Sharon Matola’s life changed in the summer of 1981, when she got a call from a British filmmaker named Richard Foster. She had recently quit her job as a lion tamer in a Mexican circus and was back home in Florida, where she was poking her way through a master’s degree in mycology, or the study of mushrooms.
Mr. Foster had heard of her skills with wild animals, and he wanted her to work with him on a nature documentary in Belize, the small, newly independent country on the Caribbean side of Central America, where he lived on a compound about 30 miles inland.
She arrived in the fall of 1981, but the money for Mr. Foster’s film soon ran out. He moved on to another project, in Borneo, leaving Ms. Matola in charge of a jaguar, two macaws, a 10-foot boa constrictor and 17 other half-tamed animals.
“I was at a crossroads,” she told The Washington Post in 1995. “I either had to shoot the animals or take care of them, because they couldn’t take care of themselves in the wild.”
Desperate, she painted “Belize Zoo” on a wooden board and stuck it by the side of the road. She built rudimentary enclosures for the animals, and began advertising around the country, including at a nearby bar, where she asked the owners to send any bored tourists her way.
Nearly four decades later, the Belize Zoo is the most popular attraction in Belize, drawing locals, foreign tourists and tens of thousands of school children each year, to see Pete the jaguar, Saddam the peccary and the rest of Ms. Matola’s menagerie of native animals.
Ms. Matola died at 66 on March 21 in Belmopan, Belize. Her sister, Marlene Garay, said the cause was a heart attack.
There is a good chance that Ms. Matola met every child in Belize: Not only did schools include a visit to the zoo on their annual agenda, but she made a habit of popping into classrooms with a boa constrictor in her backpack, often uninvited but always welcome.
Along the way she became a fixture in Belizean society, at once an adviser to the government and its Jeremiah, challenging development projects she deemed to be a threat to her adopted country’s natural endowment. Her activism influenced a generation of Belizeans, many of whom went on to become leaders in the government and nonprofit sector.
Colin Young was once one of those many schoolchildren who filed through the zoo; today he is the executive director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center.
“Sharon had an outsize influence on Belize,” he said in a phone interview. “Much of what kids and adults now know about Belize’s wildlife comes back to her.”
Sharon Rose Matola was born on June 3, 1954, in Baltimore to Edward and Janice (Schatoff) Matola. Her father was a sales manager for National Brewing, her mother an administrative assistant at Loyola University Maryland.
She did not grow up dreaming of running a zoo in a tropical country, but much of her life prepared her for precisely that role. As a girl she scraped her knees and dirtied her fingernails in pursuit of worms, frogs and butterflies (though because she was highly allergic to cats, her future love for jaguars was less of a given).
After high school she signed up to be a survival instructor in the Air Force, which sent her to Panama for jungle training. She fell in love with the tropics, and with an Air Force dentist named Jack Schreier. They married in 1976 and moved to his family’s farm in Iowa.
Ms. Matola studied Russian at the University of Iowa but soon moved to Sarasota, Fla., where she enrolled at New College and switched majors to biology. Her marriage to Mr. Schreier ended a few years later. In addition to her sister, she is survived by a brother, Stephen.
To pay for college, and later graduate school, Ms. Matola worked the oddest of odd jobs — assistant lion tamer at the Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota, fish taxonomist and eventually dancer and lion tamer with a traveling circus in Mexico.
The work was dangerous — a lion bit her in the stomach, leaving a permanent scar — though she liked her colleagues. But she quit after she was transferred to another troupe, which she felt mistreated the animals. She grabbed her pet spider monkey on the way out; worried that she wouldn’t be allowed to bring him across the Mexican-U.S. border, she paid a smuggler to help her ford the Rio Grande, the monkey traveling on her head. Within months, she was on a plane to Belize.
Ms. Matola took naturally to the simple life that running a no-budget zoo required. She slept in a one-room thatched hut on the property, bathing in a pond she shared with the zoo’s crocodiles. Her office mate was a three-legged jaguar named Angel.
The zoo struggled at first. Ms. Matola charged a nominal entrance fee, and to cover costs she raised chickens and took tourists on trips to the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala next door.
Ms. Matola, who became a naturalized citizen of Belize in 1990, was most comfortable in T-shirts, camouflage pants and jungle boots, but she could easily slip into a cocktail dress if she needed to be in Belize City for an evening of glad-handing and fund-raising. For years she had a standing weekly tennis appointment with the British high commissioner.
As her zoo’s reputation grew, so did hers. American newspapers and magazines started to run profiles of the “Jane Goodall of jaguars.” In 1986 the director Peter Weir hired her as a consultant for his movie “Mosquito Coast”; its star, Harrison Ford, later donated money to the zoo, as did the musician Jimmy Buffett.
In 1991, with a budget of $700,000 and the help of soldiers from a nearby British Army base, she built a new zoo on a 30-acre plot; across the road she opened the Tropical Education Center, out of which she ran research and conservation programs.
Some of her animals became national celebrities. When April the tapir was “married” with a male at the Los Angeles Zoo, all five of Belize’s newspapers covered the nuptials. (The marriage, unconsummated, never took.)
Ms. Matola spoke out when she thought the country’s environment was at risk. In the early 2000s she joined a campaign against a hydropower dam planned in western Belize, which she said would destroy animal habitats in the jungle and drive up energy costs.
The case ended up in British court and drew international support from groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council. Government officials denounced Ms. Matola as an interloper and, as one put it, an “enemy of the state.”
The dam’s developer won the case, but Ms. Matola was right: Today, energy costs in Belize are higher, and the area around the dam remains polluted. The case earned her awards and invitations to lecture across the United States, particularly after the journalist Bruce Barcott wrote about her in his book “The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird” (2008).
Ms. Matola announced in 2017 that she was stepping back from her daily roles at the zoo, handing off responsibility to her all-Belizean staff. By then her arms were tattooed with scars from countless bites and scratches, her body worn down by bouts of malaria and screw worms. Not long afterward she developed sepsis in a cut on her leg, which left her hospitalized for long stretches.
None of that seemed to matter. She did not want to be anywhere else, she often said, and she would insist until her death that she was “one of the happiest people on earth.”