Gwinnett family re-opening Yellow River Game Ranch as animal sanctuary

Jonathan Ordway grew up a few miles from the Yellow River Game Ranch. When he and his wife Katy Ordway had kids, they visited every month.

When Katy noticed the number of animals at the ranch starting to dwindle, she thought she and her husband could take over.

“It was never ‘Should we?’ I said ‘How? How can we do it?’” Katy said.

Jonathan wrote a letter he planned to give to the then-owner, Cody Reeves. The next day, the Ordways found out the ranch was closing


PREVIOUSLY | Yellow River Game Ranch closes in Gwinnett

MORE | Gwinnett’s famous groundhog finds new home in time for Groundhog Day


While the only animals the Ordways had ever cared for were dogs, they bought the ranch, complete with bears, bison, peacocks and pigs. Now, they’re working to build better habitats for the animals and prepare to welcome visitors again in a few months with a new name: the Yellow River Wildlife Sanctuary.

Jonathan and Katy Ordway are re-opening the Yellow River Game Ranch as an animal sanctuary. It could be open as soon as February.
Photo: Amanda C. Coyne

The first priority is the bear habitat, Jonathan said. The four bears currently live in a metal enclosure with dirt and concrete floors. When Jonathan is done, they’ll live on more than two acres with a pond and waterfall.

“Their feet will never touch concrete again,” Jonathan said. 

The number of animals at the ranch peaked at more than 600 during the more than 50 years it was open. Now, there are only a few dozen; the Georgia Department of Natural Resources placed many of the animals classified as wildlife with other sanctuaries.

One of those animals was Gen. Beauregard Lee, a groundhog who was the centerpiece of the ranch’s annual Groundhog Day celebration. Beau was relocated to Dauset Trails in Jackson, where his holiday tradition lives on. The Ordways don’t expect Beau to return to the Yellow River Wildlife Sanctuary in the near future, but they would welcome him if the opportunity presented itself. 

“Right now, the focus is on getting everyone happy,” said Katy of the animals currently at the ranch.

The Yellow River Game Ranch had been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture multiple times for failing to properly care for its animals. It was cited in a July 2017 inspection for having a damaged feeding pipe in its bear enclosure and fox with a “thick yellowish discharge” in its eye. In 2016, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demanded the ranch release its animals to a “reputable sanctuary.”

Re-opening the ranch is not just a passion project for the Ordways, but an opportunity to teach their four young children how to give back to others. The kids are already comfortable on the 27-acre property; 4-year-old Ella Rose ran around with a peacock feather in her hair Monday afternoon as 8-year-old Liam and 6-year-old Jonny rode in a Gator utility vehicle with their dad and 1-year-old Ivey sat in her mom’s arms. 

Jonathan and Katy Ordway are letting their kids get their hands dirty as they prepare the Yellow River Wildlife Sanctuary to re-open.
Photo: Amanda C. Coyne

“This is our give-back to the kids and the animals,” Katy said. “As the kids get to see all this, they will learn that they can work to make the world better.”

The Ordways don’t expect the sanctuary to be ready for the public for another six months. You can keep up with their progress on their Facebook page.


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Gwinnett County Public School's Book Mobile and One 2 One Educational Support bring books and food to children at the Centre at Peachtree Corners apartments on Friday, July 20. Jenna Eason / Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com
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