Fans of the famous combo BLT — that stands for “bear, lion and tiger” — can rest easy.
Nobody plans to split up these childhood friends.
It’s an unlikely alliance. Baloo, an 800-pound North American black bear, Leo, a 400-pound (slightly portly) male lion, and the sleek 360-pound Bengal tiger named Shere Khan have been together since they were cubs, confiscated from an Atlanta drug dealer’s house.
At Noah’s Ark, the 250-acre wildlife sanctuary in Locust Grove, about 40 miles south of downtown Atlanta, the predators have a roomy enclosure, with a grassy yard surrounding a tin-roofed “clubhouse” where they can get some shade and catch some Z’s. Odd as it may seem, the trio has coexisted in harmony for 13 years. When Baloo had to be temporarily removed from the group for surgery, the other two pouted until he came back.
But a new ruling by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, requiring almost a half-million dollars in higher fences around the enclosures, threatened to break up the gang, requiring some to be moved to smaller spaces.
Last month, friends of Noah’s Ark sprang into action, raising $362,000 through the crowd-funding site Crowdrise and with the help of Facebook and other sources. Because they got a deal on the fencing, the breakup was avoided. “We have the funds to put the fence up, and a little bit more,” said Curt Jarrett, who handles the nonprofit’s finances.
In fact, the fence predicament will have a positive effect, Jarrett said. “It looks like it’s going to be a big growth year for us.”
The question for the sanctuary is, which way should it grow?
Noah’s Ark was founded by Jama Hedgecoth and her husband, Charles “Pop” Hedgecoth, in 1978 on a farm in Ellenwood. They moved to much bigger pastures in Locust Grove in 1990. Noah’s Ark now shelters a remarkable menagerie of 1,500 exotic (and some not-so-exotic) animals, an assembly that consumes $35,000 in groceries every month, and operates under a $2 million budget each year.
The creatures include wolves, llamas, tigers, bears, monkeys, lemurs and many families of ducks, peacocks and chickens, strutting around with their children behind them like fuzzy railroad trains. Open to the public and free of charge, the sanctuary is supported completely by charitable donations.
Every creature has a story. “She was separated from her mother during a tornado in North Georgia,” said Kandi Allen, indicating a smallish black bear named Little Anne sharing space with a Bengal tiger named Doc. The two have also been together since they were cubs, and are often extremely affectionate.
“Doc will lie down and Little Anne will crawl up on top of him and suckle on his ears,” said Allen, who drives visitors around in a golf cart as part of her duties managing public relations for the refuge.
“If you hear purring, that’s the bear,” she said.
She shows off wolves named Thunder and Lightning that were seized at the Atlanta airport by Department of Natural Resources officials; an 18-year-old cougar named Susan taken from a pet store owner in North Carolina after numerous violations; a capuchin monkey that had been trained as a pickpocket; and emus that an emu “farmer” got tired of tending, among others.
All have been adopted by Noah’s Ark, where the mission is to give unwanted, neglected or abused animals a home for the rest of their natural lives. Visitor hours at the refuge are noon to 3 p.m., which gives the animals plenty of downtime. There is no charge to visit.
Noah’s Ark is well-known to the state’s wildlife resource officers as a haven when it comes to finding a place for a lion taken from a roadside zoo or an African gray parrot whose elderly owner has moved into a facility that doesn’t allow birds.
There is also a population of horses roaming the grassy grounds, including some wild mustangs that wore out their welcome in other herds. Jama Hedgecoth has a wish list that includes creating an equine facility that would offer riding lessons to special-needs children.
She has the ear of well-connected donors, and a crew of 250 loyal volunteers, including retired air traffic controller Rhonda Duffy. After 29 years keeping planes from colliding, Duffy is delighted to be in this low-key, Edenic scene. “It’s the diametric opposite,” she said. “There is serenity there.”
Noah’s Ark is at 712 L.G. Griffin Road, Locust Grove. The animal habitats are open noon-3 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, except on major holidays and during inclement weather. The welcome center, picnic area and office are open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Information: 770-957-0888, www.noahs-ark.org/.