ATLANTA - Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary is known for saving wild animals, but Wednesday it went under the microscope.
In a packed meeting room, several Henry County and state lawmakers worked to get to the bottom of alleged problems at the sanctuary.
"I don't want to see this facility go away," said District 10 Sen. Emanuel Jones. "I don't want to see the purpose change in any kind of way."
Wednesday's hearing comes after talk online about Noah's Ark. One of the biggest concerns is the safety of the animals and people. That concern stems from allegations of a lack of trained staff to handle certain situations.
Another concern local lawmakers are looking at is whether the current board wants to close the popular animal sanctuary.
"That is what I feel that it is some sort of land grab. I don't know any of these board members that are on the board other than the fact that they are someway affiliated with development," said Chairwoman Carlotta Harrell from Henry County.
The lawmakers also invited the board of directors of Noah's Ark, but only one showed up.
Instead, they sent a statement Tuesday afternoon to the lawmakers that it would be inappropriate to air the issues in a public event.
"This is not a divisive meeting, it's not our goal to beat on anybody to say who's right, that's not our responsibility," Sen. Jones said.
While sanctuary founder Jama Hedgecoth worries about the direction of the non-profit, she is glad lawmakers have taken an interest.
"It's very encouraging to know the state and the county and everybody is behind Noah's Ark, but it's scary to see the road Noah's ark is going down," she said.
The lawmakers say this is just the start and they plan to hold more meetings to get to the bottom of what is happening.
Noah’s Ark sent FOX 5 the statement it emailed to the lawmakers:
"To Senator Emanuel Jones and Henry County Delegate Demetrius Douglas:
"We received your invitation for tomorrow’s gathering. In accordance with appropriate board governance, our Chairman does not plan to attend as invited.
"Unfortunately, there has been some wildly misleading information circulating about the mission, staff and board of Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary. The issue at hand is one of internal friction between a founder seeking more power within the governance restrictions of a non-profit structure. This and other personnel issues are inappropriate to air in a public event.
"We encourage you as leaders in our region to base opinions and support on clear understanding of the context.
"Starting in 2018, Noah’s Ark added independent, unpaid and experienced members to the board, creating a team with diverse corporate, financial, philanthropic and animal care experience. Since this new leadership began its work, we have led Noah’s Ark to regain our good standing with Georgia’s Secretary of State, substantially improved its financial status, improved the animals’ habitat facilities, and earned the highest possible rating from the leading accredited charity oversight organizations including Charity Navigator and Guidestar.
"Given this success, what might be most valuable to all parties involved is to finally ascertain this: What does the founder’s family mean by ‘save’ Noah's Ark?"
Statement of Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary Board of Directors & Staff leadership:
"Everyone involved with Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary is passionate about saving and protecting animals that are injured, abused or abandoned. We appreciate the amazing support of our community and remain steadfastly focused on that mission of a forever home for our animals.
"It’s important to understand that Noah’s Ark, like all 501c3 nonprofit organizations, is governed by an independent Board of Directors and professional leadership with accountability for the wellbeing of the organization, the mission and the responsible use of donors’ funds. This differs from the structure of a for-profit entity in which a founder/CEO has personal control over operational decisions and governance practices.
"Starting in 2018, Noah’s Ark added independent, unpaid, and experienced members to the board, creating a team with diverse corporate, financial, philanthropic, and animal care experience. Since this new leadership began its work, we have led Noah’s Ark to regain our good standing with Georgia’s Secretary of State and earned the highest possible rating from leading accredited charity oversight organizations including Charity Navigator and Guidestar.
"We encourage anyone to consider this context and research the previous legal history of all the parties involved as they encounter claims about Noah’s Ark.
"We will continue our mission-driven work while providing accurate information, and we will continue to update supporters with relevant and timely information. We welcome feedback, questions and ideas, and encourage input. Thank you for supporting Noah’s Ark’s forever home."
-- Board of Directors, Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary, 16 August 2022