Mary was never going to be easy to catch.
From the moment the 24-year-old African antelope, a longtime resident of Ludlow’s Lupa Zoo, escaped her enclosure on April 1, she had the clear evolutionary edge over the humans trying to capture her.
Her vision is powerful, night or day, and her hearing is extraordinary. Fast and agile, she can effortlessly bound through uneven terrain, cross rivers, and sprint at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.
Since she weighs 900 pounds, it would take a large dose of tranquilizer to bring her down.
“She’s kind of like a little Sherman tank with hair on it,” said Wally Lupa, director of facility development and animal care at the family-owned zoo.
Albeit one that’s “very much equipped for stealth and surveillance.”
For five weeks, Lupa and a small army of helpers meticulously tracked Mary across four Western Massachusetts towns after she suddenly bolted from the zoo. Drones, infrared surveillance, deer cams, and night-vision goggles were deployed to boost their efforts. Wildlife experts and law enforcement officials were kept on call. Neighbors eagerly reported sightings.
In the end, Lupa, 57, said it was a time-tested tactic used to track wildlife that finally brought Mary home: Patience.
Mary’s journey last month began when a poplar tree toppled into her enclosure during a thunderstorm, giving her an opening to escape.
Zoo staff and police tried to corral the animal and take her back to captivity, but Mary vanished into the woods just beyond the zoo’s grounds. Day turned to night, and eventually the search party hit pause and went home.
But not Lupa, who felt a personal obligation to bring her home to safety.
For the next five weeks, he stayed on the case, driving from park, to farm, to parking lot as people reported sightings of the antelope, its distinct size and single horn — a birth defect — making it stick out from other animals.
False alarms still occurred. Sometimes, a Mary sighting would turn out to be a moose. One time, Lupa’s heart dropped when he heard Mary had reportedly been hit by a car in Wilbraham. He later learned it was a deer.
But every time his phone lit up with word of another report, he quickly relocated, spending long, rainy nights searching the woods, or on stakeouts inside his GMC pickup truck. When he felt like he could, he chased sleep while sitting upright.
“It’s hard on the tushy,” he said. “Those seats are not made for that.”
During his weeks tracking Mary, Lupa slept just five nights in his own bed.
“And even then I had my phone next to me,” he said, “because sometimes at 1 a.m., there’s another sighting, and I was off.”
At first, he hoped to simply tranquilize Mary with a dart, before tying her up and taking her home — he even came close once.
About a week after the antelope’s escape, Lupa found himself within range of Mary at Red Bridge State Park in Ludlow. He took the shot, but one dart wasn’t enough to take her down.
Undeterred, Mary leaped into the Chicopee River and swam across to Wilbraham. Worried she might drown, Lupa raced to the Wilbraham side, where he stood just 20 feet from the determined — and only slightly dazed — antelope as she trotted off to the woods.
“She looked at me, and then just passed me and went by,” he said.
Lupa worried trying to tranquilize her again would cause her to run out of sight, putting her at risk of injury or being attacked by coyotes.
“He was very concerned. You could hear it in his voice,” said Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi, who worked with Lupa as he tracked Mary’s whereabouts. “He was committed to getting her back in a way that didn’t traumatize her.”
In the end, Lupa decided the safest way was with a trap.
He stuffed a trailer with her favorite grains, along with scoops of manure from her mate, George, at the zoo — “everything and anything to get her to feel like it was homey.”
Every time Lupa located her, he set up the trailer and parked his truck a safe distance away. Huddled in his vehicle — a blanket over him so the light from his phone wouldn’t spook her — he monitored a live video feed from a night vision camera hidden inside the trap.
Lupa also tied a 100-foot-long rope to the trailer’s door, so he could close it from a distance, and practiced locking it over and over, memorizing the routine so he could do it in blackness.
“Because her senses are so fine tuned, you pretty much have to be a ninja,” Lupa said.
The first try didn’t go as planned. Mary briefly stepped into the trailer, but popped back out and ran before he had a chance to safely lock her inside. It was frustrating, but he was glad he didn’t try to close the door too soon.
“She would have learned that that was dangerous for her,” he said.
Then, last weekend, his luck changed.
Lupa tracked Mary to a quiet spot in Ludlow, not far from the Massachusetts Turnpike, where she’d spent the last six days and befriended a group of deer that followed her around.
He set up the trailer and waited.
On Saturday, just before midnight, he watched on his phone as Mary ambled inside. For 20 minutes, “she walked in and out, sniffing and listening.”
When he saw she was fully inside the trap, Lupa stepped out of his truck. Keeping his breath low and steady, he crept along a dirt road he’d cleared of leaves and twigs to soften his steps. He grasped the rope, and in a “nice, steady flow” yanked it.
The door slammed shut.
It took several minutes for the adrenaline to wear off, but once it set in that Mary was finally safe, that’s when it hit him.
“I did it. I got her,” Lupa said.
His dedication to the recovery mission was “remarkable,” said Don Wilda, head of the US Wildlife Services’ Amherst office.
“It’s amazing he did this the way he did it,” he said.
Besides picking up a few ticks, Lupa said Mary is doing well back at home. If the five-week excursion — and game of cat-and-mouse — caused her any trauma, she certainly didn’t show it.
When he dropped her off at her enclosure, Mary “touched noses” with her mate, circled him for a moment, and returned to her routine of happily munching on hay.
“Just like it never happened,” said Lupa, who returned to happily sleeping in his own bed.