Skip to main content
Original Issue

Queen of the Jungle

Sharon Matola, an American biologist and a former lion tamer, single-handedly created the only zoo in Belize

It was getting late in the day, but even the shadowed portion of a January afternoon can be hot in Belize, and Sharon Matola was tired. Since closing the gate to visitors, Matola, an American biologist and the founder and sole keeper of the Belize Zoo, had been tending her animals, shuttling from Balboa, the boa constrictor, to April, the tapir, to Hans and Sigi, the curassow couple, to Maya and Pinto, the handsome pair of jaguars. She had swept their cages and brought them plates of food, and she was collecting and cleaning the dishes when the old man appeared at the gate of the zoo, which lies in bush country, 30 miles out the lonely road from Belize City. His face was parched with wrinkles. His hair was pure white. "I have come from Belize City to see the zoo," he said.

"Come in," sighed Matola.

She began walking beside the man, leading him on the tour that is given to all who visit her zoo. "To him, every cage was part of a myth," says Matola. "He said that if you feed curassow to a dog, the dog will go crazy. Young tapirs are spotted like watermelons, and when he saw April he said that if you eat a young tapir, you'll become spotted yourself. He stayed well away from the boa, because he believed that, from sunset to sunrise, they are very poisonous to the touch. Then he got to the two jaguars. It was an incredibly beautiful afternoon. Golden sunlight was streaming into the cats' cage, and they were rolling on the ground, playing with each other. I began telling him that in the U.S., where I came from, jaguars are extinct. That they are endangered in many places in Central America, but Belize has the healthiest population of jaguars in the region because Belize has so much intact forest; there is a habitat for them. Then I noticed that he was crying. I couldn't believe it. I felt very awkward. I felt responsible. I thought that maybe his favorite dog had been killed by a jaguar and that I had reminded him of something painful."

Then, she says, the man began to speak. "I'm very sorry, Miss," he said. "I have spent all my life here in Belize, and this is the first time I have seen the animals of my country. They are so beautiful."

"It struck me then what the real importance of the zoo was," says Matola. "I had come to Belize to work on a wildlife film project, but I saw that the zoo could offer with more immediacy what the films were trying to accomplish. How turned around can life get? I'm working for a film company to show these animals to people on the BBC in Britain when people in the Belizean bush and in poor villages have never seen them. Here was a place that made those animals accessible to Belizeans and could serve as an educational facility for them."

That was nine years ago, in 1983. At the time of the old man's visit, the Belize Zoo had been open for exactly a month. Ever since, Matola's zoo has been remarkable for the unerring consistency of its mission: It has acquainted Belize with Belize.

Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, is a sliver of a country tucked along the Caribbean coast of Central America, between Mexico's Yucatàn on the north and Guatemala on the south and west. It's a place with an inchoate air about it, a country that is still adjusting to the independence it won from Britain 11 years ago after existing as a crown colony since 1862. Belize is a stable democracy with a two-party political system. But two thousand British soldiers remain on duty there because of a long-standing threat from Guatemala, which until recently claimed Belize as part of its territory. Lately the soldiers and the Belize Defence Force have also had their hands full with Colombian drug runners, who refuel their airplanes on hidden landing strips in the Belizean jungle. The country has a festering problem with crack cocaine addiction, because the Colombian couriers distribute the drug as salary to their Belizean assistants, who sell it for a relative pittance on the streets of Belize City.

Belize's estimated 200,000 citizens trace their roots back to native Indians, African slaves, British loggers, Chinese from Hong Kong and refugees from assorted American countries, mainly El Salvador and Guatemala. They are poor people, and to them the Belize Zoo is many things, including one of their country's foremost cultural and entertainment attractions—Belize's Disneyland, Dodger Stadium and National Gallery. Yet the zoo remains principally the place where Belizeans come to learn about the beauty and fragility of their country. Since the beginning, when she used to stuff Balboa and some slides into her backpack, jump astride her Kawasaki 650 and, uninvited and covered with road dust, roar up to give presentations at schools all over Belize, Matola has concentrated on the country's youth. Now she can stay put; nearly every schoolchild in Belize visits the zoo at least once a year, and for those who can't, because they live in isolated villages from which travel is prohibitive, the zoo has an outreach program.

Throughout Central America, trees and animals have vanished at an astonishing rate. In the past 30 years more than half of the region has been deforested. At present Belize has more forest cover per unit of total area than any other country in Central America. A full third of Belize is now classified as protected land. There are upwards of 30 Belizean reserves, including the 103,000-acre Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (known as the Jaguar Preserve) and the 18-square-mile Community Baboon Sanctuary. The extent to which Belize has embraced conservation is best illustrated by an advertisement for Belikin, the best-selling national beer, that reads, "Belize is a lucky country...our cool forests still exist, wild animals roam our jungles, our wondrous reef is largely unspoiled and our rivers still How freely and without pollution. We must fight to keep it that way, fight to protect our precious earth or else the earth will turn its back on us."

