Wildlife is back...and Lilburn's got 'em.
A welcome, nostalgic sight after so many years, the old Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn has been transformed into a treat for all the senses: The Yellow River Wildlife Sanctuary.
Doing the transforming and establishing the new showplace are Jonathan and Katy Ordway, real estate developers from Lilburn who have pumped blood, sweat, tears, and greenbacks into their new venture, assisted by their delighted and delightful five children, Liam, Ivey, Jonny, Ella Rose, and baby Griffin.
The Ordway's, renovators of apartment complexes during the day, have taken on a new and ongoing challenge, reinventing the old game ranch property at 4525 U.S. Highway 78. For the past two years since the old ranch closed, they have planned, researched, built, and studied wildlife in their efforts to continue the tradition of the old establishment which was opened in 1962 as a first-of-it-kind facility in Gwinnett County.
The goal of the park at that time, according to owner Ordway, was to provide homes for many types of varied wildlife, along with a place where families could interact with deer, goats, and other animals.
"Not only did it become an iconic venue...it served as a treasured experience and memory to its many guests," Ordway said.
Through 2013, the ranch was owned and operated by Col. Art Rilling, who eventually sold it to long-time employees. In 2018 the Yellow River Game Ranch closed its gates, leaving the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to find homes for many of the resident animals -- bison, pigs, vultures, turtles, bears, and more -- to be cared for by dedicated volunteers.
The Ordway's heard about the closing and got to thinking about how the animals would be cared for.
"Showing our children how to care for wildlife and giving them an opportunity to learn has always been important to us," said Katy Ordway. The couple talked to DNR officials about the sale of the property and what was going to happen to the wildlife left behind.
Purchase of the property by the couple was arranged, and their vision began in earnest.
Improvements on a large scale had to be made, however. "The bears are favorites, but all they had for a home was a concrete 1970s-style pit area, which actually was state-of-the-art in 1980," Jonathan said. The work began on developing and constructing the crown jewel of the park: a two-acre bear enclosure that features a pond, waterfall, and night house.
The Ordway's received help and advice not only from DNR, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Zoo Atlanta, and fellow rehabbers and sanctuaries, as well. "We wanted to provide the resident animals with the best life possible," Jonathan said. "Our goal is to provide the animals with enrichment activities, high-quality diet and well-maintained habitats."
Animal appreciation and wildlife education are promoted, using a staff of talented curators, keepers and volunteers to "ensure everything we're doing is in the best interest of the animals."
When the project first started to take shape, the weather didn't cooperate, and it seemed to rain more days than it didn't. "We just wanted three days of dry weather to get started," Jonathan said. Finally, they got those dry days, and were then ready to open in March 2020. Then came something nobody was expecting: the COVID -19 pandemic and the resulting social distancing restrictions from the State of Georgia and Gwinnett County government. This caused a two-month delay until the first part of May, when the new sanctuary could allow entrance to the public on a limited basis.
The sanctuary presently consists of 25 acres, with five of them undeveloped, but earmarked for expansion. Visitors can expect to spend two to three hours exploring the one-mile trail loop, a combination of paved and natural dirt paths. "We allow 17 people to come into the sanctuary every 10 minutes," Jonathan said.
When visitors enter the trail to look at the wildlife up close and personal, the first section they see is the enclosure for fallow- and white-tailed deer. Proceeding right next to this portion they see the main attraction: the large area for the American black bears as they wander (and sleep) and hang out in their natural habitat.
Next comes the stations for turkey and black vultures, American bison (a holdover from the original ranch), a great horned owl, a Eurasian lynx (where staff member Clint Murphy provides daily presentations), spider monkeys, a rare black coyote, raccoons, gray foxes, red-ruffed and ring-tailed lemurs, opossums, and rabbits.
Livestock petting is allowed...and encouraged...in the barnyard area, complete with a big red barn, another original hold-out. Alpacas, baby doll sheep, goats, cattle, a pot-bellied pig, a mini-horse and mini-donkey are featured, and some of them are allowed to be fed, especially the mini-donkey.
Gemstone mining is available at the water-powered flume so visitors can pan for emeralds, rubies, sapphires, topaz and other minerals.
At this time, the park is open to the general public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, closed Monday through Wednesday. Adults (12-64 years old), $18.00; senior/military (65 plus/active or veterans), $17.00. Children (12 and under), $12.00. Children 2 and under are free. There is no charge for parking and the last tickets are sold at 4 p.m. to ensure all guests have left by 6 p.m. when the park closes.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, and to ensure that guests, staff and animals have an enjoyable, stress-free and safe experience, only visitors with pre-paid tickets will be admitted. A facemask is required upon entering the gift shop. Tickets can be purchased online at the website, yellowriverwildlifesanctuary.com. For more information, call 678-395-3453.
Annual memberships currently are not available, but they will be sold once all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and the park is able to open full time.
Ongoing plans include programs for schools, home-schoolers and the general public. Field trips and birthday parties are available weekdays only for groups of 14 or more. For more information, e-mail email@example.com for details and rates.