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Cheif among us

Chapel Hill’s Shane Petty is hands-on as top ranger in the Tennessee State Parks system
By Mark E. Johnson 12/27/2011


Tennessee State Parks Chief Ranger Shane Petty, here with his 2-year-old bloodhound, Copper, is based out of Henry Horton State Park in Chapel Hill. Shane encountered his first park ranger when he was a 12-year-old on vacation at Henry Horton in 1978 and now is responsible for training rangers, mounted patrol horses, and bloodhounds at the Middle Tennessee park.
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When 12-year-old Shane Petty met a mounted park ranger outside the Henry Horton State Park Hotel on a sweltering summer day in 1978, the course of his life was decided.

By golly, he was going to be a mounted park ranger when he grew up, period. He even told his mama so.

Little did he know that his spur-of-the-moment goal would eclipse his wildest expectations, that park “rangering” would be the only job he would ever have (to date, at least), and that he would, in fact, become the chief ranger of the entire Tennessee State Parks system.

“It’s kind of amazing, really,” says Shane, seated inside the restaurant of the same park — Henry Horton — where he made his adolescent declaration. “I’ve really been able to follow a dream and do exactly what I wanted to do. It all kind of fell into place.”

As chief ranger for the past 14 years, Shane, a devoted customer of Marshall Farmers Cooperative’s Chapel Hill store, has several responsibilities, any one of which would likely intimidate most people. Though based at Henry Horton, he is in charge of safety and security for all of Tennessee’s 53 state parks. He handles the training for all rangers as commissioned law enforcement officers. As emergency services coordinator, he supervises search-and-rescue missions using horse-mounted patrols and/or bloodhounds and directs the response to flooding, forest fires, and deaths on park property. He even helps area law enforcement agencies track down “bad guys.”

“The job encompasses a lot more than most people would imagine when they think ‘park ranger,’” says Shane, who graduated No. 1 in his class from the Tennessee Law Enforcement Academy in 1989. “That’s part of why I love it so much. No two days are the same.”

In addition to his vast administrative duties, animals are a major component of Shane’s work, and he developed his skill working with them on his grandparents’ nearby dairy farm as a kid growing up in Columbia.

“I was raised around cows and enjoyed working on that farm,” he says. “My grandfather had a horse — I spent many hours riding all over the property — and he also had several beagles. Before I was old enough to carry a gun, they’d let me turn the dogs out and run rabbits. I’d just run with the dogs! I think I probably covered the whole north side of Maury County with those beagles.”

He continued to develop his skills with dogs and horses throughout high school and college — first at Columbia State Community College and later at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro where he earned a degree in park and recreation administration with a minor in agriculture. Even now, as the top administrator within Tennessee’s parks system, Shane’s first responsibility every morning is to care for his animals.

“Before I start working in the office and doing paperwork, I feed the horses and the dogs,” he says. “In fact, I get a lot of physical exercise just by cleaning out stalls. It always makes me laugh when people come up to me and my horse at an event and say, ‘You must have a real good person who takes care of this horse!’ I always respond, ‘You’re looking at him!’”

In a roundabout way, Shane even has a reputation as a cattle expert, too. In 2004, he made national news when he apprehended a double-murder suspect in Columbia after tracking him for several exhausting days through dense Maury County woods with one of the bloodhounds he had at that time.

“That day, my dog was working good, and I was seeing footprints in the mud, so I knew I was on him,” recalls the ranger. “I came around a logging road and saw five or six cows in a field, and they were blowing and snorting and looking right up into some bushes, so I knew he was there. I’d been around cows long enough to know that they should’ve been looking at me, so I moved in and made the arrest. It all worked out well, but the headline of a story that came out in the local paper was something like, ‘Cows capture murder suspect,’ and it was picked up all over the country, even in the National Enquirer. Those cows ended up with a bunch of credit that should’ve gone to the dog!”

