Exotics up close on safari park tours

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Dennis Hines | September 20, 2016

BLOOMFIELD — A group of hungry ostriches approached the tour wagon looking for food. A few minutes later, alpacas, miniature horses and a miniature zebu joined them.

That's just one of the things visitors will see as part of their visit to Safari Lake Geneva, which opened a 75-acre preserve last month off County Highway H, south of Lake Geneva. The park features a variety of animals representing five continents including rheas, zebras, llamas, blackbuck antelopes, bison and goats.

Owner Jay Christie, who goes by the nickname “Jungle Jay,” said the park features hoofed animals and birds that are in need of conservation or that adapt well to winter weather.

“We will be biased toward animals that absolutely need conservation away from their homelands,” Christie said. “To some extent, we will be biased toward animals that are more winter-hardy.”

The safari park, at W1612 Litchfield Road, includes animals that often aren't seen at regular zoos or other animal parks, including the watusi cattle from east Africa.

“In addition to having the biggest horns of any cattle, they have the biggest horns of any living animal, period,” Christie said. “These (watusi cattle) have some nice sets of horns on them, but the record breakers are much bigger than theirs. (The watusi cattle) has been domesticated for thousands of years, so it's interesting to see the dynamic of domestic and wild animals here.”

The park includes some animals that are almost extinct, such as the scimitar-horned oryx.

“They're just depleted to the point of extinction in the wild,” Christie said. “Fortunately with zoos and ranches, we're able to re-introduce them back into the wild where their ancestors roamed.”

Safari Lake Geneva includes a one-hour wagon tour around the park in which people can view and feed the animals that roam around in a 75-acre, fenced-in area. Christie presents information about the animals during the tour.

“Feeding the animals really isn't that complicated,” he said. “You just want to use both hands and keep your fingers relatively close together and fingers relatively at the bottom of the bucket.”

Christie warned that some of the animals may be attracted to certain objects that patron wear.

“Ostriches can be fixated on buttons and things like that, so I think that's a good cautionary tale,” Christie said. “Even though some of the spaces that these animals are in are much larger than at a zoo, you can get much closer to them than you would at a zoo.”

Colleen Vana, a Safari Lake Geneva employee, said most people enjoy interacting with the animals, especially the miniature horses.

“The kids love them,” Vana said. “I think most people don't realize how much they enjoy seeing the cattle.”

Steve Pulera, director of operations, said some animals seem to be more active when there are larger crowds.

“Today, (the watusi cattle) have not been very active,” Pulera said on Tuesday. “Normally, I can't get them away from the wagon. I think part of the excitement for them is having a wagon full of people.”

The safari park includes climate-controlled shelters for the animals. However, most of the time they enjoy running free, Christie said.

“During the heat of the day, they will retreat under the brush like they would in the wild,” Christie said. “Many of the animals select not to use a shelter and some of the winter-hardy ones would deal with the winter. Sometimes I don't even know what's going to come.”

The park attracts some animals that are native to the area, including sandhill cranes, beaver, otters, muskrats, blue heron, turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks and eagles. Christie said most of the animals interact well with each other, but sometimes they need to be separated.

“The zebras have been sequestered and that's because they're going through a vet procedure,” Christie said. “Eventually, they will be integrated into the group, but they do tend to dominate almost everyone except the bison.”

Christie said he plans to add more animals to the safari park in the future, including camels, kangaroos, emus and wallabies.

“Over time the collection will diversify, but I think the strength will always be with the hoofed animals and birds,” Christie said. “The list just goes on and on.”

Safari Lake Geneva is open daily for tours through Oct. 31. Christie encourages people to schedule tours ahead of time by going to

“This experience could be as serene or as adrenaline-pumping as people want. If you get a big group in here with a bunch of kids, it's really fun, and they're chuckling and laughing,” he said. “If you come with a few friends, you've got the place to yourself and it's like a VIP African safari.

“If anything, people tell us it's more interactive than what they expected. I think most people going into it are aware that there won't be any extremely dangerous animals like lions or tigers.”

During the off-season, the animals are kept in the shelters or returned to the zoos where they came from, including Hemker Park and Zoo in Minnesota or Fantasy Corral in Woodville, Wisconsin.

Christie said he also offers educational programs for schools, scout troops and retirement centers.

Plans for the safari park have been in the works for about six years. Christie said he looked at areas in Walworth County, Kenosha County, Washington County and Grundy County in Illinois but felt Lake Geneva was the best location.

“This area sealed the deal for me as far as it looking like an African safari. It looks like a savanna,” Christie said. “I just fell in love with this area. It's spectacular terrain.”

Christie previously worked as director of the Racine Zoo for about 16 years. He also has worked at several other zoos throughout the United States and Canada. However, he said his longtime goal has been to operate a safari park.

“To me, this just seemed like the next logical step in the evolution of zoos,” Christie said. “I just thought it would be great to have free-range conditions in a place like this, with much bigger spaces than at any zoo and still allow visitors to get much closer to the animals than at a regular zoo.”

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