WALWORTH COUNTY — When Jay Christie was a boy in Toronto, he said, the first word he learned to read was “zoo.”
Ever since, that little word has loomed large in his life.
“It apparently made a big impression,” said Christie, who has spent his adult years visiting, studying and working in animal parks across the country. He ran the Racine Zoo as its executive director for 16 years.
But all that time he had a bigger plan: “I always wanted to create, operate and live in my very own safari park dedicated to the conservation of rare and endangered species,” he said.
Christie’s wildest wildlife dreams come true this weekend when he opens Safari Lake Geneva, a 75-acre interactive animal park on Litchfield Road in the Village of Bloomfield, about 5 miles from Lake Geneva and 16 miles southwest of Burlington.
At Safari Lake Geneva, animals roam free on tracts of gently rolling grassland and woods while visitors in tractor-pulled wagons can see and feed the animals.
The park will be open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Oct. 31. Tickets will be $24.95 for adults and $14.95 for children ages three through 15. Right now, only visitors with reservations will be taken at the park, and walk-ins won’t be accepted. Tours can be booked online at www.SafariLakeGeneva.com, he said.
Christie provided a sneak peek of his adventure venture Friday.
“I believe our visitors will get closer to animals than any other safari or tour that they have ever been on,” said Christie, decked out inhis trademark jungle togs — khaki pants, khaki shirt, boots and hat. “I think it’s a little more exciting than a traditional zoo. It’s a zoo for people who don’t really like zoos, and a zoo for people who really love zoos.”
On a short tour Friday, visitors saw and fed bison and Watusi cattle — the largest horned animal on the face of the planet. At another stop, ostriches, rheas (a large South American bird), llamas, alpacas, zebus (Asian oxen) and antelope flocked around the wagon seeking food.
Right now about 70 animals are on the land, with the list expected to grow to 150, Christie said. Animals still to come include camels, Grant’s zebras, simitar horned oryx (a type of antelope), and emus.
Three decades in the making
Christie said he has been mulling and planning the park for more than 30 years, but in earnest for the past six. He looked at almost 60 parcels between Washington County north of Milwaukee, to Grundy County in northern Illinois to create his park.
He finally settled on the parcel near Lake Geneva. “I fell in love with the spot the first time I saw it,” he said. “The mature trees, the fresh water, the rolling topography.”
Bloomfield village officials were enthusiastic about the project and neighboring property owners raised few objections, Christie said. The project will cost at least seven figures, Christie said, and could go into eight figures someday.
Maggie Madden, the park’s educational director, worked with Christie at the Racine Zoo before joining the park project. “I always told him to cut me in if it ever happened, but I never thought it would happen,” she said. “But the idea of this is so unique. I view this as a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
The park still has some rough edges, but for Christie and Madden, it’s a great starting point. Christie imagines a guest center, a food court, and other amenities that could draw corporate events, family reunions and even weddings.
“We have no shortage of ideas of where we can go from here,” Christie said. “This is truly only the beginning.”
And true to this dreams, Christie is living in the park, in a small structure near the park entrance. “It’s a smaller space than any apartment I ever lived in,” he said. “But it’s got a great backyard with one heck of a view.”