Staff Photo: John Bohn Hiram Juarez, 3, of Lawrenceville, interacts with young goats at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn Thrusday. The Yellow River Game Ranch is celebrating it's 50th anniversary.
Yellow River Game Ranch 50th Anniversary
The Yellow River Game Ranch celebrated its 50th anniversary on Oct. 11, 2012 with a celebration.
LILBURN -- Beneath a tree canopy in the woods, a dozen birds move about inside a large cage. They coo at one another. Some strut in the red dirt, bobbing heads. Others flutter from corner to corner.
To the untrained eye, they look simply like a dozen white pigeons, a single stop on the one-mile nature trail at Yellow River Game Ranch. But to Art Rilling, the ranch's founder, they're so much more.
Sunlight and treelimbs stencil a pattern across Rilling's windbreaker as he gestures toward a specific bird. The pigeon has a green, plastic band around one leg.
"We called a pigeon ownership organization and gave them the number on the band, but they said they didn't have an owner that matched that number. So, I guess somebody has lost him or couldn't care for him anymore," Rilling said. "That's why he's here."
Such is the case for most fauna that occupy Yellow River Game Ranch. It's a haven for lost, abandoned or rescued animals, and that's the way it's been for 50 years.
Community leaders came together Thursday afternoon to recognize the business' milestone. County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash congratulated Rilling, gifting a commemorative plaque with a set of deer antlers adorning it.
"One of the distinctions that the Yellow River Game Ranch has is that it may have been our first tourism location," said Nash, speaking to a crowd of more than 100 at the wildlife sanctuary.
"In addition to that, it's always been a place where families could bring kids for an opportunity to see animals that they might not have a chance to see otherwise," Nash said.
Located within 24 acres of shaded woods, the ranch features every variety of bird you can imagine as well as black bears, goats, pigs, cows, mountain lions, bobcats, foxes and free-roaming squirrels that seem to think they're part of the attraction.
And last but not least, Gen. Beauregard Lee, "Georgia's Official Weather Prognosticator." Lee draws a crowd of hundreds looking to find out the seasonal forecast on Groundhog Day every February.
But Rilling said the groundhog's fame does not overshadow that of other current or past favorites at the game ranch. Like a black bear that used to live there named "Fuzzy" who enjoyed using both paws to sip from a cup. Or a beautiful mountain lion named "Caroline," Rilling's favorite.
His golf cart rolling to a stop Thursday on the game ranch's nature trail, Rilling eased out of the vehicle and ventured over to the giant cage. He made clicking sounds with his tongue, trying to coax the 300-pound cat from her hiding spot.
"She's beautiful," Rilling said. "She came to us from a family who owned her. She grew so big they couldn't care for her anymore, but she seems to be pretty happy here."
As Rilling climbed back into his golf cart, a large family made its way past Caroline's cage.
Terry Moorhead brought his son, Luke, 12, and his daughter, Tiffany Standridge, 26, as well as her children, who are 5, 3 and 2 years old.
"I've been coming here since I was a young man," Moorhead said. "My oldest daughter, Tiffany, I brought her here when she was her kids' age."
Standridge said she has fond memories of visiting as a child. "I remember going on field trips with Brookwood Elementary," she said. "I had so much fun here as a kid. It's kind of nostalgic, so I wanted to bring my kids here too, so they can enjoy it too and they can remember it when they grow older."
When Rilling was a young man, some scoffed at the idea "that people would actually pay money to see farm animals. In those days, a lot of people lived on a farm."
But changing times and the addition of native animals such as the bears, bobcats and cougars brought in nature enthusiasts and animal lovers alike and the game ranch gained much popularity. Having relocated in 1983 from its original location at Stone Mountain Park, the ranch now occupies a parcel of woods several hundred feet from U.S. Highway 78.
The mile-long nature trail located inside the Yellow River Game Ranch snakes around oaks and pines, hidden beneath a tree canopy. Every hundred or so feet, there are different exhibits with animals numbering more than 600. But one is likely to find Rilling stopped beside the cage with a dozen white pigeons. He likes the birds. Their soft cooing sounds and beautiful plumage are calming, he said.
On Thursday afternoon, Rilling held his gaze on one particular pigeon, its plumage running white over most of its body except for a set of colorful feathers around its neck, like a flamboyant scarf.
On its leg: a green, plastic band with a set of typed numbers.
"People say sometimes, if he's got a band on his leg, maybe his owner is out there. Maybe you should turn him loose."
Added Rilling: "We've tried that before, but he won't go anywhere."