The state’s first safari park opened Saturday near Lake Geneva with about 65 animals and 400 people in attendance for the opening weekend.
“It went great with about the best throughput we could have expected, not too many, not too few,” said Jay Christie, who left his job in 2014 as CEO of the Racine Zoo after 16 years to begin work on the safari park.
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Christie said he has reservations on the books through October, when Safari Lake Geneva
will close for the winter.
Christie purchased 75 acres
on Litchfield Road in the Village of Bloomfield, about five miles southeast of downtown Lake Geneva, in May to open the safari park. His first animal was a tiny African bullfrog.
Today, the animals range from birds to zebras to llamas and cows. Most are on loan and will go back to the zoos where they came from during the winter.
Christie, who has invested seven-figures in the park and will likely spend upwards of eight-figures by the time the project is finished, also lives on the property in a “tiny house.” At this point it is a trailer, but he is building a wraparound deck onto it.
The safari park focuses on ungulates, or hoofed animals, and birds.
Eventually, Christie would like to add more animals, although the focus will remain ungulates. He would also like to add a gift shop and food options for visitors.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg, what you are seeing now,” he said. “This is more exciting than a traditional zoo. A lot of things that give people pause about zoos are not happening here. We are allowing animals to live out their lives in the wild.”
Christie’s first job in the zoo industry was at one of the largest safari parks in North America, African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ontario. Since then, he has gone on several African safaris and visited dozens of safari parks, inspiring him to open his own.
Christie searched for about six years before finding the right location for the safari park. He said he considered one property in Racine and looked at about 40 in Kenosha and Walworth counties. The Bloomfield parcel is surrounded by 800 acres of land owned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Christie estimates the safari park will cost about $500,000 a year to operate. He plans on having a staff of five, who will drive guests through the park on one of three covered wagons, which seats about 30 people for a one-hour guided tour.
Kathy Seeberg, executive director of the Walworth County Visitors Bureau, believes the safari park will be an additional draw to the Lake Geneva area.
“This adds to the inventory of fabulous things we have in Walworth County,” Seeberg said. “It is especially exciting for Bloomfield, because it is really the town’s first big attraction.”