What a difference 15 years, some new owners and a new name can make.

Lilburn resident Becky Mueller said it had been about that long since she last brought her children to the Yellow River Game Ranch off U.S. Highway 78 in southern Gwinnett. Her memories of what the animal habitats were like back then were not the best.

“It was sad for the animals because they just looked like they were in a fence and ... it wasn’t well cared for,” Mueller said. “I just remember walking through the woods and it was like they just didn’t have things that the animals would need.”

On Thursday, Mueller and her husband, Cliff, visited the new Yellow River Wildlife Sanctuary, which has replaced the game ranch under new ownership at the same site. She had a different, more positive assessment of what she saw after passing a new wide open, natural bear habitat and spaces for new animals, such as spider monkeys and lemurs.

“It’s a total difference,” Mueller said. “You can tell it’s well maintained (and) they’ve built a whole lot of structures that benefit the animals.”

Thursday marked the opening day for the Yellow River Wildlife Sanctuary, which had been in development since Jonathan and Katie Ordway bought the former Yellow River Game Ranch site two years ago. The ranch had experienced a troubled past with issues concerning the treatment of animals — and it closed suddenly at the end of 2017.

The Ordways undertook extensive renovations to address issues at the site and to replace inadequate animal habitats. The bears, for example, were moved from a small concrete enclosure to a sprawling enclosed hillside exhibit with a shelter and a large pool with a waterfall.

“Originally, we were going to open eight months later (after buying the property), but then as it turned out water was a hose from the front, electrical was an extension cord from the front,” Katie Ordway said. “Before we closed on the property, we went from here down to Florida, looking at different zoos and sanctuaries, trying to come up with ‘OK could we do it? Could we make it?’

“But the idea that the bears going to be put down, it was like ‘OK, how do we make it so that never happens,’ and then (we) kind of built the place.”

Jonathan Ordway said it was “surreal” to reach an opening day for the sanctuary after spending two years working on it.

“I imagined it being open, but actually being here, having it open — I feel like I’m in a dream,” he said.

The couple said they want the sanctuary to provide education on animals and teach people to appreciate animals.

“And then a moment for children to make that connection with wildlife, with animals, so they become stewards for the environment and for wildlife in the future,” Jonathan Ordway said.

Throughout the remainder of May, the wildlife sanctuary is open Thursdays through Sundays for self-guided sneak peak tours where the number of people touring the grounds at any given time will be limited to help with social distancing. Anyone who wants to visit the sanctuary during the sneak peek period has to buy tickets in advance at yellowriverwildlifesanctuary.com.

Adult tickets cost $18, children ages 3 to 12 are admitted for $12 (kids 2 and under are free) and tickets for senior citizens and military personnel is $17.

The sanctuary has a largely different lineup of animals on display from the game ranch, although the ranch’s bears, bison, peacocks, pot-bellied pigs, turtles and deer remain.

Katie Ordway said the bears have responded favorably to their new habitat so far, doing things that bears in the wild typically do, such as rubbing their backs on trees. The bears have had some curiosity about their new habitat.

“One of them kept paws down (in the pool) and we started to think she’s never had water where she couldn’t feel the bottom so she kept putting her paw in further and further down,” she said.

Jonathan Ordway said another bear decided to feel at home on her own terms in the habitat.

“One of them decided she didn’t want to go back in (the night house shelter in the exhibit) and camped out overnight” on the hillside, he said. “We try to get them inside the night house, but she went up and started trying to make a den on the top of the hill, so that was kind of cute.”

Some of the new animal additions include spider moneys, ring-tail lemurs, red ruffed lemurs, kinkajous, owls, raccoons, goats, patagonian maras, walllabys, a serval, Eurasian lynx, coyotes, a miniature horse and alpacas.

The former bear enclosure is used to temporarily house the new animals, which each have to be quarantined upon arrival, when they arrive at the sanctuary. On Thursday, it was used to house a coyote whose actual habitat needs to be modified because he had proven himself capable of escaping it.

The new animals have come to sanctuary through different means. In some cases, Georgia Department of Natural Resources officials brought rescued animals there. In other cases, rescue groups brought them in or they came people who couldn’t care for them anymore.

“The serval that we have was walking loose in Buckhead and DNR got involved (and brought it to the sanctuary),” Katie Ordway said.

There is also a new attraction where visitors can buy bags filled with gems and sand and use water and a sifter to sort through the sand and find all of the gems.

Visitors who came to the sanctuary on its opening day gave it high praise.

“It’s very exciting to come back and see the new change that they’ve made,” said Snellville resident Camelia Moseley, who had visited the Yellow River Game Ranch once, about 11 years ago.

Moseley had been disappointed when the game ranch closed two and a half years ago because she had wanted to take her daughter, Aaliyah, and son, David, to see it. After a little bit of a wait, the kids did eventually get to see it this past week.

“I love it,” Aaliyah Moseley, 12, said. “All of the animals are so cute.”

Snellville resident Victoria Gunn also approved of the changes. Gunn had visited the game ranch as a child and brought her eight-month old daughter, Cora, to the sanctuary on Thursday.

“All of the animals seem more relaxed,” Gunn said.

The sanctuary is located at 4525 U.S. Highway 78 in Lilburn, and anyone who has questions about it can call 678-395-3453. The hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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