It is with immense sadness in our hearts that The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center announces the passing of our Founder and very own hero, Sharon Matola.
Sharon passed away at the St. Luke’s Hospital in Belmopan, Belize today March 21st 2021.
While we deeply appreciate the outpouring of love and support that you all would wish to share, we ask for patience, and respect of the privacy of The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center family, and kindly await our indication of memorial services that will be announced at a later date.
For your prayers, support, and love, we thank you.
Farewell Sharon Matola!
Belize has lost a very special lady. The Belize zoo today announced the passing of Sharon Matola at St Luke Hospital in Belmopan. I suspected she was ill but knew she was very private and respected that. I hope she knew how many loved and appreciated her work here in Belize.
Some are old enough to remember when Sharon started the Belize Zoo in just a bushy area on the GP Hwy! I got to go visit the zoo in it’s early start. Now it is the pride and joy of Belize. I hope we keep it and cherish it as she did.
Their are many stories as to how Sharon arrived in Belize and the most famous is that she worked with a circus training animals then visited Belize and stayed ... I really don’t know how much of that is true. But it is true she stayed and adopted Belize as her home and left it better than she found it.
“ Matola is a biologist and environmentalist originally from Baltimore, Maryland, United States. She is the founding director of the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, a zoo which was started in 1983 to protect native animals that had been used in a documentary film in Belize.” Wikipedia
As we celebrate women’s month it is just fitting to recognize her work which was never taken for granted. RIP Sharon!
Matura B. Audrey
Prime Minister Expresses Condolences on the Passing of Sharon Matola
The Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño and the Government of Belize express condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Ms. Sharon Matola, who passed away today, March 21, 2021.
Ms. Matola dedicated her life to conserving, protecting and advocating for Belize’s wildlife and was the founding director of The Belize Zoo. Through her work, she educated Belizeans and visitors from around the globe about the importance of the conservation and the protection of our wildlife.
On behalf of the people and Government of Belize, the Prime Minister thanks Ms. Matola for her contributions to Belize.
U.S. Embassy Belize mourns the loss of Sharon Matola. We extend our heartfelt condolences to her family, friends, and admirers from around the world.
We honor Sharon for her vision and passionate commitment to protecting Belize’s precious natural treasures. Her legacy will live on in the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center that she founded 38 years ago and in the countless lives that she changed for the better.
Thank you, Sharon, for all you have done for Belize and for the world. May you Rest In Peace.
I've just heard such sad news. Sharon Matola, one of the most incredible people I've been lucky enough to know, has passed away.
Sharon founded The Belize Zoo and has been a courageous advocate for wildlife, conservation, and humane education in Belize. Her legacy is enormous.
I'm still too much in shock to write much more. She was an amazing, clever, funny, creative, and passionate person. Fierce and fearless. Belize has lost an icon.
I have tons of photos of Sharon, but these are a few favourites, showing her doing what she loved most - teaching generations of young Belizeans about their natural heritage.
I hope she's playing her guitar and singing to Junior Buddy somewhere now.
We saw that Sharon Matola passed away. What an astounding contribution she made to the country. Our sons went to school in Belize City in the 1980's. The school arranged educational trips to the Zoo. When we visited the country as a family in 2013, we visited the Zoo and met Sharon Matola again. These pictures were taken at the Belize Zoo by Gerald Leaman in 2006 — 15 years ago. We were not able to put a name to every picture.
***Sharon Matola was far more than a gringa pioneer; she was a bonified force-of-nature. **Life started in mediocrity. She’d married a dentist, and moved to Iowa, a place “with way too much sky,” and a lifestyle that was not feeding her soul. After any epiphany of sorts, she’d had literally hopped a boxcar, ending up in Sarasota, Florida, where she enrolled in college to study Biology. As Sarasota was also the winter home of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, she found herself hanging around a circus compound one day, watching an old Romanian trainer working with a cageful of big cats. At the end of the session, Sharon had told the man she’d like to be his apprentice. He rolled up his sleeves and showed her the condition of his bare arms. “If you want to work for me,” he’d replied, “Go home, take off your clothes, and stand before a mirror. Look yourself in the eye and say, ‘If I’m going to work with wild animals, I’m going to get scarred.’ If you’re OK with that, come back tomorrow morning at 8:00AM.” She had done as she was told. The next day, she was there at 7:45. (**"The Last Flight of the Scarlett Macaw" **Bruce Barcott)
For more by Nancy about Sharon, CLICK HERE for another amazing account of Sharon Matola's life.
