When Col. Art Rilling started the Yellow River Game Ranch in the early 1960s, it was a bit of a head-scratcher for officials.

The ranch offered a home to injured or neglected animals, including some wild game animals that couldn’t be released into the wild. It also let the public come in and interact with the animals in a petting zoo format — if the petting zoo included everything from goats, sheep and turkeys to deer and buffalo.

It was something of a new concept for officials, according to Rilling.

“We started in 1962 and there wasn’t anything like this,” he said. “The insurance companies, the state agencies, everybody didn’t know what to do with us because they didn’t have a pattern of what they had to do last time, so they figured out the worst scenario and said ‘OK, here is what you have to do.’

“Over the years, they’ve let up on that kind of thing and found out deer won’t eat you up and the buffalo weren’t going to bother you.”

That history with the ranch made talking about the fact it has closed for good difficult for Rilling, who sold it to longtime employees in 2013. He found out about the closing from the owners last week, but word didn’t begin getting out to the public until Wednesday.

His eyes watered, and his voice occasionally trembled as he talked about the end of the ranch.

“This was just woods when we started so, as you can imagine, we’ve got a lot of memories here,” he said. “It’s just a disappointment, but circumstances are what they are.”

The ranch’s website is down, its Facebook page redirects visitors to a generic Facebook page that appears to not be run by the ranch and, perhaps most telling, a sign on the door Wednesday said “Closed. Sorry For Any Inconvenience.”

Over the years, it gained notoriety because of a groundhog named Gen. Beauregard Lee, who became a Southern Groundhog Day rival to Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil.

In 2012, the ranch celebrated its 50th anniversary. It housed about 600 animals on the 25-acre property at the time. While the ranch has been a popular family destination for decades, it hasn’t been without its share of negative press in recent years.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report from nearly two years ago cited several concerns, including animals that appeared unable to stand on their own, other animals that appeared to be so thin that the outline of hip and spine bones could be seen, and some animals that had trouble walking. The USDA required the animals to be checked by a veterinarian.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for the ranch to be closed about five years ago. (STORY)

If groups like PETA are cheering for the ranch’s closing, Rilling said his initial response to them wouldn’t be printable.

“You wouldn’t want to hear it,” he said.

He then said the ranch’s purpose was to help the animals that were housed there.

“(Animals rights advocates) think you’re exploiting the animals putting them up there like this and not letting them run free and so on,” Rilling said. “The fact that the animal is not capable of making it in the real world because he was hurt, or somebody caught it and tried to make a pet out of him and it didn’t work” is not considered.

Rilling said there was one case involving a squirrel that someone had somewhat domesticated before it ended up at the ranch.

“We had one that someone brought out — normally we just turn them loose — but this one thought he was half people,” he said. “You’re walking down the trail and a squirrel comes and jumps on your shoulder, well obviously that’s not something you’re expecting. So you either swat at the squirrel or look for help.

“We had to take him further out in the woods where he wasn’t close to people.”

It was not immediately clear Wednesday how many animals were still at the ranch. Robinson said they had both wild and domestic animals. The wild animals would have had to be reported to the state, but the domestic animals, including farmyard animals, would not.

There were no immediate replies to calls to the ranch or to an email sent to its information email address Wednesday.

“We’ll work with them to help facilitate (the animal relocation) process,” Georgia Department of Natural Resources spokesman Wes Robinson said.

Robinson told the Daily Post the ranch’s permits were in good standing.

One question many local residents may have is what this will mean for the annual Groundhog Day celebration featuring Gen. Beauregard Lee that was held each year the ranch. Rilling was not sure what would happen to the famous groundhog, which has appeared on Animal Planet in the past.

“If they don’t have something planned for him, we have some property,” Rilling said. “It’s just rural property, and I’d put him on there and just let him be a groundhog. Just let him live out his life being a groundhog. They may have some other plans for him with the notoriety that he has.”

If the furry general does go to live with Rilling, it could mean he’s retired from the weather prediction business.

“That’s been out of my hands for three or four years and I’m not going to put it back on that I know of,” Rilling said.

Return to www.gwinnettdailypost.com for updates.

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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