Noah's Ark's famous "BLT" — Baloo the black bear, Leo the lion and Shere Khan the tiger. (Photo courtesy of Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary.)

By Hannah E. Jones

Have you had a dance party with parrots? Or watched a 300-lb lioness stalk her prey? That’s a regular day at Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary. A forever home for abused exotic animals, Noah’s Ark has been closed to the public for several months due to a turbulent past. However, the team’s eyes are set on the future with plans to reopen in the fall.

The 250-acre sanctuary is situated in the City of Locust Grove and is home to hundreds of exotic and farm animals who were abused and neglected. Take for example the famous trio nicknamed “BLT” — Baloo the black bear, Leo the lion and Shere Khan the tiger. The animals were brought to Noah’s Ark in 2001 after police officers discovered them in the basement of an Atlanta home during a drug raid. 

President Shelly Lakly. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

The three cubs were malnourished and infected with parasites, but were extremely bonded and lived out the rest of their days in a shared enclosure. Only Baloo is still alive, and the team recently celebrated his 22nd birthday with a bubble bath and a fruit cake — two of his favorites.

Noah’s Ark was opened as a nonprofit educational sanctuary in 1987 by Jama and Charles Hedgecoth. In November 2021, Michelle “Shelly” Lakly was hired as president with 25 years of experience in conservation leadership. Jama assumed a role on the board but at the end of last year, the board voted to remove her.

This was partially due to an incident that occurred earlier in the year. Members of the team were approached to rescue 21 wolf-dog hybrids from across the country and bring them to Noah’s Ark. Lakly determined that the sanctuary didn’t have the appropriate facilities to care for them and declined. “I said absolutely not, we’re not going to take those and that [decision] was fully supported by the board.”

However, as Lakly described it, some staffers left their posts without warning and drove cross-country to obtain the wolf-dogs. They returned a week later and hid the animals on a relatively unused section of the property. 

The animals then lived at Noah’s Ark from August to March and were eventually moved to a sanctuary better equipped to care for them. SaportaReport attempted to reach out to Jama but didn’t receive a response.

The sanctuary’s bad luck didn’t end there. Noah’s Ark was also hit by the avian flu that swept through North America last year. Staff had previously been dumping meat into open trash containers that attracted a large colony of vultures. When the birds began dropping dead, federal and state agencies came to tackle the outbreak. The sanctuary had to temporarily close its doors due to a state-mandated quarantine.

Officials ultimately had to euthanize over 100 birds at Noah’s Ark, including peacocks, emus, ostrich, Guinea fowl, chickens, turkeys and geese. Luckily, they were able to keep the disease from spreading to the exotic birds.

“We lost a lot of our really special animal friends. There were peacocks that met me at my car every morning… the emus, the ostrich — We were in tears for three weeks,” Director of Development Audrey Hill said. “We work here because we love animals.” 

Things continued to go downhill. Noah’s Ark has faced three lawsuits — two of which have since been dismissed. Lakly had to get a restraining order against a protester due to personal safety concerns. 

The issues have gone online, too. Since last August, the team hasn’t had access to their Facebook page which has 381,000 followers. A former employee has been using the page to post serious allegations against Lakly and the team, asserting that the animals are being mistreated. For now, Noah’s Ark is primarily communicating with their followers through their newsletter and new Facebook page called Baloo and Friends.

Despite the conflict, staff turnover and financial hardship, the Noah’s Ark team is dedicated to helping animals in need and are taking the necessary steps to reopen their doors. As part of that process, Lakly wants to invest in infrastructure, including repaving some of the crumbling walkways.

Stanley the squirrel monkey being moved to her outdoor enclosure. She has lived at Noah’s Ark since 2014. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

Lakly recently hired new caretakers and the team has a more focused, comprehensive approach to providing animal care. For example, every animal has a personalized nutrition plan based on their species, age and specific needs. Leadership has also instituted new operations, including an updated employee handbook and safety manual.

“It’s both hiring the right people and setting the culture, then enforcing the culture in a positive way,” Lakly said. “I only want to go to work at a place where I want to work and where the people that I work with feel supported, valued and cared for. Having this infrastructure in place to make sure that people are held to certain standards — personally and professionally — where we’re all informed, integrated and have trust.”

Previously, Noah’s Ark accepted a large slew of species. At one point, the sanctuary had around 200 hoofstock living together, despite that not being the best practice of care. Based on recommendations from outside experts, Lakly decided to rehome the majority of those animals. Moving forward, the team will follow a more specific vision for the types of animals it will care for.

“We’re uniquely qualified to take care of exotic animals that have nowhere else to go,” Lakly said. “We can care for tigers, lions and bears. I think that is our niche going forward.”