It would be inaccurate to credit Matola alone for all this. Belize has a low population density, making it relatively painless for politicians to set aside land. Besides that, a variety of individuals and organizations have had much to do with the country's conservation success. Yet it's not purely a coincidence that most of what has been accomplished in local conservation dates from Matola's arrival in 1982.

"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."

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 Juàrez 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 Juàrez, Matola says, "a guy said he'd take us [over] for $10. We walked and walked to a barren part of Juàrez. 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.

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."

But there is also romance at the Belize Zoo. For months in 1990, the country's five newspapers breathlessly updated the news that April, the tapir (Belize's beloved national mascot), was getting married to a tapir from the Los Angeles Zoo. "Every time I go into Belize City," Matola said then, "somebody asks me about April's boyfriend." (Alas, April was spurned at the altar; Matola decided the groom's bloodlines were not good enough.) Tapirs are 400- to 500-pound herbivores that have been around since dinosaur days. To everyone but a Belizean, they are remarkably ugly creatures, bulky, long-nosed relatives of the rhino and the horse. April is fairly typical as tapirs go—shy, gentle, willing to kiss a child and happiest when basking in a muddy pond. She was first discovered lying near the edge of a river, infested with screw worms and close to death. Matola took her in as a roommate, shared her bed with April and nursed her to health on a diet of high-vitamin banana shakes.

It has become a tradition that the last Saturday in April is April's birthday. Hordes of schoolchildren descend on the zoo, bringing April bananas and carrots as gifts. Matola always bakes a cake several feet high.

Near the snake cages, a deer walks by. One of the zoo's charms is that you might encounter a strolling deer or even Sally, the toothless mother crocodile who sometimes wanders out of her pond. For years, one of the zoo's deficiencies was space. Snakes, like the deadly fer-de-lance, lived in glass boxes that didn't even permit full extension. Hawks were housed in cramped aviaries. "I didn't like keeping them like that," says Matola. "But you can't learn about animals by looking at a photograph or a postcard."

Last Christmas, Matola opened the gales to the spacious, new 30-acre Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center. Light years of intensive fund-raising had yielded a $700,000 facility that displays the various topographies of the Belizean forest in microcosm. A brisk walk, if you will, through Belize. Based on a plan drawn up free of charge by a Seattle architecture firm, the new zoo maintains the intimacy of the old zoo—a rustic place with dusty paths, teetering structures and the occasional mango tree in bloom—while enabling people to see animals in their natural habitats: paca in river forest, pumas in pineland, jaguarundi at the forest edge. April now lives in a lagoon dug for free by British soldiers. The aviaries are spacious, as are the reptile and butterfly houses. There are trees to climb, so people can look out at an ocelot at play in the brush or at the stunning rust-colored Mayan mountains beyond. The British soldiers also built limestone gravel walking paths, and at one edge of the zoo is a boardwalk, not yet completed, for bird-watching. The children's playground has swings and slides, and workers are constructing a huge climbing web on which a child can sense what it feels like to be a spider, and an enormous model of a flower through which kids can crawl. All of the zoo's electricity is solar-generated.

"When we began building, I was afraid we were removing the closeness between animals and people," Matola says. "We wanted to be homespun and unintimidating. As we progressed, I felt the new zoo enhances the beauty of the animals and gives them a better living environment without removing the closeness."

Matola is strolling through the Community Baboon Sanctuary at Bermudian Landing with her friend the sanctuary manager, Fallet Young. It's midafternoon, and Young, as usual, is commenting on everything he passes. He points to a cahune palm tree, prized for its delicious heart but most famous in Belize as a source of roofing material. "Poor man's zinc," Young calls the tree's long, thick leaves. "Only works when you cut them at the right time of year." Young gestures at one of the dirt mounds that litter the forest floor. "Red ants, man. They can rip your shin off." Matola, who towers over Young, is grinning. Just then a roar rolls over the treetops. Howler monkeys.

Belizeans are fond of confounding English semantics, which explains the presence of a baboon sanctuary in a country that has no baboons; all monkeys are referred to as baboons in Belize. The howlers by any name, though, would be difficult to mistake. A booming, tail-dangling mass of them is high up in a tree above somebody's pineapple orchard. Better than 90% of the farmers in the area have abided by their pledge not to touch the sections of their land that they donated to the monkeys. The Baboon Sanctuary represents considerable sacrifice on the part of these poor Belizeans. By giving up potential cane fields or pineapple orchards, they have assumed significant hardships.

Young and Matola watch the monkeys for a while and then walk back to his office. They are discussing a resort that has an obviously maltreated pet monkey. "Maybe I'll ban their guests from the zoo as long as they keep pet monkeys," she says. "If I'm going to stick to my principles, I may as well be a real bitch."

