‘Like a Disney movie’: Zoo director tracks and captures missing Ludlow antelope after 5 week search

On April 1, Wally Lupa went to work at the zoo the same as he had for 20+ years.

As the Lupa Zoo’s Director of Facility Development and Animal Care, part of his job is to ensure all the animals are happy and healthy, safe and sound in their enclosures at the end of the day.

For nearly three decades, this task was completed without incident or worry.

But as Wally returned home the night of April 1, a thunderstorm hit the Ludlow area, bringing heavy rains, whipping winds, and a situation that no zoo employee ever wants to encounter.

“We had a tree branch go down at the zoo...it knocked out the wall of an enclosure and damaged another one and literally allowed the antelope to walk out the front gate,” Senior Public Information Officer for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office Robert Rizzuto said.

Mary, a 24-year-old Eland Antelope with only one horn, had escaped from her enclosure and was now loose in the sleepy town of Ludlow.

Her distinct look is due to a previous infection in one of her horns, which doctors had to amputate.

“She looks like a lop-sided unicorn,” Lupa joked.

Mary the Eland antelope and her mate, George.
Mary the Eland antelope and her mate, George.

Jokes aside, Lupa would spend the next five weeks sleeping in his truck, tracking Mary through the woods of Wilbraham, the barns of Belchertown, and finally, the leas of Ludlow, where she safely returned to his trailer.

“It’s not like I planned to sleep in my car for five weeks,” Lupa told Boston 25 News. “I kind of took it a day at a time like, ‘Okay, let’s see if we get her today.’ And that stretched out, obviously, into five weeks.”

It’s a story as improbable as something you’d see in the movies.

Lupa describes the first moments when he heard of Mary’s escape as something of a whirlwind. The 900-pound animal had walked out of the front gates and went down the road, where she was chased deep into the woods by neighboring dogs. Despite the numerous zoo staff, police, and volunteers trying to track the antelope within the first moments of her escape, catching Mary proved more difficult than anticipated.

“We lost sight of her for a couple of hours. Our biggest worry was a car would hit her or something like that,” he said. “It’s one thing to do this [search and rescue] in practice, it’s another thing to do it in real life”

In the coming days, members of the public would get in on the action, sending in dozens of pictures and video from cell phones and trail cameras, trying to locate where the antelope was.

“We always had some idea in the geographical area of where she was,” Rizzuto said. “We got a lot of tips...the public was a very, very big help in tracking her.”

With every tip, Wally and his zoo staff would need to go investigate the old fashion way, by showing up on location.

Mary proved to be very elusive and covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time thanks to the clearings near the power lines in town. She was first spotted near Chenier’s Gravel Bank in Ludlow but was also spotted at a farm in Belchertown and across the river in Wilbraham.

“I found at the very beginning I needed to stay pretty close to her last sighting,” Lupa said. “I slept in my pickup truck [following Mary], a lot of safe spots, sometimes I stayed at friend’s places, places I knew were safe...in total, I probably stayed at home only about 3 or 4 times in the 5 weeks.”

There was even one close call where authorities didn’t think Mary would survive a harrowing swim across the Swift River.

“No one really knew what was going to happen,” Rizzuto said, “but I guess antelopes are pretty adept swimmers, which we didn’t know...she’s built very, very well for the wild.”

Then came the night of May 6, where Wally had pinpointed Mary’s location to a field of clovers in Ludlow.

“That night I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Lupa recalls. “She came out with a bunch of rogue deer friends and they were grazing in the field.”

Due to the time of night and the other animals in Mary’s company, Lupa thought his chances of success were dubious at best.

“It was about 10:30 and I was fighting fatigue but I had seen on my camera that she stuck her nose in front of the trailer,” Lupa said. “With the trailer, you pretty much had to do it right the first time or she would never go near it again. I had her favorite grain in the trailer, I had manure from the male, I secured the trailer so it was stable...it had to be a one-shot deal.”

Slowly but surely over the course of thirty minutes, Mary and Wally played a game of cat and mouse where she would put one hoof in, then step out.

“Once I saw her get two hoofs in she lifted her nose and began sniffing around [the trailer], I slowly got out of my truck and walked over to the 100-foot cord I had set up and was watching the camera the whole time,” he said.

When Mary took one more half step inside, Lupa pulled the cord and closed the door, ending his weekslong Odyssey.

“My first text was actually to my wife,” Lupa said. “It took me about two or three minutes to process it was finally over.”

“Even Wally couldn’t believe that it was really over,” Rizzuto said. “He was very up on the adrenaline of the whole thing...it was something out of a Disney movie.”

Mary was brought back to the Lupa Zoo where she was checked out by veterinarians, who determined she, incredibly, didn’t have a scratch on her. After giving her some food and water, she returned to her pen where her partner, George, was waiting.

“They’re based on characters from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’,” Lupa said. “He came up to her and they rubbed noses for about two or three minutes.”

Since Mary’s great adventure, Lupa says they learned a lot and have placed new paneling inside the pens of the antelope to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

“Of all the possible animals to escape, we were happy it was an antelope,” Rizzuto said, “we were glad it wasn’t a giant cat of some sort or anything along those lines.”

Lupa wanted to thank the zoo’s veterinarian, Peter Brewer of the Southwick Zoo, Sheriff Nick Cocchi, the Ludlow, Wilbraham, and Belchertown Police as well as his family and all the volunteers who helped get Mary home safely.

“It’s amazing how many people asked concerned about her, wanting to help,” Lupa said. “I was very thankful.”

This is the trailer and truck Wally Lupa used to finally capture Mary the Eland antelope after weeks of searching.
This is the trailer and truck Wally Lupa used to finally capture Mary the Eland antelope after weeks of searching.

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