Shane’s horses tend to garner more attention than most as well, but for legitimate reasons. His current patrol horse is Dodge Hemi, a 4-year-old Tennessee walking horse that Shane not only uses for search-and-rescue operations but also rides at public and park events that require crowd control, security, or ceremonial activities like flag presentations.

“Most of our patrol are Tennessee walkers,” he says. “Not only are they associated closely with our state, which is good PR, but their demeanor is fantastic. When I go to a big event, I might encounter 500,000 people over a weekend, and many are going to be attracted to that horse. They’re going to come pet it, ask how old it is, and so on. There’s also likely to be golf carts, airplanes, and helicopters around and just a lot of commotion, so the horse has got to be able to handle all of that.”

Plus, says Shane, the horse must be ready to work — hard — at a moment’s notice.

“Several times, I’ve been working an event when we receive a call that a child has gone missing or someone has fallen off a bluff or something,” he says. “I may have to take off and ride in rough terrain for 10 straight hours. My horse is big and tall and can cover a lot of ground. We can get into places where even a four-wheeler can’t go.”

When the situation requires it, Shane’s 2-year-old bloodhound, Copper, is pressed into action. In both cases, a high level of fitness and health of the animal is crucial.

“I’ve probably got 2,000 hours of training invested in Copper, and there is no activity more strenuous for a dog than to be tracking across difficult terrain for eight or 10 hours at a time,” he explains.  “It’s rough on me, but it’s really rough on the dog. As you can imagine, I’m very careful about what I feed her.”

For several years, Shane has fed Co-op Action Ration Performance (#9000612) exclusively to Copper and other bloodhounds he’s used in his ranger duties.

“These dogs require a high energy output, and the protein and fat content is perfect for them,” he says. “Plus, many large canine breeds have issues with bloat, which can be fatal. Since I’ve fed Action Ration, I’ve never had a problem with bloat at all. The dogs love it, and it’s easy for them to digest.”

It’s also Co-op-feeds-only for Shane’s horses. Like the dog food, he purchases Co-op Sweet Horse Feed (#327) and crimped oats from the Co-op in Chapel Hill.

“I’m in the unique position of owning possibly the most photographed horse in the state of Tennessee due to our presence at major events,” says Shane. “It’s pretty neat to have so many people coming up to me and asking how I keep Hemi looking so good, and I attribute most of that to Co-op feeds. But then, I have to keep my horse ready to be called on a search-and-rescue mission at any time, so I have to be sure that nutrition is taken care of, and again, I rely on Co-op feeds.”

In fact, many of the mounted patrol horses across the state eat Co-op feeds, he says.

“I train all the horses in our mounted patrol here at Horton, and then I match them up with rangers elsewhere in the state,” he explains, noting that he’s fed Co-op horse feed for more than 20 years. “We feed Co-op feeds here, and, if possible, where they end up living. We know the quality will be consistent bag after bag.”

But Shane stresses that the relationship with his local Co-op extends well beyond feeds.

“I truly rely on our Co-op for practically everything,” he says with a laugh. “We’ve probably got three or four employees that go to Co-op nearly every day, whether for nuts and bolts, fencing, dog and horse dewormer, bug repellant, just whatever. But more importantly, Co-op has been instrumental in several emergency situations.”

He points to the April 7, 2006, tornado outbreak that devastated the Gallatin area as an example.

“I had to head up there to help with emergency response, and we desperately needed tarps,” he says. “I told [Chapel Hill store salesperson] Felicia [Hillard], ‘I need every tarp you’ve got and every one you can find between here and Gallatin,’ and she really came through. She will come down after hours and supply us with whatever we need in an emergency. I know I can count on her and the other folks who work there.”

He says the helpfulness of the Chapel Hill Co-op is typical of the tight community surrounding Henry Horton State Park.

“I’m so fortunate that I’ve been able to come back and work out of my home area, largely because of businesses and organizations like the Co-op,” he says. “And I’ve truly been blessed to be able to pursue this line of work for all these years. I can’t ask for much more!”

For more information about Co-op pet and equine products, visit with the professionals at your local Co-op.

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