Ultimately, the team intends to provide a safe home for their animals while also creating a space for the community to spend time outside and learn about them. The team hopes to open its doors this fall, but an exact date has yet to be announced.

Hannah Jones is a Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for...

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  1. These people ran off the founder and have been under investigation by the government organizations. I imagine they are struggling financially. The real estate where this property is located is highly coveted for warehousing development due to its location near I 75 and a truck lane being developed. Don’t be surprised if the end up “not being sustainable” closing and selling the property to developers.

  2. Reading this article made me wonder how it was possible that employees who left without authorization for 1 week were able to return without any consequences. That is highly unusual in pretty much every work environment as far as I am aware. And the timelines mentioned indicate that more than one person was aware of not only their disappearance but also their return. And 21 wolf dogs unnoticed for 8 months? By all those people who love and care about all animals? I guess they just don’t have anyone who inspects the whole property so how safe are the animals they do know are there?
    Since the article didn’t mention anything about those renegade employees I assume actions were taken eventually. Perhaps they really do care about the animals. Caring about their staff is questionable to me because the turnover rate of workers isn’t ideal since the current boàrd took over. And reading about the history of Noah’s Ark, I don’t recall that to be an issue with the previous caretakers. I seriously doubt that any former employees would deliberately take actions to hurt any of the animals in their care. And seriously doubt the report of someone deliberately dumping meat into an OPEN container. And that puts another issue with this story in question. If it was noticed why wasn’t any action taken immediately? And the smell of rotten meat had to be noticed by whoever is feeding the animals or at least by the person or persons responsible for the disposal of the waste and trash containers.
    The news reports I’ve seen on television are disturbing to say the least. That’s why I have more doubts about the panel of people in charge. Their claim of only birds being euthanized due to the outbreak is highly questionable.
    Fact check about an employee who still is or maybe now was listed as a licensed veterinary assistant or something like that. Nonetheless an employee entrusted by the people in charge, who I don’t need to remind you again how much they love all the animals, that employee working in a professional position to take care of the animals and I have to ask why she adopted a pet from Noah’s Ark and later not just taking but abandoning that adopted animal to a shelter in another animal shelters in a different county!!! Sounds unbelievable, right? That shelter does seem to care about their animals and since was running out on finding someone to adopt that pet, and before having to put that poor animal down they went through the trouble to identify the owner by checking the implanted chip. This person was put in charge by the new management and placed into a position listed as a veterinary assistant or specialist and she doesn’t know that the pet she adopted didn’t have a chip which led right back to Noah’s Ark? Yep, it really shows your love for animals and I wonder if she was selected by the new people in charge, how really qualified are the ones being hired. And how qualified are the outside sources giving advice? I suggest that the board members reanalyze their strategy of hiring and keeping the right people who actually do know how to take care of the animals. Is the writer of this article aware of how many volunteers, including veterinarians, have quit or literally walked out since what this one group calls a takeover? And speaking of this group, what is said by them must have some merit. And instead of reporting just one sides story I think it would be only fair to hear the other side’s story too. I am more about seeing than hearing so I ask whoever reads this to Google Noah’s Ark. Then form your own opinion. Who is actually in charge? Looks to me that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. I’m just saying that because I am questioning almost everything written in this story. No offense to the writer but I don’t only think but believe that there is way more going on then what the people in charge want us to believe. The reports on television about Noah’s Ark from last year depict conditions and actions that make me question why there wasn’t an immediate response by animal control and every government agency. Those videos were live. Not stories, facts.

    1. @ J Hemperly: Amazing and extremely informative what you wrote. No offense to the writer, but THIS comment should’ve been the actual article itself. It truly broke my heart and was leary to read. Anytime a negative video pops up about animals, I never watch them or if I know it’s a positive outcome, I scroll to the end instead!
      Thank you for your thoughts and bringing to light. Love, a very, very, loving animal lover S. Winkler/Griffin GA

      1. Thank you for your support. I just read the letter from Senator Jones to the Attorney General. Any idea how I can get my message to either one of them?

  3. What animals are left to reopen to?? I mean, they destroyed or otherwise disposed of many animals, especially the hoofed animals, after killing all the birds…

    1. Thank you for your support. I just read the letter from Senator Jones to the Attorney General. Any idea how I can get my message to either one of them?

  4. Anyone that visited Noah’s Ark prior to 2019 knew all about Grandma, the huge python. This past Christmas 2022, and the extreme freezing temps we had for several days. Under this new management, Grandma and many more reptiles, FROZE to death due to their neglect. Yeah, they love animals alright. They love them to death!

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