Working for the good of the planet and the next generation
By Deborah Burke Henderson, Contributing Writer
Driving through the quiet Blackstone Valley town of Mendon, there are the usual restaurants, convenience stores and various other places of business. But for many, especially families with young children, there is another reason to visit Mendon – Southwick’s Zoo. Home to more than 850 animals, including endangered species, the 200-acre Zoo is the largest zoological experience in New England, and the only one caring for white rhinoceros and chimpanzees.
Co-owner Betsey Brewer Bethel grew up on her grandfather Justin Southwick’s dairy farm in Mendon, which was a special place featuring an ever-increasing number of exotic birds and fancy poultry that gained popularity in the late 50s as Southwick’s Wild Animal Farm. It drew visitors from all over Blackstone Valley and beyond. Southwick grew to fame as one of the country’s leading authorities on migratory waterfowl such as ducks, geese and Trumpeter Swans.
Over the years new animals were introduced, and the wildlife park opened as Southwick’s Zoo in 1963, with naturalistic habitats, including the 35-acre deer forest and 50-acre elk preserve.
In her 20s, Brewer Bethel nurtured and cared for lion, tiger and cheetah cubs in the homestead’s basement, raised an abandoned kangaroo joey and bottle-fed a five-foot-tall, 80-pound preemie giraffe. On a personal tour with Brewer Bethel, it is apparent these same animals respond to her voice, so many years later
Her passion for animals and wildlife conservation runs deep.
A graduate of Wheaton College with a bachelor’s in psychology and minors in biology and education, Brewer Bethel received her master’s degree in wildlife conservation from Vermont College of Norwich University in 1998.
Putting that training to work, Brewer Bethel now serves as co-owner, vice president of marketing and promotions and executive director of education, conservation and research at Southwick’s Zoo and is constantly enhancing programming in response to the changing ways we learn.
New England’s largest zoo
Southwick’s Zoo is private and remains family-owned by the Brewer (Southwick) family. As a private operation, the Zoo does not receive federal, state or local funding of any kind; it depends solely on admissions proceeds from Zoo visitors and patrons.
“On average, most zoos in the country are situated on less than 50 acres of land,” Brewer Bethel noted, “but we devote 200 acres to our wildlife. We’re constantly seeking new ways to support this size zoo.”
Brewer Bethel, her three brothers and sister play integral roles in day-to-day operations – everything from veterinary services to grounds maintenance to finances, food and beverage – and her two grown sons also work as full-time employees, assisting with exhibit design and plant management.
EARTH limited celebrates 20th anniversary
Combining her love of animals, life-long learning and education, Brewer Bethel created the nonprofit organization, EARTH Limited (Environmental Awareness of Resources & Threatened Habitats) in 1999.
As executive director of EARTH, she develops education, conservation and research programs at Southwick’s Zoo to inspire commitment to protect and conserve our planet and our future.
Programs offered by EARTH Limited include rhino encounters, wild adventure summer programming for youth, junior zookeeping and EARTH’s mobile outreach ZooMobile which brings an educator and live animal ambassadors to schools, libraries and other venues.
“Research shows that if you can get people closer to animals and they can make an intimate attachment with the animal, they will definitely care more about wildlife,” Brewer Bethel said.
“We live on a small planet where everything is intertwined,” she added. “We must live harmoniously with nature.”
Working locally and globally
Brewer Bethel works locally and globally through EARTH to support wildlife conservation.
Over the last five years, EARTH has donated more than $82,000 to conservation initiatives in Blackstone Valley, Honduras, Costa Rica, Mozambique and South Africa.
To help visitors make a connection with an endangered species, EARTH hosts a rhino encounter for four participants (at least 12 years of age) to meet Thelma and Louise, the Zoo’s white rhinos, and feed and touch them in a protected space. A brief educational video, “I Am Not Medicine,” explores the rhino poaching dilemma – three rhino are killed on preserves every day.
“Funds raised through the encounter support anti-poaching and rhino conservation work happening in South Africa through Project Rhino,” Brewer Bethel said, “and hopefully our visitors have a life-changing experience, better understanding the importance of wildlife conservation.”
Just last month, Brewer Bethel traveled to Iowa, representing EARTH Ltd. and Southwick’s Zoo, as partners in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Trumpeter Swan Restoration Project. Three cygnets (swan chicks) raised at the Zoo were shipped to Des Moines, Iowa, last fall to adjust to their new landscape and hone survival skills. These cygnets were part of the largest release of Trumpeter Swans back into the wild, making an important contribution towards increasing native populations of these waterfowl in Iowa.
Brewer Bethel believes that every action creates another action and that everyone should work together for the good of the planet and the next generation. Her next goal is to build a conservation learning center at Southwick’s Zoo. She wants to leave a legacy that matters.
“I really love the Zoo,” she added. “It’s a labor of love, but I cannot imagine working anywhere else. Even when I decide to retire, I will always be devoted to conservation.”
Southwick’s Zoo is located at 2 Southwick St., Mendon, Mass., and open daily from April through October, with a special Winter Wonderland experience in late November. To plan your zoological adventure, visit www.southwickszoo.com. To discover more about EARTH Limited and learn about membership benefits, visit www.earthltd.org.