Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan
Jennifer Balas and her daughter Jada, 1, of Loganville feed a cracker to a donkey at Yellow River Game Ranchin Lilburn on Thursday.
LILBURN -- Animal rights activists have challenged the permit for one of Gwinnett's most popular tourist attractions.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA, has asked the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to not renew the license for the Yellow River Game Ranch, the Lilburn animal park that is the home of the state's official weather prognosticator, groundhog General Beauregard Lee.
The organization said it has compiled evidence, including eyewitness accounts and photographs, showing abuse of the animals, and it has asked DNR to confiscate those animals. The game ranch's license expires Saturday.
"The law is clear, and -- if the DNR confirms our concerns -- so are the Yellow River Game Ranch's violations of it," PETA Fondation Director Delcianna Winders said in a press release. "The DNR cannot allow animals to suffer and die and must slam the door shut on a facility operated by an owner who has shown nothing but contempt for the welfare of animals and Georgia law."
Col. Art Rilling, the ranch's owner, said the accusations likely come from a disgruntled former worker. While he said some tragedies befall the animals, they are well cared for.
"They (the activists) have hated us for years. They've tried to shut us down. They have put spies on our payroll," Rilling said. "They think we're cruel because we let people pet the animals."
At the game ranch, located along U.S. Highway 78, people can get close enough to the animals that any incidences of abuse would have been reported by visitors, Rilling said, "not some third party three states away."
While PETA alleges animals were forced to live for weeks or months in their own excrement, Rilling said cages are cleaned daily.
Other accusations include a raccoon who was beaten to death with a hammer, a bear that was attacked by other bears and could not escape because of "an inadequately sized pen," and a deer that choked to death after being fed a plastic bag by a visitor.
Rilling said he had no knowledge of many of the accusations. He said deer deaths have occurred in the past, but the game ranch has taken steps to prevent that.
He also acknowledged the death of two bear cubs, but said those circumstances often occur in the wild, when a mother rejects its cubs or does not protect them from other animals.
"They make it sound like the animals really suffer," he said. "We work for that not to happen."
He added that the game ranch often gives new life to animals that had been kept as pets until they reach a certain size. They would be put down if the game ranch did not take them in. "That's the good side, and PETA don't like that because they don't like animals in captivity."
Information about the status of the game ranch's license was not immediately available from the state Wildlife Resources Division.