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The Yankee Express

Southwick’s Zoo steps into fall in a blaze of light

Southwick’s Zoo Matriarch Justine Brewer prepares to cut the ribbon, capping the kickoff for the Festival of Illumination.

No one would have dreamed, four or five years ago, that any creatures but the live ones already present would have a home at Southwick’s Zoo in Mendon.
Here in the fall of 2021 a far different scenario has emerged, courtesy of Southwick’s first-ever “Festival of Illumination,” in which stationary, larger-than-life, lighted model animals assume a place alongside their celebrated living and breathing counterparts on the paths of the Southwick and Brewer families’ venerable complex.

 A dragon is one of many illuminated replica animals that will be on display at Southwick’s Zoo this fall.

  The roar of a resident lion that could be heard piercing the otherwise all-encompassing quiet during an opening reception for the Festival of Illumination on the evening of September 22 seemed to at least one observer to sound like a wail of protest; as if the king of the jungle was saying “how dare you imposters crowd your way onto our grounds?”
But there they were in all their glory—bears and elephants and alligators and giraffes, even a dragon—in what the Zigong Lantern Group (the industry leader in Chinese lantern festivals around the world) touts as a spectacular one-of-a-kind “cultural and artistic expression.”
Introduced at the VIP gathering beneath a tent just above the main entrance to the zoo as the person who “spearheaded this Festival of Illumination project,” Cindy Brewer Lavoie described the event as “where East meets West” and, in addressing having worked with Zigong to put the display together added “we have finally made it to the destination. This is a partnership that I truly believe will last a lifetime.” Getting emotional, Ms. Lavoie, who is one of zoo matriarch Justine Brewer’s five children, said, in reference to the continents involved in the exhibit, “we told ourselves if we couldn’t visit our planet (during a pandemic), we’ll bring [the planet] to you.”
The Festival of Illumination is open to the public and will run all fall into winter, through January 3, 2022. Combined with Southwick’s regular holiday lights show in December and the continued availability of the gift shop, which will remain open, the zoo has thus taken a step toward transforming itself from a seasonal operation to almost a year-round business. Included in this array of offerings is Galliford’s, the zoo’s on-the-property restaurant.
In his own remarks to the audience, Justin Corsa, who is CEO of Zigong, said the company “is the largest exporter of lantern art in all of China,” with headquarters “locally in Orlando, Florida.”
Several years ago, Mr. Corsa said, “we made attempts to find a location in New England” for the Festival of Illumination. “Most sites we looked at didn’t have the confidence to do this. Three years ago we met Southwick’s Zoo and the lean but incredibly capable people” who run this establishment. “Not a single responsibility they were asked to undertake phased them. They fulfilled their duties admirably. I can’t imagine working with any other partner in New England.”
In what will certainly come as a welcome news to fans of the Festival of Illumination, Mr. Corsa said “we will bring a brand-new design every year.”
Mr. Corsa could not resist pointing out what an enormous achievement creating the Festival at Southwick’s was, “during a hugely challenging year, to bring product overseas in a pandemic, with shipping issues and many other hurdles” to deal with. 
Echoing Mr. Corsa’s positive assessment of future possibilities for the Festival, Ms. Lavoie said “we have a three-year contract and who knows from there.”
State Sen. Ryan Fattman summed up what many in attendance were thinking when he commended the Brewer family for their careful and conscientious management of the property. “I got to know Justine around ten years ago and she said at that time that she had five kids and I thought ‘that’s good preparation for running a zoo!’” Sen. Fattman said. “Southwick’s Zoo is a true institution of the Blackstone Valley, a combination of culture and commerce. My wife and I are on a date night this evening. We didn’t tell our three children we were coming here! To have run a family-run business for fifty-six years, you have to be doing something right!”
For Betsey Brewer Bethel, the Festival of Illumination opens the door to even greater success for Southwick’s and her herculean efforts to save endangered and threatened species. “Do you know what day it is?” she asked the crowd. “It’s World Rhino Day!” Noting that someone from Chestnut Hill had raised $1200 toward the cause (“and his little sister saved her tooth fairy money”), she said “hopefully my EARTH program will expand in the next few years and we’ll have a learning center.”
Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] 
or 774-232-2999.By Rod Lee