Eden Estephan: Rest In Peace, Sharon Matola. I will always admire your courage and tenacity.
Belize Hotel Association: Our heartfelt condolences go out to the friends, family, conservationist community, and Belize for the loss of a true leader and wildlife protector, Sharon Matola. May her life and work continue to inspire us all.
Chef Sean Kuylen Thank you Ms Sharon Matola for the Best Little Zoo in the world!
Daniel Velazquez Iwanted to share a raw clip i shot in 2003 Sharon Matola doing what she loved.
Tonight, Belizeans continue to send sympathies to the staff of the Belize Zoo and the Tropical Education Center. That's because 66-year-old Sharon Matola, the Founding Director of the 2 organizations, passed away yesterday.
Over the last 36 years, Matola has educated thousands of Belizean children at the Zoo, which specializes in turning the rescued animals in their care into ambassadors for their species.
Matola was a well-respected wildlife conservationist; her contributions to the field are many.
Tonight, we take a look at her legacy. Daniel Ortiz reports:
She's been educating Belizeans for nearly 4 decades about our abundant wildlife born out of a deep sense of community and creature compassion:
File: December 3rd, 2013
Sharon Matola - Founding Director, Belize "It was the Forest Department that called us and told us that this cat is a problem. He was stalking villagers. This guy is very young, he has a noticeable damaged right eye which I suspect led to his becoming a problem jaguar and so we didn't tranquilize him to move himâ€¦"
"If you weren't here, he would come up. He does eat out of my hand and he already learned how to give a hi-5."
File: May 12th, 2010
Sharon Matola "Research has indicated that no more than 800 jaguars remain in Belize. Now that population is good if we maintain and the way we can maintain it is by making sure that their habitat is out there for them."
File: April 26th, 2013
Sharon Matola "Thirty years of April is astounding. I'm in the clouds just having the crowd of people here and their enthusiasm. I realize the impact - probably more than anyone else - that animal has had on our nation. They are important animals, they are endangered and they are ours."
File: November 14th, 2012
Sharon Matola "Well I raised Panama, so he is a special boy to me and it's very satisfying to see kids share a love, a likeness, a bond of compassion for a bird that looks like he could pick you up and drop you on the floor right - he wouldn't do that. He is a terrific symbol and a wonderful ambassador for Harpy eagles everywhere."
File: November 16, 2016
Sharon Matola "It is getting her into a comfort zone and you study what makes them most comfortable with her it was paper balls to play with but especially stuffed animals and as she grew, the bears got bigger and bigger, and finally, I ran out of big bears and now she is more jaguar like so we give her bones."
Dec 14, 2019
Sharon Matola "I raised him to be an ambassador for his species. In other words to be a beautiful cat, but visoble to people, people friendly so that everyone could understand the beauty and the importance of jaguars."
She turned animals into ambassadors and children into VIP's with a front-row seat to the greatest little Zoo on earth.
And tonight that is her legacy after Matola passed away yesterday at St. Luke's Hospital in Belmopan.
Celso Poot - Operations Manager, Belize Zoo "We knew that she was an important figure in the conservation field and seeing all the outpouring support we're getting from the public is really I would say its hard to explain in words what we are feeling right now at the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center."
Matola spent 37 years in Belize following her passion for animals, and she built Belize's most well-known Zoo.
Celso Poot - Operations Manager, Belize Zoo "The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center was basically Sharon's life. She visited Belize in 1982 and in 1983` started the Belize Zoo, later on in 1987 they added the Tropical Education Center. Sharon dedicated her life to the protection and conservation of Belize's wildlife and their habitat through the educational ambassador animals at the Belize Zoo. As you all know the animals at the zoo all have unique stories as to how they got there and that is how we used those animals to educate the Belizean public and visitors from abroad about Belize's wildlife."
And while Matola and her team have been able to generate local and international acclaim for the Belize Zoo, she told 7News 10 years ago that building it wasn't on her mind when she arrived in Belize.
File: December 12th, 2012
Sharon Matola "I came here as an animal trainer, but yeah, I had no idea that I was going to start a zoo. You're right. Well, in the beginning, I did it all by myself. I didn't have this large an animal population here. Now, I've got a keeper staff, Belizeans that are very committed and very earnestly involved in the zoo, and they do it all. 30 years ago, there was nothing. 30 years ago, there was a person running it for 2 years. That was me. I still feed some of the animals myself because I still train them. I am still an animal trainer, and that's why, you can come into the zoo and get it with Junior Buddy, the jaguar, and get a kiss because I work with them. So, we all work together."
