When the Yellow River Game Ranch opened its gates in the '60s, the Lilburn, Georgia, facility started as a home for injured or unwanted animals, some of which couldn't be released back into nature. The owner, Col. Art Rilling, eventually decided to turn the ranch into a petting zoo so people could feed and pet all sorts of creatures, reports The Gwinnett Daily Post.
The ranch's most famous resident became Gen. Beauregard Lee, a groundhog probably second only to Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil in weather prediction ability. The general earned media fame, especially in the South, and the ranch became a popular place for families who wanted to get up close and personal with deer, goats and even buffalo.
But the ranch abruptly locked its gates in December 2017, closing for business. No official reason was given for the shuttering, although the ranch has been the subject of negative reports in recent years. It has been cited several times by the U.S. Department of Agricultural for violations ranging from adequate veterinary care (sick or extremely thin animals) to feeding or housing issues. After a January 2016 inspection, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called on the ranch to release its animals to another facility. Rilling had sold it to long-time employees in 2013, reported the Post.
There were reportedly around 600 animals at the ranch when it closed, and concerned animal lovers are wondering where they would all go.
In mid-January, at least a few of them, including Gen.Lee and another groundhog, found a new home at Dauset Trails Nature Center in Jackson, Georgia. The center has 1,300 miles of woods, fields, creeks and lakes and houses live animals on exhibit (that are non releasable), as well as in the wild. Admission to the center is free.
Dauset Trails has announced that it will continue the annual Groundhog's Day tradition featuring Gen. Lee in his famous prognosticating role.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is working to help find homes for the remaining animals.
As far as Yellow River, there's a closed sign on the doors and the website is shut down. There's no word on what will become of the facility.
"This was just woods when we started so, as you can imagine, we’ve got a lot of memories here," Rilling told the Gwinnett Daily Post about the ranch's closing. "It’s just a disappointment, but circumstances are what they are."