I was a biology major. Why was I enjoying this so much?"
As the lion tamer, she wore gold lame and was the circus's main attraction. Her cats jumped through burning hoops, formed pyramids and lay down submissively around her as she stood "like Big Jane, Queen of the Jungle," she says. "For three months it was the kind of life I'd like to lead for the rest of my life. It was like being a gypsy in the real romantic sense. But all that ended when I was transferred to a big international circus. We were always smack in the middle of a metropolis." Those cities meant lousy pickings for a mushroom hunter and seemed to bring out the worst in circus people. Matola didn't like the way the circus men were treating her, and she particularly objected to the way everyone was treating the animals.
"A tiger bit my stomach," she says. "It wasn't his fault. He fell on top of me during a new part of the act we'd just added. He was disoriented, and he tensed. I can still see his mouth closing on my stomach. The Romanian lion tamer had told me, 'If you want to work for me, go stand in front of a full-length mirror, look yourself in the eye and say, 'If I am going to work with wild animals, I am going to get scarred.' So I was prepared for that. But people used to beat the chimpanzees when they were uncooperative. I knew it was time to leave."
The circus was in Chihuahua when she made up her mind. Taking her pet monkey, Rocky, in hand, Matola took a train to the border town of Juárez in May 1982. She didn't want to leave Rocky in Mexico, but U.S. customs officials were unlikely to allow him in. She decided to try smuggling him across the Rio Grande. In Juárez, Matola says, "a guy said he'd take us [over] for $10. We walked and walked to a barren part of Juárez. We saw a green U.S. Border Patrol Jeep and lay down. Then we got up, jumped a fence and ran down across a dry gully and came to a canal. I put Rocky on my shoulders, and the man held my backpack out of the water. We crossed and then we ran and ran. Finally we stopped in a slummy alley between a lot of hovels. I thought, This is it. He's going to knife me. But all he did was ask me for $10. I gave him the money, and off I went."
Went back to Florida, in fact, but not for long. An invitation had come from an Englishman named Richard Foster, who was making wildlife films in Belize. He wrote that he needed someone to care for his animals. Enclosed was an airplane ticket. Rocky had to stay behind. Matola has lived in Belize ever since.
In January 1983, after Matola had been in Belize four months, Foster lost most of his funding and announced he was leaving for a while to work on a project in Borneo. His 20 animals, including mammals, reptiles and birds, were housed in a group of crude cages. Foster told Matola to get rid of them. "Impounded animals can't care for themselves in the wild," she says. "You have to cither keep them in cages or kill them." So on impulse she painted a yellow sign that said BELIZE ZOO and placed it out by the dirt highway. Down the road a stretch was a lone, bedraggled bar. "I went there and told them, 'If the people seem bored, send them to the zoo,' and people started to drop in," says Matola. "It startled me. I had no environmental vision—absolutely none."
The strong reactions of her Belizean visitors encouraged her, and by year's end Matola had gone to the government and proposed that it endow a national zoo and education facility. Officials couldn't muster the cash, but they did give her their blessing, and from that moment Matola began raising funds for a new zoo.
Before Matola arrived, Belize had never had a zoo. The very notion of it seemed as preposterous as, say, hauling a load of Pennsylvania coal into Newcastle harbor. And even in Belize, where just about anything is tolerated, there were people who paused at the idea of a freckled American woman hanging up a shingle all alone out in the jungle.