Sections Travel and Tourism

Family-owned Lupa Zoo Offers Exhibits, Education

Walk on the Wild Side

Joan Lupa shows off a baby two-toed sloth

Joan Lupa shows off a baby two-toed sloth, one of many exotic animals that have found a home at Lupa Zoo.

It’s early in the morning at Lupa Zoo.

And while visitors have yet to arrive, the creatures that live there are doing all they can to make their presence known.

Laughing kookaburras have been screeching since 4 a.m. to announce a new day, macaws are squawking loudly, monkeys chatter excitedly as they execute gracious leaps in their cages, and the braying of donkeys echoes throughout the entire 15-acre park.

But the sounds don’t penetrate into the community; although the sanctuary houses more than 300 species that include a giraffe, llamas, two camels, a menagerie of monkeys, a black leopard, a large reindeer, a zebra, arctic foxes, bears, and oddities such as capybaras (large rodents from South America), it’s a hidden treasure that cannot be seen or heard from the front gate on Nash Hill Road in Ludlow.

When visitors pass through the gate, they travel along a long driveway that leads to a spacious parking lot. The roadway is peppered with cages that house strutting ostriches and other animals, and when they leave their vehicles, guests enter an exotic world created by Henry Lupa and his wife Joan, who painstakingly carved out a habitat for animals in the deep woods behind their home with enclosures that mimic what each creature would find in its natural environment.

Joan glows as she talks about their venture into the unknown and its success, and is tearful when her late husband Henry is mentioned.

They were married for 48 years before his passing two years ago, and the zoo was a dream he nurtured for years before they brought it to reality in a way that exceeded their wildest imaginations. “Henry wanted to create a natural habitat for animals that would serve the community,” Joan recalled, as she spoke about her husband’s living legacy, adding that it’s a very good place for children as well as adults, who stroll along the shaded brick walkways and relax on benches as they watch the animals and learn about species from all over the world.

Her pride in and passion for the venture is evident as she talks about the school groups it hosts and the excitement the zoo generates in visitors, how her son brings some of the animals into inner-city schools and nursing homes to educate people and make them happy, and how the family does everything possible to keep entrance fees affordable so the zoo is accessible to everyone.

It’s no easy feat, because the annual operating costs for the privately owned operation are $400,000, which doesn’t include the cost of snowplowing and other services provided by the family’s company, N.L. Construction, which started out as Henry’s landscaping business and morphed into a larger entity, thanks to hard work by him and Joan, who always played a major role in the business.

That same company, which specializes in commercial projects, including schools, fire stations, and other municipal buildings, provided the bulk of the money needed to build the zoo and the funds needed to maintain it.

And although Joan refers to it as a “hobby,” much of the endless labor required to keep the zoo open is donated by family members who don’t earn a salary. They include Joan; the couple’s son Wally, who is a veterinary assistant; his wife Ewa, who does the bookkeeping; and Joan’s two grandsons.

“Our son Stanley is the only family member who gets paid,” Joan said, explaining that he’s in charge of educational programs and oversees personnel, which include a zookeeper and two staff members. “But everything else is accomplished by a great staff of volunteers, an annual fund-raiser, and grants, which have made a significant difference.”

The business community also plays a small role in the upkeep: some companies sponsor an animal, while others send volunteers to do much-needed work.

“Last year, 30 volunteers from Keller Williams Realty painted the cages, benches, tables, and entranceway and did a fabulous job,” said Joan. “And this year, volunteers from Big Y in Ludlow helped us plant flowers in all of our gardens; it was a huge help.”

For this issue and its focus on travel and tourism, BusinessWest looks at how Henry Lupa’s dream became reality, and how his family continues to keep that dream alive.

Near and Deer

Joan and Henry grew up on small farms in Poland that were self-sustaining. They emigrated to the U.S. in 1964, married a year later, purchased a 32-acre parcel in Ludlow in 1976, then bought their house and an additional three acres when the adjacent parcel became available, then added 13 more adjoining acres in 1991.

They had grown up with animals, and by the ’70s, Henry was raising pheasants and miniature horses.

“They were our pets, and he did it for our family’s enjoyment,” Joan said, noting that, by the ’90s, the neighborhood children and their sons’ friends made a habit of visiting frequently to see their small menagerie.

After Henry emigrated, he started a landscaping company, which he grew into the highly successful N.L. Construction business, in which Joan played an active role. They were very busy with their business, home, and family, so she was shocked one day when he told her he wanted to open a zoo.

Lupa Zoo’s giraffe enjoys some branches fed to him by Joan Lupa

Lupa Zoo’s giraffe enjoys some branches fed to him by Joan Lupa, who stands on a high platform built so guests can enjoy the experience.

“I thought he was off the wall,” Joan recalled. But she agreed to try it, since the initial application was inexpensive, and before they knew it, they were deep into the complex licensing and permitting process. “It was a challenge to put everything together, but we wanted to serve the community, and in 1996 we received a license from the Mass. Wildlife and Fisheries Department and the United States Department of Agriculture, and starting buying exotic animals. The rest is history.”

