Noah’s Ark fights to survive after bird flu outbreak, internal discord

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

A month after a bird flu outbreak forced a five-month quarantine at Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary, human infighting threatens to derail the future of the popular children’s destination.

Supporters of Noah’s Arc founder Jama Hedgecoth and members of the attraction’s board of directors that runs the site have for months been bickering over management of the facility and the best way to care for its more than 1,500 animals.

Backers of Hedgecoth say the board has failed to ensure veterinarians are given easy access to the animals and to make sure that their enclosures are clean. The board says Hedgecoth and her family are disgruntled because the state ordered the formation of a supervisory body to oversee operations because of questionable past leadership.

The situation has become increasingly nasty as the battle intensified.

Board members and the non-profit attraction’s president, Michelle “Shelly” Lakly, allege they have received harassing phone calls and threats of bodily injury. According to police reports filed by the board, protestors have shown up at Lakly’s home in the last two weeks shouting profanities through a bullhorn and she has received death threats.

One protestor is alleged to have brought an AR-15 assault rifle outside the Noah’s Ark gates during a demonstration. No arrests have been made.

“So-called ‘protestors’ have been engaging in a prolonged campaign of intimidation,” the board said in an emailed statement. “They have adopted the tactics of persons who camped out in front of the homes of Supreme Court justices earlier this year in what was seen by many as an effort to intimidate them from issuing decisions they disliked.”

Allison Hedgecoth, the founder’s daughter-in-law, said the family has nothing to do with the alleged threats. Hedgecoth was in charge of animal husbandry at Noah’s Ark but said she was fired earlier this month because of a dispute over rescuing wolf dogs and bringing them to the site, despite being told not to.

“Nobody is upset about what’s going on as much as I am, but violence is never OK,” she said. “You cannot stop injustice with more injustice.”

Caring for orphaned animals

The battle lines come as the destination faces an uncertain future.

Noah’s Ark, a free attraction, collects as much as $8,000-$10,000 a month from visitor donations and thousands more from spending at its gift shop, Glenn Ross, chairman of the all-volunteer board, said.

The longer the facility is closed because of the quarantine, the harder it will be to sustain operations, including feeding the bears, horses, alligators, parrots and owls that call the facility home.

“With no visitation from people coming on site and without the gift shop, we are probably somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000 a year short,” he said.

Noah’s Ark was founded in Ellenwood in 1978 by Hedgecoth to care for injured, abused and orphaned animals. It moved to its current 250-acre home in Locust Grove in 1990.

In 2019, the sanctuary reported $2 million in total revenue, including contributions and grants, and nearly the same amount in expenses, according to its most recent Internal Revenue Service financial disclosure reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

On Aug. 13, staff at the attraction noticed an unusually large number of dead black vultures on premises and notified state authorities. Samples collected from affected birds were later determined to be infected with the H5N1 strain of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI).

In the days that followed, around 100 birds under Noah’s Ark’s care had to be euthanized, including chickens, turkeys, peacocks, pea hens, emus, ostrich, Guinea fowl, an owl, crow and sandhill crane. Parrots, a visitor favorite, were not affected.

State authorities, including the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Natural Resources, have continued to inspect the site and a three-kilometer perimeter around the grounds for any spread of the virus.

“Over the coming months our staff will monitor the health of the remaining captive birds onsite so that the facility can safely resume operations,” Erin White, director of creative projects for the agriculture department, said in an email.

Ross said the state has determined that Noah’s Ark will be quarantined for 150 days, from Aug. 26.

To feed the animals, Noah’s Ark will continue to reach out for help from retailers such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Publix, Kroger and others, Ross said. The stores donate leftover meat as much as twice a week sometimes, he said.

The group has also reached out to supporters via a newsletter for donations to keep the facility going.

Facebook privileges

Proceeds from the gate are not the only funds Noah’s Ark leaders say they are missing.

Board members said no one on staff has administrator privileges on the destination’s Facebook page, a critical fundraising tool. They claim it has been “hijacked” by a former employee, whom they repeatedly have asked to release the page so they can use it. They did not identify the staffer.

Allison Hedgecoth said she had administrator privileges, but relinquished them to avoid accusations that she was trying to harm Noah’s Ark. She said she tried to help switch privileges to the current staff, but ran into brick walls dealing with Facebook.

“It’s devastating,” she said of the standoff with the Noah’s Ark board. “My family started this organization and all we want to do is care for the animals.”

The divide between supporters of the Hedgecoth family and the board has only grown.

For most, the rift first became public in early August when the Henry County legislative delegation held a forum to discuss problems at Noah’s Ark. Dismissed employees shared their concerns about the direction of the facility, though neither Lakly nor any board members attended.

In the days that followed the bird flu outbreak, the waring factions spoke through Facebook or media statements, often arguing that the other side was responsible for the facility’s problems.

On Friday, Jama Hedgecoth filed a restraining order asking Henry County Superior Court Judge Holly Veal to prevent her removal and those of two others from being removed from the Noah’s Ark board. Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Stockbridge), who has supported the Hedgecoths, said he believes the board has acted in poor faith and that they need more oversight. It was not clear whether the judge would halt any firings.

“(The board) is getting ready to fire people in a Zoom meeting tomorrow,” Jones alleged on Thursday. “We will seek injunctive relief in the courts tomorrow.”

In an email Friday, the board said it voted to remove Hedgecoth, Jack A. Daniels and Rita Whitehead.

“Unfortunately, former employees and board members have initiated lawsuits that will further hamstring the volunteer board’s ability to focus on its mission to provide long-term care of Noah’s Ark animals,” the board said. “We on the board remain committed to securing the future of Noah’s Ark – as long as we are able to withstand the campaign of threats and violence that we are facing.”


Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary timeline

Aug. 17: Henry County leaders hold meeting to discuss personnel disputes at sanctuary, accusations that poor care of animals.

Aug. 19: Georgia Department of Agriculture tests tissue samples of black vultures that have died in a roost on the sanctuary. The tests come back positive.

Aug. 22: State leaders confirm outbreak. The vultures are blamed for infecting dozens of birds in sanctuary care.

Aug. 23: Sanctuary update on disease spread says some of the non-profit’s chickens and turkeys had to be euthanized, but not the popular parrots or other exotic birds.

Aug. 26: Leaders of sanctuary report several fowl have been euthanized, including peacocks, pea hens, emus, ostrich, Guinea fowl, an owl, crow and sandhill crane. Protestors gather outside the entrance to Noah’s Ark, calling for the resignation of President Michelle “Shelly” Lakly and better protections for the animals at the facility. The protests would pop up on other occasions at the facility as well as the Lakly’s home.

Aug. 29: Leaders says the facility will be closed for five months because of the bird flu outbreak.

Sept. 23: Jama Hedgecoth files restraining order with Henry County Superior Court over possible firings at site.