It's that same staff which must now carry on her life's work.
Celso Poot - Operations Manager, Belize Zoo "She was as patriotic as all of us. I think she was more patriotic than some of the Belizeans that really born and grew up here, because she had a respect for wildlife, she had a respect for people. You know that wildlife conservation is not a wildlife issue, it's a people issue and so working with people and working with wildlife hand in hand is how we are going to address the matters - the wildlife issues we have in Belize and we are going to ensure that Sharon's legacy and her hard work live on through the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center."
Before she moved to Belize to establish the Zoo, Matola lived in Baltimore, Maryland.
In September of 2011, she was among 28 Belizeans who were honored as patriots.
Yesterday, the Government of Belize sent out a press release, which says, quote, "On behalf of the people and Government of Belize, the Prime Minister thanks Ms. Matola for her contributions to Belize." End quote.
Sharon Matola, Founder of the Belize Zoo, Dead at 66
Tonight, News Five is saddened to report on the passing of a trailblazer, an icon, whom we have reported on since the inception of our news station. Over the almost three decades, we have shown you how Sharon Matola has advocated for the conservation and protection of Belize’s wildlife. Matola, the founding director of the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, passed away on Sunday afternoon. Later in our newscast, we’ll bring you a full story – a summary of her countless contributions to Belize – with her colleagues and friends reflecting on the pioneer that she was. But before that, we hear from her family at the Belize Zoo. Celso Poot, the Operations and Finance Manager, has worked alongside Matola for more than twenty-years.
Celso Poot, Operations and Finance Manager, The Belize Zoo
“The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education was basically Sharon’s life. She visited Belize in 1982 and in 1983 started the Belize Zoo. Later on in 1987 they added the Topical Education Center. Sharon dedicated her life to the protection and conservation to Belize’s wildlife to protection and conservation of Belize’s wildlife and their habitat through the educational ambassador animals at the Belize Zoo.
Back in the 90’s Sharon was the lead expert for the Central American Tapir in the world and after the battle with the Challilo Dam – she basically put tapir research and scarlet macaw research aside and I was able to pick up tapir research after that and I continued the work that she started tapir in Belize. So, she molded a lot of what I am doing now.”
A Tribute to Sharon Matola – the Founder of the Belize Zoo
Over the weekend, Belizeans got the sad news of the passing of Belize Zoo founder and animal ambassador extraordinaire Sharon Matola. Over the years, her name became synonymous with this space for education and conservation. Her passion motivated and inspired an entire generation of environmentalists who remembered going to the zoo as children and wanted to devote their lives, as she had, to protecting Belize’s wildlife. While News Five joins the chorus of those mourning her passing, we do hope viewers will enjoy seeing where it all began.
Sharon Matola, Founding Director, The Belize Zoo
“People who hunt baby monkeys to use them for pets, they shoot the mother to steal the baby and then somebody comes along and buys the baby so that is not a very good thing to do, isn’t it? No it’s not.”
Andrea Polanco, Reporting
That’s Sharon Matola – more than thirty years ago. She is the founding director of the Belize Zoo – a feat she singlehandedly accomplished way back in the eighties. She first came to Belize to work on a film project as a caretaker for the animals – and when that was over the animals had no one to care for them – and that’s when Matola stepped in and her work blossomed into the best little zoo in the world. And ever since then she has championed a movement of conservation and preservation of Belize’s natural heritage and did it right up to her untimely passing. Her best friend Lou Nicolait fondly recalls how much that meant to Matola.
On the Phone: Lou Nicolait, Best Friend of Sharon Matola
“I think it was her whole life – even as a friend to her conservation was more important. The animals, conservation, education – little people – the students were important to Sharon. She understood very well that you can only ensure a conservation ethic if you have education for youngsters.”
And Matola’s idea of a zoo was different. She didn’t want animals to be unhappy and locked up – all her animals at the zoo are all rehabilitated animals that wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild if released. She curated the zoo in such a way that the animals are still in their natural habitat. She created many books – telling stories of the raptors, tapirs and other species – building that awareness and love for our animals in our Belizean children. Matola was always known for throwing the best birthday parties – like the April the Tapir bash every year – it was highlight for students or when she hosted dignitaries like Princess Ann back in 2001. And while the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center remain her single largest contribution to the country and people of Belize – her impact and her legacy are immeasurable.
