Matt Damon starred in a 2011 film called “We Bought a Zoo.” He played a widower seeking a new life with his two kids by buying and fixing up a zoo despite zero knowledge of how to run one.
The Ordway family of Lilburn in 2018 ended up buying a zoo themselves - or in this case, the Yellow River Game Ranch, a 58-year-old operation just five minutes from their home. The night they closed the deal, Jonathan Ordway celebrated by watching a DVD of that film with his wife and four kids. But as Damon’s character struggled with renovations, Jonathan’s joy slipped away.
“I had a panic attack,” he said.
Indeed, many of their friends and family thought they were crazy to embark on such a risky venture but they were undeterred.
Jonathan, 42, and his wife Katy, 40, immediately renamed the place Yellow River Wildlife Sanctuary, a more apt name for 2020. At first, Jonathan thought he could build a few fences and have the place reopened in three to six months. But repairs ended up taking two full years.
“We first had a two-page list of things to do,” he said. “It eventually became 25 pages.”
The Ordways, who manage about a dozen apartment complexes, town homes and condos with no background in running zoos, invested their life savings into the operation and finances forced their hand.
“Katy said we’re just about broke so we gotta get open,” Jonathan said.
He himself had a hard time letting go because the place was never ever going to be truly “finished.”
“I was worried what people would think,” Jonathan said while at the bear enclosure. “I don’t see the progress. There’s this pole right here. There’s a story of how I got this pole in the ground.”
Guests began entering again May 14, six weeks later than expected because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are currently only open four days a week and have limited attendance to encourage social distancing. There are no walk-up sales - just online reservations.
Despite the challenges, Jonathan said he’s OK with fewer people on the grounds.
“I want it to be an enjoyable experience,” he said. “The crowds are good. I don’t want this to be Six Flags. I want people to leave here feeling calmer and better than when you came in.”
Visitors at Yellow River last Saturday were impressed by the makeover, many coming west from towns such as Sugar Hill, Monroe and Covington. They preferred Yellow River over Grant Park’s Zoo Atlanta as more convenient, less costly, more interactive and far shadier.
Gregory Hall, a systems engineer from Decatur, decided to stop by Yellow River after driving his 7-year-old son Mason to swim class a month ago. Mason loved it so much, they have already visited four more times in the past month.
Hall remembered what the place was like before the Ordways took over.
“It looks so much better,” he said, while watching his son play in the rabbit yard. “They’ve paved the roads. They have more exotic animals. The place looks more manicured. There’s hand sanitizer every where. It’s a lot cleaner. It smells better. The animals look much healthier. Before, I remember I didn’t even want to touch the animals in the petting zoo, they smelled so bad.”
The sanctuary’s roots go back nearly six decades.
Art Rilling, still alive at age 92, opened what was originally the Stone Mountain Game Ranch in 1962 at Stone Mountain Park. It was more a petting zoo than game ranch, but he was from Texas and liked the “game ranch” name better.
It became a popular attraction in the 1960s and 1970s. Visitors hand-fed tame deer wandering around the ranch and oohed and aahed as a caged black bear named Fuzzy would open a can of Coke and drink it. But as his 20-year lease came up, Rilling said he knew the Stone Mountain Park officials were eyeing to push him out so he found a new space in Lilburn off I-78 in 1982. He renamed it Yellow River Game Ranch.
Now on his own, Rilling had to up his marketing game to draw people. He’d hold buffalo chip throwing contests and Easter egg hunts. But his best idea? Taking his tamest groundhog, naming him Gen. Beauregard Lee, a Dixie version of the weather-prediction Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day. He received an annual dose of publicity from that event.
Rilling said he never tracked annual attendance all that carefully but peak days could bring in 4,000 people. School field trips provided steady income.
But over time, the place lost some of its luster. Animal rights groups targeted Rilling’s treatment of the animals, which he said he tried to address. A massive flood in 2009 damaged many of the enclosures and took six months to fix back up. In 2010, due to changing regulations, he said he was forced to fence in the deer. “We lost some of our appeal then,” he said.
And as Rilling entered his 80s, his knees made it difficult for him to walk and supervise staff. So in 2013, at age 86, he handed day-to-day operations over to an employee Cody Reeves, who purchased part of the ranch as well.
Unfortunately, under Reeves, attendance continued to drop, repairs were deferred and animal care suffered. (Reeves did not respond to texts and calls for comment.)
Jay Price, a Yellow River employee, grew up coming to the Game Ranch. He recalled the rabbit enclosure overstuffed with 40 rabbits and nobody supervising the kids.
“All the rabbits had broken ears because kids would try to pick them up that way,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Yellow River for poor treatment of some of its animals and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for the place to be shut down. Reeves at the end of 2017 did just that. Most of the hundreds of animals were relocated to other sanctuaries. Gen. Beauregard Lee found a new home at Dauset Trails in Jackson.
