LILBURN, Ga. -
For many who grew up in metro Atlanta, a visit to the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn was always a treat.
But these days the iconic petting zoo has faced criticism not just from animal rights activists and government inspectors, but from those kids who are now adults and see the ranch in a much different light.
The Yellow River Game Ranch has been around for more than 50 years, moving from Stone Mountain Park in 1982 to its present location along Highway 78. If you haven't been there in a while, you may not recognize it today.
"Customers come up to me and tell me, what happened to this place?" said former employee Matt Chadwick.
The Yellow River Game Ranch markets itself as "a chance to meet wildlife on a close and personal basis." You can touch some of the animals... feed them. Learn about what makes them special to Georgia.
"We're not bad people," insisted owner Codi Reeves. "We're not trying to do bad things here."
But for years state and federal inspectors have responded to complaints Reeves' animals are neglected, starved, and even intentionally killed.
Complaints from people like former employee Chadwick.
"I was willing to be fired if need be," Chadwick stressed. "It didn't matter. I was going to speak up regardless."
According to his 2012 complaint to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Chadwick claimed ranch workers intentionally injured or killed the animals, often forgot to feed them, and had a deer choke to death on a bag fed by a customer.
Chadwick told us he worked there while on federal probation at the time for a drug conspiracy conviction. Ranch owner Reeves admitted some workers may have neglected the animals, but still called Chadwick a disgruntled employee.
"Help's hard to find these days," Reeves told us. But even four years later, Chadwick is still defiant.
"If seeing animals killed in a rusty facility and animals choked to death on plastic bags makes me a disgruntled, yes, I was very disgruntled," he agreed.
In his complaint to PETA and the DNR, Chadwick attached photos of dead or malnourished animals he said he found during his 18 months as a park employee. And he blamed lackadaisical employees and management too cheap to do anything more than the bare minimum.
"There's so much that goes behind the scenes in that environment, it's almost sickening," Chadwick remembered.
A DNR spokesperson said there's no record of any action taken by the state regarding Chadwick's complaint and could not explain why.
The ranch actually put part of the blame for its financial troubles on the state itself. The destination's biggest attraction used to be the dozens of deer allowed to wander among guests and their children. But five years ago DNR said that was wrong; such interaction could be dangerous to the deer and the public. The state required the ranch build a fence around the deer, treating them like any other animal in a zoo.
"A lot of people that came here years ago when the deer roamed freely and there were a lot more animals," Reeves explained. "If they come back now, they're disappointed."
State and federal inspectors still come back. A lot. In February of this year, the US Department of Agriculture found the ranch had corrected violations discovered in a January inspection.
But just two months later, the USDA cited the ranch again for seven more violations including sanitation, feeding and multiple examples of sharp edges in the fence line that could injure the animals.
So this month a FOX 5 family paid their own visit to the ranch. We spotted sharp edges, unclean pens and rocks piled up to keep the bobcat pen door from accidentally opening.
We also saw a coyote running in seemingly endless circles inside his small enclosure.
"Do you think it's psychologically healthy for this coyote to just keep going around and around and around? It's a small pen," I asked the ranch owner.
"I don't know," Reeves replied. "I'm not a coyote psychologist."
A bigger pen is planned, but no one knows when it will be ready.
"Do you just not have the money to fix it up?"
"Money and help," Reeves answered.
The problems haven't been limited to animals. Last year, a ranch visitor sued after failing to notice a crudely written warning sign on the unlocked door of the women's restroom.
"When she was walking to the door she was holding her child's hand, looking down at the child and she looked up, opened the door and fell through," attorney Jeff Jonap recounted.
Fell through the exposed floor still under construction. Attorney Jeff Jonap won an $11,000 settlement for his client even though he generally doesn't take cases that small.
"The reason I took this case on is because that was a place that I enjoyed going to as a child and I was shocked by the condition that I saw," Jonap explained. "And I wanted to try to send a message to them... to help them clean it up."
But even the owner admits this may be as good as it gets.
"How long can you keep this up?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said, searching for the right words. Then Reeves found them.
"It's no longer fun."