Sharon Matola ‘78, Founder/Director, Belize Zoo
“The platform of courage in spirit, for me, was what was fostered through my New College experience.”
AOC: Biology/Environmental Science
Sharon Matola is founder and director of the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, begun in 1983 to protect exotic animals. Originally from Baltimore, Matola came to New College in 1978 to study biology and environmental science, graduating in 1981. She joined the traveling Mexican Circus as part of her graduate studies and stayed for nearly a year. She returned to Sarasota in 1982 and then went to Belize to work as an assistant documentary filmmaker, managing the wildlife for conservation/nature-oriented films. After the shoot was over and the filmmaker was sent to Borneo, she was left with a directive to “get rid of the animals,” as there were no funds to support the wildlife crew.
“I was desperate to save them,” she recalls, “as these animals were unable to be released back into the wild. So I figured that I would start a zoo, since Belize didn’t have one.” Matola says that she had no idea what she was doing, but vividly recalls her commitment to saving the beasts. “When I saw that there was local interest from the people to get acquainted with their native wildlife, I became very driven to provide them that opportunity,” she states.
Over the last 25 years, she has developed a world-class zoo that is considered a platform to implement critically important conservation work. The zoo is currently home to more than 125 native Belizean species and offers instruction about wildlife and how to care for it.
The Belize Zoo has rehabilitated many jaguars, saving them from certain death. “This was due to their being ‘problem jaguars,’ explains Matola. “They were livestock predators, not able to be returned to the wild. I reshape their behavior.” Some have been sent to North American zoos in Milwaukee and Philadelphia, where Matola says they have contributed much to raising awareness about their species in neo-tropical America.
Today, some of the cats are being kept at the Belize Zoo as research resources. “Scientists who are studying jaguars can come to the facility and obtain important data, which assists them greatly in their field studies,” she comments. “I’m so happy that the program has evolved into this important educational arena.” Matola and the facility she started have been featured in numerous documentary films.
There’s no question in Matola’s mind that meeting the rigors of a New College education prepared her for the unusual avenue in life she chose to follow.
“New College is a testimony to young minds about the ‘crap shoot' one grapples with in order to 'play out of the box,’” she says. “It takes drive, initiative, and commitment of spirit to obtain a degree from New College. That degree is not simply a piece of paper; it is a symbol of someone's ardent dedication to achieve something difficult, however excruciatingly rewarded. The platform of courage in spirit, for me, was what was fostered through my New College experience.”
For her pioneering work, Matola has been referred to as “the Jane Goodall of Central America.” Sharon’s life story – in particular her struggle to stop the Chalillo dam – is documented in the book, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird (2008) by Bruce Barcott.