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.
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.
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.