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.”
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.”