Chinese lantern festival illuminates the night at Southwick’s Zoo

Toni Caushi
The Milford Daily News

MENDON — Flowers of fairy-tale sizes blossom and glow in incandescent hues at the entrance to an otherwise dark Southwick's Zoo, welcoming visitors inside to the wonders of the zoo's "Festival of Illumination: World of Lights!"

At night the festival's handmade, LED-powered Chinese lanterns in the shapes of fauna and flora light a path snaking through the zoo. The display, which opened Thursday, runs through Jan. 2.

The 2,000-year-old craft of Chinese lantern-making on display demonstrates how figures built only of silk and steel can draw astonishment. A colossal giraffe stands tall, surrounded by the flowers. Right beside it, despite having the dimensions of the real creature, is a lion tamely. 

A lion seems to be joining in on the selfie as visitors get their first look at Southwick's Zoo's "Festival of Illumination: World of Lights!" in Mendon, Sept. 23, 2021. Two years in the making, the experience will be open through early next year.

From above an arch where a sign with “Welcome to the World of Lights” fluoresces, the arm of a cheetah waves, inviting visitors who for the first time will walk into a zoo at night but expect the same amusement as any visit during the daytime.

“(The lanterns) are works of art, which are custom-made for us by Zigong Lantern Group, with whom we’ve built a great relationship,” said Cindy Brewer, chief financial officer of the family-owned zoo.

Once in the zoo, the trail of glowing lanterns leads visitors past enclosures of kangaroos and muntjacs, which can be seen under the brightness of the LED lights, while the kookaburra and L.J., the zoo’s male lion, provide the sound effects of a real jungle.  

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A whale, one of the largest luminescent giants of the festival, lies on the crossroads that leads to animal enclosures typical of different continents. Its mouth opens to allow visitors to walk through the inside of the sculpture; a tunnel of bright, white lights. 

In front of an unimpressed gibbon’s enclosure, the body of a dragon curls to create a majestic tunnel of luminescence.

According to Meng Liu, president of Zigong Lantern Group, the project took a collective 120 hours of work to complete. 

“Because of the (COVID-19) pandemic, people couldn’t bring kids to the world,” said Liu, “but now the world has come to them.” 

Out of the Sichuan Province in China, where Liu says lantern festivals originated in 200 B.C., Zigong Lantern Group creates displays for festivals throughout the world, including in France and the United Kingdom. In November, its lanterns will make a stop in Las Vegas. 

Brewer hopes the current three-year contract with the lantern festival will extend the zoo’s usual Halloween closing date, although some of the animals will be by then sheltered away from the New England weather. She admits it's difficult to run a zoo with no state funding, mentioning animal fodder and zookeeper wages complicating off-season expenses. 

A couple walk hand in hand as they enjoy the lights during opening night at the "Festival of Illumination, World of Light" exhibit, a new lantern festival at Southwick's Zoo in Mendon, Sept. 23, 2021. LED-powered lanterns in the shape of animals and flowers will be illuminating paths throughout the grounds of the zoo through early next year.

“Whatever money is brought in during the summer, goes out in the winter,” she said.

Brewer’s grandfather, Justin Southwick, built the zoo on a 200-acres that has been passed down through the family since 1803. His curiosity for exotic birds evolved into a wildlife park that officially opened as a privately funded zoo in 1965, according to Brewer.  

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The lantern festival was originally supposed to start a year ago, but in May 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified, ships loaded with materials were stuck at sea. That, along with issues with expiring worker visas and “loss of confidence,” stalled last fall's opening, according to Liu.

Nevertheless, patience has made the lantern festival opening possible this fall, Brewer said.

Visitors capture photographs of a lantern exhibit in the shape of a whale during opening night at the "Festival of Illumination: World of Lights!" a new lantern festival at Southwick's Zoo in Mendon, Sept. 23, 2021. LED-powered lanterns in the shape of animals and flowers will be illuminating paths on the grounds of the zoo until Jan. 2.

“Most of what we do is a labor of love and a way to give back to the community,” she said.  

The zoo enjoys continued political support, with Gov. Charlie Baker visiting the zoo in 2015 to celebrate its 50th anniversary. And on Wednesday, state Sen. Ryan Fattman, R-Sutton, attended the lantern festival's premiere with words of praise. 

“Southwick's Zoo is an institution of the Blackstone (River) Valley,” said Fattman. “One we should be proud of.” 

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As a parent to a son who loves the zoo, Fattman sees Southwick's as a chance for people learn about the world, calling the zoo “a combination of culture and commerce.”  

After Thanksgiving, the lanterned animals will be substituted with Christmas figures for the season to sled into “Winter Wonderland” until Jan. 2, which Liu says will be a drive-through experience with a Santa Claus meet and greet. 

If you go:

WHEN: 5:30-10 p.m. through Jan. 2

WHERE: Southwick's Zoo, 2 Southwick St., Mendon

INFO: 1-800-258-9182; https://southwickszoo.com/