In the early days she slept in a trailer and sometimes awoke in the morning not knowing where the animals' evening meal was coming from. For many years she led groups of foreign tourists on nature walks to earn the money to keep the zoo going. Now the combination of admissions fees, souvenir sales and plump donations from sources as varied as the World Wildlife Fund, Jimmy Buffett and Harrison Ford have put the fretful days behind her. Indeed, the money has meant much more than birdseed. Matola has her staff of keepers, education specialists and other aides, all but two of whom are Belizean. The zoo houses more than 120 animals, and outside every cage or habitat is a hand-painted sign with a portrait of the animal inside and details of its behavioral patterns and its role in the environment.
Today the popularity of the Zoo Lady, as Matola is known to all, is indisputable. I LOVE THE BELIZE ZOO bumper stickers are proudly displayed on cars and bicycles. "Before Sharon, environmental awareness (in Belize] was nil," says Myrtle Flowers, a retired schoolteacher who now heads the zoo's Tropical Education Center. "People went about throwing things all over the place, cutting down trees without a thought. So many of the kinds of animals we have here at the zoo were being eaten. Now people come to me and tell me how many iguanas or how many turtles someone is catching. The zoo has a very good spot in the hearts of all Belizeans." Matola keeps it that way by hosting a popular weekly conservation-oriented radio show. Years of giving presentations in Belizean schoolrooms, where the only natural-history books described the animals of Great Britain, prompted Matola to write and publish Hoodwink the Owl, a children's book that serves as a lively zoo program. Of course, nothing beats walking through the zoo with her.
"Hello," cries a yellowhead parrot just inside a wood and wire mesh gate. The bird was once somebody's pet, but yellowhead parrots tend to live past 50 years of age and spend their lives compensating for their slender vocabulary—one word—with amplification. Enough 10,000-hello afternoons convinced the parrot's owners that it might be happier at the zoo. Matola likes telling this story to visitors—an understated warning that tropical birds are intended to perch in trees, not in living rooms. The sign in front of the zoo's parrots is more direct. It says, Please let us live free. Do not hunt us for pets. There are less of us today than there were five years ago. Let us have a future in the wild.
The zoo acquires animals in any of three ways: people donate their pets; specimens are sent from other zoos; animals are born in the zoo. Wild animals are never captured. For a while men would show up at the zoo with animals they'd trapped, hoping to sell them, but Matola always refused to buy. She made television and radio announcements stating her acquisition policy. The problem has diminished considerably.
Rambo the toucan is perched near the parrots. Rambo's name used to be Rainbow, but his brash strut and shameless preening for tourists' cameras led to the change. "Usually the animals simply name themselves," says Matola. "I like to name them for where they come from. Gracie the spider monkey comes from Grace Rock." Matola, from Maryland, is wearing jungle survival boots, fatigues with peanuts in one pocket and high-protein dog kibble in the other, and sporting an oversized smile. She has just looked in on the two great curassow eggs, courtesy of Hans and Sigi, that are incubating at the zoo. (They will hatch two females.) Curassows are turkey-sized birds with a regal comb of plumage. They are also hunted extensively, and they are endangered throughout most of their range.
The zoo's paca isn't tempted into view by a handful of carrots, and even if he weren't a nocturnal rodent, one couldn't blame him. The paca's tender, porklike meat used to be such a fad that when Queen Elizabeth visited Belize in the early 1980s, she dined on roast paca. Belizeans now refer to the paca as the royal rat.
Marshall and Lee, the acrobatic howler monkeys, make everyone who watches them feel terrific. Marshall and Lee came to the zoo courtesy of a couple of tourists who bought them in Belize and put them in the back seat of their Jeep with the intention of driving them home to the U.S. The monkeys were well on their way to tearing the Jeep to shreds when the tourists abandoned them at a hotel, which in turn passed them on to the zoo.
Not that the zoo is immune to violence. Angel, the jaguar who was the first animal born at the Belize Zoo, has led a life touched with tragedy. In 1988, while Matola was away leading a tour of Belize for a group of World Wildlife Fund board members, a keeper improperly fastened the adult jaguars' gate after feeding, and Maya and Pinto, Angel's parents, escaped. The cats wandered to a nearby village, where somebody shot them.
Sugar, the ocelot, was presented a mate a few years ago, but she soon took care of the fellow by devouring him. "She's so severely imprinted on people that she doesn't know she's an ocelot," says Matola. Once, Sugar escaped from her cage. The next morning, when Matola came to work, she found 25 dead chickens and a dead curassow. "The closest cat traps were at Cockscomb [65 miles through the jungle]," says Matola. "The only vehicle I had was an old motorcycle. The road was so bad that I dropped the bike six times. Somebody with a truck took me the last five miles. I got a trap, bungee-corded it onto the motorcycle and started back. It got dark and started to rain. I was tired, the windshield was busted, and I couldn't straighten my arm. I got to the zoo, parked the bike and there was my neighbor. 'I've got some news for you,' she said. 'The ocelot walked back into her enclosure, and we just shut the gate.' "
The zoo is a place full of independent females. In the biggest cage are the pumas, Zuni and Inca, gorgeous examples of the largest and most powerful American cat. Inca has spurned Zuni. "He just adores her," says Matola with compassion, and it's no trick to see why. Inca's buff-colored coat is soft and lush. She drums her leg contentedly while Zuni mopes 20 yards away. "Inca had this territory for eight years, and then all of a sudden this big bruiser arrives," explains Matola. "Even when she goes into heat she won't let him near her. When she's in heat, you can hear her growl at my house, a mile away."