Enter Jonathan and Katy, who grew up going to the game ranch as children and continued to visit once they had kids.
But they knew the place was in trouble and Katy in November, 2017, placed a bug in her husband’s ear about helping. Soon after, Yellow River abruptly closed down. They tracked the owners down and negotiated a deal to buy the property from Rilling and Reeves in 2018.
Jonathan became the idea person, the visionary. Katy was the money person who reined him in. “We make a good team,” Jonathan said.
They first had to get the guts fixed. Piping and electrical had to be replaced. Bad weather hampered that work. “It was a mud bog a lot of the time,” Jonathan said.
For previous attendees, the biggest change is the bear sanctuary. The four female teenage black bears used to live in tiny metal enclosures on mostly concrete.
The Ordways wanted to simulate the bears’ natural north Georgia mountain habitat by building out a two-acre fenced space with hills, trees and a watering hole for the bears.
The day they moved to the new space in February was “heartwarming” as they swam and explored their new territory, said Ordway, as he watched one of the bears rub her back on a tree. “They were excited and confused when they walked on grass for the first time.”
Donna Branscome, a Stone Mountain dental assistant, visited the Game Ranch just once two decades ago. “The bears weren’t in good condition,” she said. “People were throwing apples at their faces, being mean. That got me. I cried.” She didn’t return but when she heard what the Ordways were doing, she became a volunteer and spent this past Saturday cheerfully answering questions to inquisitive passers by outside the new bear enclosure.
Another rebuild was the worn-down petting zoo - which now has alpacas, goats, lambs, pigs, a steer and a donkey named Donkey. Jonathan even designed a faux old Western saloon and general store building for the goats. “It’s not a ghost town,” he said. “It’s a goat town!”
Once they took over, only the bison, the peacocks, vultures, pot-bellied pigs, turtles and bears remained. Over two years, the Ordways have been building and rehabbing enclosures to accommodate new animals. Spider monkeys and lemurs came from a breeder leaving the business. A serval, an African wild cat, was found as an illegal pet in Buckhead. A red-tailed hawk was previously owned by actor Wade Williams (“Prison Break”). Others arrived via wildlife rehabbers, animals deemed too tame to place back in the wild.
The Ordways sought advice from three agencies they needed to ensure the sanctuary could reopen: the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the USDA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They had to jump plenty of hurdles to get proper licenses and permits from all three.
“They were hesitant to work with us at first,” Jonathan admitted. “They wanted to know if we have any experience in zookeeping. Katy and I were looking at each other...”
“We like dogs!” Katy said, who briefly majored in pre-veterinary medicine at the University of Georgia two decades ago before switching to accounting.
But they eventually won over the skeptical officials at the agencies.
“They were idealistic when they came in,” said Sgt. Wayne Hubbard, special permits unit for the DNR. “But they asked the right questions, listened and did a good job hiring employees with experience. They didn’t proclaim to be animal experts so they hired some.”
The sanctuary has about a dozen full-time employees for the zoo, 45 maintenance workers they also use for their apartment complexes and no shortage of volunteers.
“We stole ideas from the best places in the world and incorporated them as economically as possible,” Jonathan said.
The place doesn’t yet have a lot of enhancements. One idea that made the early cut: a gem mining experience. Taking a cue from the North Georgia mountain tourist towns like Dahlonega, Jonathan built a sluice from scratch, purchases cool-looking rocks, mixes them in bags of sand and sells them for $10 apiece. “I’m a rock hound,” he admitted.
It’s been a nice draw. This past Saturday, they sold 200 bags.
Clint Murphy, Yellow River’s 52-year-old animal manager and curator, has 20 years experience in zookeeping. Disillusioned, he almost left the business but was enticed by the Ordways to jump aboard in 2018.
“I love solving problems,” Murphy said. “Every day there’s a new challenge. It’s clear this place had a dedicated fan base going back decades. I want to continue that great family feeling and bring things to modern standards.”
That includes adding fans and heating units for many of the animals to deal with climate extremes in Georgia. They do enrichment training for animals such as the spider monkeys and wild cats to keep them mentally stimulated.
He and Jonathan have a five-year plan to add more attractions and create both educational programs and camps. “It’s an amazing place with an amazing set of possibilities,” Murphy said.
The Ordways are not in this for the money. In fact, they are paying themselves nothing, relying on their apartment business to pay the bills.
And they are giving their now five kids - currently ranging from six months to 10 years - an adventure. ( A fifth arrived unexpectedly during the rebuild.)
IF YOU GO
Yellow River Wildlife Sanctuary
Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
$18 adults, $12 for children, 2 and under free (tickets must be purchased and reserved ahead of time)
4525 US-78, Lilburn
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