Noah’s Ark leaders to be tried in February on animal cruelty charges

Editor’s note: Audrey Hill, director of development at Noah’s Ark Animals Sanctuary, has been charged by the Henry County Solicitor General’s Office with reckless conduct related to a May primate attack at the facility. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution story on Wednesday incorrectly stated the charges filed against her. This story has been updated to reflect the correct information.

Leaders of a Henry County animal sanctuary will go on trial in February on charges of animal cruelty, furnishing unsanitary living conditions and failure to provide veterinary care in the operation.

Attorneys for the Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary, where dozens of birds were euthanized after a bird flu outbreak among hundreds of vultures, waived an appearance Monday in Henry County State Court that involves accusations that leadership failed to provide care for animals in their charge or were cruel in feeding, a court administrator said.

Instead, the attorneys are seeking a jury trial in the matter, which has been set for Feb. 13, the administrator said.

Henry County’s Solicitor General’s Office filed the charges earlier this year against Noah’s Arc President Michelle “Shelly” Lakly, Vice President Jay Allen and employee Alicia Bozeman.

In May, a court summons accused Noah’s Ark of failure in the care, lodging and feeding of several animals, including horses, a donkey and a mule. In an email on Friday, Noah’s Ark said its employees are innocent of the charges and that the sanctuary would vigorously defend itself.

“There is a procedural hearing with the courts on Monday regarding the animal cruelty charges,” Noah’s Ark wrote in a statement, adding that its attorneys would file a not guilty plea with the courts. “We deny all allegations of any slanderous charges and will fight them to the full extent of the law. We will not be distracted from our mission by frivolous and inaccurate accusations.”

The legal action comes as Noah’s Ark opened its doors to the general public for a one-day only visit on Friday. It was the first such opening since the lifting of a state-mandated five-month quarantine after vultures started dying on the property in August 2022, forcing the shutdown. The facility has had some visitors throughout this year, but that consisted of small, private groups.

The outbreak of the bird flu forced the attraction to euthanize close to 150 peacocks, emus, ducks, chickens and ostriches to stop the spread of the virus. None of the site’s popular parrots were euthanized, Noah’s Ark leaders said.

The incident also brought with it increased scrutiny on the way Noah’s Ark animals have been housed, what they are fed and the healthcare they receive. Those concerns were heightened after the sanctuary parted ways with its founder Jama Hedgecoth and staffers who trusted her guidance.

Outreach for Animals and former Noah’s Ark veterinarian Dr. Karen Thomas in June filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Atlanta accusing the sanctuary of violating the federal Endangered Species Act by failing to adequately feed, house and care for around 60 animals — including tigers, macaws, cockatoos, a lion, a bear, a Lar gibbon and two spider monkeys.

The lawsuit claimed inadequate veterinary care was causing the animals pain, hunger and sometimes death.

“Defendants are depriving ESA-protected species of adequate veterinary care, forcing them to eat contaminated food, and depriving them of safe and sanitary living,” Thomas and the group allege in the lawsuit.

Noah’s Ark leaders have denied the allegations.

“This latest threatened lawsuit is part of your clients’ collective and ongoing strategy of scorched earth litigation to gain control — for their personal financial benefit — of a nonprofit organization that exists to care for the animals, not to benefit a specific human family,” Noah’s Ark officials said.