Story By Rachel Wisinski | Photography By Holly Leitner
When Jay Christie says Safari Lake Geneva is his dream job, he’s not exaggerating. He’s been told his first word as a kid was “zoo,” and becoming a zookeeper was always something he aspired to as a child. Though his dream evolved slightly, he says he’s finally landed where he’s supposed to be — owning and operating Safari Lake Geneva.
“I had an interest in doing this since I was about 10 years old,” Christie says. “I could have never imagined how things would turn out and that it [the reserve] would be hosting visitors from southeast Wisconsin and the greater Chicagoland area, but it’s been an excellent choice, and Lake Geneva has been great on top of that.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Safari Lake Geneva, which opened in 2016, took visitors on an adventure across approximately 25 acres off Litchfield Road, providing exclusive opportunities to interact with and learn about various species of animals supported by the business’s conservation efforts.
The operation typically allows for interaction between visitors and Safari Lake Geneva’s expert educators. As animals roamed the property, instructors would discuss them in the order they appeared rather than a defined habitat, as you may see at a zoo.
A BUSINESS PLAN PIVOT
Christie never envisioned having to reimagine the business to account for a global pandemic, but Safari Lake Geneva has made adjustments to implement additional safety protocols and social distancing. The park opened for the season as it does every year on May 1 “by the skin of our teeth,” Christie says, and visitors have been showing up for the new self- guided, drive-thru experience ever since.
Christie says staff had to scramble the first week of April to develop plans that would allow people to drive their own cars across the property.
Opening was “definitely a leap of faith,” according to Christie, and the team encountered some challenges along the way.
Customized wagons, the traditional mode of transportation, are generally pulled by tractors across the rolling landscape. There was never a need for permanent roads. Christie says to ensure cars could make the trek through the fields, they modified the gravel paths typically put down for the tractors on rainy days.
“Had we known it would have been such a roaring success, we would have made the road wider and longer versus the shortest distance between two points,” Christie says. “We would have made it more serpentine with switchbacks so we could get more cars out at once and people could enjoy more of the property.”
The team also installed cattle guards to discourage animals from roaming too far. Prior to their installation, however, staffers had to pick them up in eastern Pennsylvania. As they headed east, the transmission on the truck blew out and they were stranded in northern Ohio for several days — just adding one more complication to the opening day scramble.
NOT YOUR TYPICAL ZOO
At Safari Lake Geneva there is only one “touch point” and that’s at the initial check-in to the park. Christie says staff always wear face masks, there is no cash handling and visitors are encouraged to purchase animal feed with their tickets online. If guests opt to receive a bucket of food, they’ll receive it at check-in and can feed the animals out of their car windows, hatchbacks or sunroofs.
“It has been relatively seamless, and we certainly couldn’t be more appreciative of everyone who has wanted to check us out, and folks who raved about us on Facebook in particular,” according to Christie.
He says a lot of visitors are first- time guests to the park, with many noting they were surprised to learn of its existence.
The park invests more in conservation efforts than most zoos, Christie says, while the animals live in the open air and visitors can get closer to them because the majority will approach vehicles. “It’s really turning the zoo concept on its head,” hesays.
Though some species may be classified as extinct in the wild, parks worldwide such as Safari Lake Geneva have been supplied with animals who were born while their mothers were in the care of humans. And although the intent in these instances is to release them into the wild, it’s not always possible.
Christie says every animal on the property was born in the U.S., with a majority born in northern Wisconsin and others coming from parks across the U.S. resembling Safari Lake Geneva.
In choosing the animals, Christie says they are assessed based on several factors related to animal welfare and conservation.
“So the critically endangered species like the scimitar-horned oryx are a higher priority than an animal that is more commonly known,” he says.
While ostriches, Grant’s zebras and emus thrive at Safari Lake Geneva, the park has also added species such as the Arabian and Bactrian camels, Indian runner duck and yak to the mix.
The animals all have a shelter accessible year-round, but a lot of the species don’t require them, even in Wisconsin’s harsh winters. For example, Christie says animals such as the plains bison and yak don’t generally use their shelters in the colder months, but they may seek protection on particularly windy days. Though camels are thought to be adapted to hot climates, they also can live in the extreme cold, he says.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses Safari Lake Geneva just as it would any zoo, aquarium or other public exhibition of animals across the country. The park receives no public funding, which allows it to make larger investments in animals than most zoos, Christie says.
One of the park’s goals is to raise awareness of animal extinction. Safari Lake Geneva supports the conservation of vanishing species and heritage breeds of livestock and poultry in several ways, including by raising funds that can be invested into field conservation initiatives, such as potential breeding centers.
The business supports both wild and domesticated species, and Christie says he finds satisfaction in success stories such as the plains bison, which was in danger of extinction 200 years ago but no longer is. “We take pride in just being able to provide excellent animal welfare and being a great ambassador for animals overall,” according to Christie.
MORE CHANGES IN THE WORKS
While the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated a drive-thru safari experience, Christie says the concept has been met with “overwhelming enthusiasm,” and Safari Lake Geneva hopes to implement the option for self-guided tours when things normalize again.
However, Christie and his staff are looking to make some changes to enhance the experience. Many people have said they miss the educational component of the tour, and Christie has several ideas to fix that problem.
Visitors currently can use the conservation tab on the park’s website to identify the animals along the safari, which Christie and company are working to improve.
He also has considered making short videos available including one- or two- minute discussions about the animals. The fact that the animals can roam the property freely makes it a bit difficult to implement a CD or cassette tape component educating the guests who choose a self-guided tour, Christie explains.
He’s also open to implementing more signage and graphics, but he wants the park to retain a look that’s different from a zoo, taking care not to detract from a visitor’s ability to snap photos resembling sights from a true African safari.
A recyclable, disposable booklet for purchase that guests can keep as a souvenir is also an option. “I’d like to think in the long term we will have something like that as a way for folks to contribute to conservation,” Christie says.
If you decide to “go on safari,” visit safarilakegeneva.com to make your online reservation, which is required for each drive-thru adventure.