Dr. Colin Young
“Sharon was a trail blazer. She was persistent. She was smart. She had a certain charisma that was so captivating and obviously her contribution was that she brought animals into the homes and into the classrooms of Belizeans.
Sharon brought these stories to life and she did it by allowing kids to go to the zoo and having an experience like no other. I think there are generations and generations of children, adults and children alike, whose whole outlook about the animals of Belize was shaped entirely by Sharon.”
Dr. Elma Kay
“She is a conservation hero for this nation. We inherited the best little zoo in the world and I don’t think that there is a bigger legacy than that. The zoo is the place that has welcomed probably all of us as children, given us the first introduction to our wild animals. It is so special and such a special vision that always stuck to understanding our own natural heritage and what is our biodiversity. I think that vision is simply amazing. It was never an ordinary zoo and so without a doubt, hands down that legacy will live on.”
Dr. Omar Figueroa
“Sharon’s passing signals the end of an era for Belize. She is perhaps the last of what I would consider those old school conservation warriors – last certainly for Belize, perhaps for the region. While she is known mostly for her work with the Belize Zoo, Sharon’s work was transformational in much more than just the Belize Zoo. Her work touched on the three main pillars of conservation biology – she worked in research, she worked in education and she worked in and she really transformed those three fields. She had a tremendous impact across this entire country. I think today Belize is better off because of the work the work that Sharon did.”
Sharon, through her work at the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center – was the loudest voice for the problem jaguars. She rehabilitated more than twenty jaguars over the years – and used their stories to spread awareness. In one of our last interviews with Matola – she advocated for these problem jaguars.
Sharon Matola [File: April 2019]
“We are proud of our programme because we know if it is a problem jaguar it has a problem and she certainly did. She is missing a canine tooth and she is missing bottom teeth and she had intestinal issues. She is grunt – she looks young but she isn’t so young. Her making it in the wild and hunting just was not on her menu. And as you can see, how close can you get to a jaguar like this that actually has learned to like people.”
While her presence will be missed – her impact will continue to be felt in countless areas of conservation. Matola is also credited for the many careers she shaped and persons she inspired who are the torch bearers of conservation work in present day Belize.
Dr. Elma Kay
“I have known Sharon for almost twenty-twenty-five years. She actually is somebody who first introduced me to the world of conservation and she did that for many of the conservation professionals in Belize. So, I think today many people are mourning that loss not just professionally but personally as well.”
Dr. Omar Figueroa
“I first met Sharon over twenty-five years ago and actually Sharon was the first person who hired me for my first job in the field of conservation biology and ever since then I have stayed in contact with Sharon. We stayed in contact and worked on numerous projects and numerous initiatives. So, Sharon has had a tremendous impact on my career, on my work in conservation biology.”
Dr. Colin Young
“I don’t think there is another person like Sharon Matola. She is one of those persons who come around once in lifetime. I was fortunate to have known Sharon since I was six years old. She used to come to the zoo to pick me up from Bermudian Landing to meet April the Tapir. So, in many ways she contributed to my development and love for wildlife and for conservation.”
Dr. Colin Young sums up best – the force that was and will live on as Sharon Matola. From championing environmental issues – as staunch opponent to the Chalillo dam – to an advocate for wild animals – to naming the highest point in Belize.
Dr. Colin Young
“Sharon is as Belize as the Belize Zoo. While she wasn’t born here, she loved this country. She loved its people. She loved its animals and she was willing to do all she can to protect them even when it made her very unpopular or when she crossed a lot of people; whether it was her objection to the Chalillo Dam when it was being built and the issues of trying to save the scarlet macaws and the habitat or whether it is taking any other environmental issue. I think that fighting spirit is one of the defining characteristics of Sharon. I don’t know how many people know that Sharon is responsible for naming our highest point in Belize – the Doyle’s Delight – which is taller than Victoria Peak and she named it in 1989 based on the lost world and so it is fitting that this giant of a woman, this giant of a human being was responsible for naming our highest point in this country and I think that ought to symbolize in more ways than one how towering a figure she was in Belize.”
Sharon Matola has passed away, but her memory will live on and on in the Belize Zoo. In 2007, Nightline interviewed Sharon when they featured the zoo. While her passing is a huge loss for Belize, her work with conservation and sustainability resonates with thousands.
