Sharon Matola is one of those rare breeds who not only loves what she does, but she sucks you right into her exciting world. When a jaguar licks your face and doesn’t tear it off, how can you not feel an adrenaline rush? (More on that in a moment.)

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Kerry Sanders gets a jaguar kiss

Matola’s journey is an amazing path of twists and turns, from Baltimore upbringing, to circus lion tamer, to assistant filmmaker to pioneer.

Pioneer? Indeed! Twenty-six years ago, Matola came to Belize and after helping film wildlife for a documentary, she realized the native animals were disappearing and no one seemed to notice.

It was her idea to carve out a square mile in the jungle, and like Noah, gather animals, two-by-two if possible, to create a zoo. Today, she has more than 130 native species including harpy eagles, jaguars and tapirs in what’s become known as “the best little zoo in the world.”

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The tapir, which I figure looks like an overgrown guinea pig, is the national animal of Belize.

The urgency of the zoo became apparent to Matola when, years ago, she entered a classroom here and asked kids to take their crayons and draw a tapir. The blank stares and empty sheets of construction paper convinced her she had a mission: To make sure everyone in Belize, and beyond, knew the country's animals.

In this remote jungle-turned-zoo, I first got up close and personal with the tapirs. They are herbivores (that means they don’t eat meat), so they are – allegedly – non-threatening.
We fed them a jungle favorite: bananas. But tapirs are curious animals, not only in how they look, but in how they’ll surprise you. Yes, one of the hungry herbivores bit my leg. 
OUCH!  No skin broke, but the nibble on my leg startled me and as I would later find out, this was a jungle omen.

As I stood with Sharon looking at the king vulture, which has lost upwards of 70 percent of its habitat in Central America to development, it took a peck at my finger. OUCH!  And OUCH again! One of the little suckers jumped on me, up around my neck and onto Matola before I could comprehend what had just happened.

So, you’ll understand my reluctance when Matola asked me if I might want to go in a small cage inside the jaguar habitat.

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I obliged, and there, inside this tiny cage, Junior, a jaguar orphaned when his mother was shot, came up to us. I put my fingers through the cage to touch his pelt. Soft. Warm.

Then, following Matola’s lead, I stood up as Junior jumped on top of our cage. It took some coaxing, but I did as requested, and put my face right up to the wire and, YIKES! Junior’s long, wet, abrasive tongue licked my face.

Startled? You bet. As for his breath, let’s just say Junior could use a toothbrush!

(insert –day of--link to live shot, kerry with matt here)

Matola’s zoo today is a must-stop for those who visit Belize. She proves just about anything is possible, with determination, and individual donations, even in a remote jungle.

Click Here for more on "the best little zoo in the world."

Posted: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 8:01 AM by Sarika Dani
Filed Under: Ends of the Earth
From Kerry Sanders, NBC News correspondent