Early the next morning, Matola is in a speedboat bound for the Turneffe Islands. Belize has the world's second-largest barrier reef and a long strand of 450 mostly pristine islands—called cayes—some of which are bordered by mangrove swamps or by soft sand beaches. In the past few years foreign land developers have put up hotels and recreational facilities on some cayes at an alarming rate. The island of San Pedro, once a charming fishing village, is now also a tourist boom-town. Riding in the speedboat is the coastal zone management committee formed to protect the interests of the cayes. Ray Lightburn, cofounder of the committee with Matola, also functions as the developers' representative. "I'm a double agent," he says.

Matola and the boatful of men—boatbuilding, fisheries and fishermen's representatives, the government's environment minister, a Forestry Department representative—are laughing hard at Lightburn's stream of stories. In between bottles of Belikin, the committee makes a thorough assessment of the area.

"When you meet people like Sharon, you can't help believing," says Lightburn. "Belize still has a chance. That's why we do these inspections." He waves at the mangroves. "This is what Florida used to look like. We don't want to end up looking like the Everglades."

Twenty-four hours later, Matola has a dress on and her hair up, and she is en route to Belmopan to visit the man she describes as her hero. Florencio Marin was born in a rural village not far from Belize's border with Mexico. He had scant formal education and was a farmer until he was elected to the National Assembly in 1965. He has been in politics ever since. Today he is the deputy prime minister and the minister of natural resources.

Marin is a well-fed man whose face resembles Manuel Noriega's. He wears zippered boots and an untucked white shirt. "As a boy there was game meat in abundance in our community," he says, sitting in his office. "As I grew up, I found that the deer meat that was so common in my boyhood was now very scarce. All the forests had been turned into cane fields. This provoked my thinking as to the steps we must take to preserve the species we have." This isn't just political patter. A year ago, Marin was instrumental in facilitating the expansion of the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve from 3,000 to 103,000 acres.

Cockscomb was the idea of Alan Rabinowitz, an American zoologist who spent years by himself deep in the Belizean jungles, charting the behavior of the jaguar for the New York Zoological Society. Rabinowitz's findings led to the establishment of Cockscomb, an important accomplishment but ultimately not a practical one, since jaguars require much more than 3,000 acres to rove. Matola and Rabinowitz became good friends during his time in Belize. After he left, Matola took part in a campaign to expand the sanctuary, mentioning it to government officials at every opportunity. She would sit outside Marin's office for hours to get in a three-minute conversation. Her break came when, at Matola's invitation, Kathryn Fuller of the World Wildlife Fund visited Belize. "With Sharon standing there, I asked Marin if he'd expand the sanctuary if [the WWF] funded it," says Fuller. "He said, 'Madame President, write me a letter and it is done.' I wrote him the next morning, and he did it."

Expanding Cockscomb required Marin to cancel two citrus-industry concessions. Marin's instincts outpace his scientific education, so he relies heavily on Matola's advice. On this day they discuss his plans to create a new forest biosphere reserve for World Environment Day. Then Matola gets up and hands Marin a chocolate bar she has bought for him. They beam at each other, and she leaves.

Matola keeps her personal life very private, so Belize is full of rumors about her relations with men. Regarding marriage, she says, "It's too late for that. I like my way of life a lot, and that would change it. Anybody can get married. Not everybody can have such an impact.

"I always feel good that I live here. I like being out in a jungle better than anything else. I didn't plan to become a citizen and stay here for the rest of my life, but I consider myself a conservationist in the most basic sense. If I were in Montana or Peru, I would be doing the same thing. I've loved animals since I was a child. So here I get to do what I love. It's a satisfying life for me. I've created a zoo."



When Matola wears her boa, it's short on feathers.



While Rex, the king vulture, often hits the roof, a zoo croc keeps his nose to the ground.



The blazing plumage of Henry, the macaw, wouldn't suit the camouflage needs of Zorro, the tree-climbing fox.



Truth in advertising: As a sign proclaims to visiting children, Rambo, the zoo's rambunctious toucan, is a colorful character.



Ixchabelle, the jaguar, got a new pool in the new zoo. April, who gets to rub noses with Matola, got a new sign painted by U.S. wildlife artist Math Dion.



Matola shares her jangle home and office with her longtime companion, Balboa, who sometimes can be found going over her notes.



Zookeeper Cerillo Chun helps Matola map out the zoo's traveling exhibitions.



Matola gets provisions and a taste of urban life on her weekly shopping trips to Belize City.



Sailing the Turneffe Islands, Lightburn (in cap), Matola and friends promote ecology-minded tourist development.



Coming or going, Belizeans make it clear how they feel about Matola's achievement.