It’s a storied history well worth recounting, as the couple turned an idea that seemed … well, nearly impossible, at least to Joan, into a reality that grew beyond anything they envisioned. “You start something, and when you come to the point where it is well-received by the community, you just can’t stop and go back. You have keep going,” Joan said. So, although the construction company continued to thrive, after Henry retired due to health issues, he devoted himself entirely to the zoo, and Joan continues to work there year-round.

But talking about the past takes away from the excitement of the zoo, so she jumps up, eager to show off its occupants.

Her first stop is inside one of their two heated barns, which are backed up by generators and used to house many of the animals during the winter. She heads straight for her newest favorites, twin baby two-toed sloths.

“I’m going to take the female out; the male tends to bite,” she said as she reached inside and removed a baby who stuck its head out, then buried it in the towel she held beneath it.

A short distance away, she stopped at a cage containing squirrel monkeys which leapt from bar to bar to get close to her as she called out to them. “They think I’m going to give them a banana,” she laughed, explaining that this is something she does in the evening. “They recognize me, but it’s all about the food.”

Joan told BusinessWest that visitors are allowed to feed the hoof stock with compressed hay and grain they buy on the premises and place in tubes, but no one is allowed to have direct contact with any of the animals. However, an exception is made for their most famous resident — a 20-foot-tall giraffe they’ve owned for 15 years.

A special staircase was created so patrons can climb to see its face and feed it carrots and branches from nearby trees, and it takes his time and chews slowly as Joan offers it a handful of food.

Paws for Effect

After leaving the giraffe’s enclosure, she pointed out other animals, providing details about their personalities.

She knows them all, and even though the zoo houses many endangered species, every creature in it was carefully chosen. “You have to study where it comes from to figure out the kind of environment it will need and the size of its cage; we do whatever we can to make our animals comfortable, and we do it for all the right reasons,” Joan explained, adding that their exhibits mimic the species’ natural environments.

Since the ability to hide is important to the health and well-being of many of the creatures, sometimes visitors have to take time to look closely to discover where they are.

The zoo’s newest additions are a pair of Asian river otters. “We got them this spring, and they’re very, very playful,” Joan said as she stood near their enclosure and watched them roll over and over near a fast-moving water slide.

She told BusinessWest that the upkeep of the zoo and maintenance of the facility is never-ending. But the work the family has done and continues to do is a labor of love and has less to do with meeting government regulations than ensuring that the animals and patrons are happy.

But she admits it’s not easy to comply with the USDA codes required for different animals, and they are closely monitored. “We’re also inspected several times each year by the Board of Health; they keep an eye on all exhibitors,” Joan said. “We’re doing a very good job, but the government wants to be sure that animals are taken care of according to their needs.”

As she walked, she added that the cost of building the zoo was mitigated in part by the fact that the family’s construction company used recycled materials it obtained when it demolished old structures to build it. Joan pointed them out during the tour; they ranged from bricks used to create the walkways to large boulders inside cages, to a railing taken from the grounds of a school in the Berkshires.

“We used all of our resources, and instead of throwing away lumber, we recycled it; most of the fencing comes from job sites, and a lot of it was donated by local contractors,” she noted.

Many of the extras in the zoo are paid for by grants, such as the signs outside each cage that contain the name of the animal inside, a map showing its natural habitat, and printed information about its lifestyle and habits.

“We bought them with a grant we received seven years ago from the Community Foundation,” Joan explained. “They’ve had to be replaced since then, but they are important so children can identify each animal and where it comes from by looking at its name, a picture of it, and the map.”

State grants distributed between the Commonwealth’s three zoos also help; last year Lupa Zoo received $60,000, and this year it was given $46,000.

“We really hope Governor Baker doesn’t cut these funds because they help us keep the admission price low. It’s only $6 for each child in a school group as well as their chaperones, and we do everything in our power to keep it affordable because many of the students who come here are from low-income families,” she noted.

Living Legacy

Joan and her family are happy the zoo has flourished and hope it will serve the community for generations to come. It contains a playground that was added six years ago and is bordered by a beautiful raised garden; an area with fiberglass animals that children can sit on and have their photos taken; and also a concession stand, gift shop, educational center, and two large pavilions with picnic benches where people can relax and enjoy a snack in the shade.

There is also a replica of a blacksmith’s shop because Henry’s father was a blacksmith in Poland, and a small area with a miniature merry-go-round and other pint-sized rides.

But the main attraction is the animals, which is exactly what Henry hoped for, and the entire zoo is a living legacy that continues to grow.

The success of the endeavor has been astonishing, especially to Joan.

“In my wildest dreams, I never thought this would become such a popular place. The initial permitting process was difficult, but it you are determined to do something and have a good intention, you can get it done,” she said. “Henry’s dream is a reality, and we will do our best to keep it going as the patrons who come here really enjoy it.

“The chores will always be there,” she added, “but we made the right choice, and we hope the zoo will be here for many, many years to come.”

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