"ABC Nightline features The Belize Zoo, September 10th 2007. Jeffery Kauffman visits "The Best Little Zoo In The World" and talks to Sharon Matola, Belize Zoo Keeper. The 29-acre zoo features over a hundred animals, all local, and include tapirs, jaguarundis, macaws, monkeys, storks, jaguars, otters, owls, black jaguars, and vultures. The zoo's main attraction is its jungle setting, where the animals are kept in natural wildlife habitat."
Sharon Matola: The founder of the Belize Zoo and warrior in environmental conservation, passes away
The world’s best little haven for animals, the Belize Zoo lost its beloved founder, Sharon Matola, on Sunday, March 21st. Sharon Matola was 66 years old, and her death caught many by surprise, prompting messages of condolences even from the Prime Minister describing her as a pioneer in many regards. Matola, originally from Baltimore, Maryland, USA, had a colourful career, including a stint with a Romanian lion-tamer and circus tour through Mexico. Afterward, she had the opportunity to come work in Belize in a wildlife documentary with deceased filmmaker Richard Foster in 1982. When the film was finished, the native animals, about 20 of them, were to be disposed of. Matola’s love for animals led to creating the Belize Zoo in 1983 with the help of environmental groups.
Matola was very persistent in the movement against the construction of Chalillo Dam in western Belize. Her struggles were documented in the 2008 book titled ‘The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird,’ by Bruce Barcott. She also started a popular wildlife radio series called ‘Walk on the Wildside’ in the British Forces Broadcasting Service. The program explored the lives of Belize’s flora and fauna. She loved exploring Belize’s deep jungles and climbed the famous Victoria Peak several times. Matola also named Belize’s tallest peak, Doyle’s Delight, in 1989. The name refers to a quote from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book ‘The Lost World’ referring to Belize as a ‘wild and wonderful country.’
Click here to read the rest of the article in the San Pedro Sun
Great article from Carolee Chanona, at Caribbean Culture & Lifestyle about the recently departed Sharon Matola.
"I would like anyone reading this to know that they are reading an interview given by one of the happiest people on the planet. Me. I am so proud of The Belize Zoo and what it has given to so many people. I am reinforced daily about the significant impact this facility has had: for the wildlife of Belize, and for the wonderful people of this extremely special nation. Colour me happy.”" -Sharon Matola
Article from 2019: 2019 Outstanding Woman Awardee, Ms. Sharon Matola
Sharon Matola came to Belize in 1982, one year after the country's Independence, to work as an animal assistant for documentary films. When the project ended, the filmmaker took another assignment abroad, leaving Sharon with about 20 animals. Her job, as she was told, was to "get rid of the animals:' Habituated animals cannot be returned to the wild. "Well, Belize doesn't have a zoo—I'll start a zoo and save the animals and figure out what will happen next:' thought Sharon. She never worked in a zoo and had no zoo experience or contacts. However, when Belizeans began showing up at the little roadside zoo, it became very clear to Sharon that their curiosity was fueled by wanting to see and learn about the wildlife of their country.
So, being one person, but believing strongly in the education value of the country's first wildlife center, Sharon persisted. She began an education program early on. Sharon would venture into schools, with a boa constrictor in a pillowcase. She would ask the children to draw their National Animal....No one really could! They did not know what a tapir looked like. The boa constrictor brought screams of excitement. She saw what she suspected: animals and kids are a magical combination. Over the years, Sharon has written seven children's books about Belize's wildlife and the zoo. She relocated the zoo to its present location in 1991, and today, thanks to her formidable insistence and fundraising, The Belize Zoo is the only wheelchair accessible nature destination in Belize.
Over 14,000 schoolchildren a year visit The Belize Zoo and learn about their country's natural heritage. The Belize Zoo, starting from a small, chicken wire cage facility, has grown to become what travel books refer to as "The Best Little Zoo in the World:' The staff, now boasting 50 people, are all Belizeans and proudly share Founding Director Sharon Matola's conservation vision and commitment.
On Monday's news, we told you about the passing of 66-year-old Sharon Matola, the wildlife conservation icon who established the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center. Tonight her staff is announcing that there will be a private funeral ceremony held for her.
The Zoo and the Tropical Education Center says that the funeral will be attended by her family members in conformity with her final wishes and instructions.
A press release from the Zoo and the Center says quote, "We are deeply grateful for the overwhelming and numerous expressions of love and appreciation from the Prime Ministerâ€¦the Government of Belize, the environmental community, friends, and supporters from abroad, and the wider Belizean society for our dear Sharon throughout her service in Belize..." End quote.