What began as a peaceful autumn afternoon with their dogs turned into a stressful evening for a group of people at Shelby Farms Park last week.
A group of five friends and a separate group of three women were locked inside Shelby Farms' dog park last Thursday after a ranger failed to notice they were still in the park at closing time.
"We saw a ranger truck with flashing lights go by, and we started to round up the dogs and head back to the car. As we were getting close to the car, our dogs saw some other people's dogs and ran off," said park user Lauren, who asked that her last name not be used. "When we got the dogs together again, the ranger drove right past me. When I approached the gate, I realized he'd just locked it."
Lauren's car and five other vehicles — belonging to her friends and the other women — were locked inside the gate off Mullins Station Road. The park closes every evening at sundown, and daily closing times are posted inside the visitor's center and on the Shelby Farms website.
"The rangers drive around the park with a loudspeaker about 15 minutes before closing time," said Jen Andrews, a spokesperson for the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. "When they lock the gate, it's because they've gone around several times trying to get people out."
But Lauren said she never heard an announcement coming from the ranger's vehicle.
"We noticed a bulletin board by the parking lot, and it had a phone number posted for people to call the park office if they had any trouble. It went straight to voicemail," Lauren said. "There was also a number posted for the sheriff's office, so we tried that. The sheriff's office said they would try to contact the ranger."
The sheriff's department called the stranded park users about 20 minutes later to say that the ranger would not be able to come let them out. According to the sheriff's department, there have been six reports of people locked inside Shelby Farms in the past year. Most of those calls have involved only one vehicle.
"Sometimes people genuinely misunderstand [closing time at sundown], and they walk out farther than they intended to," Andrews said. "They might not make it back when they should. The reason we have the sundown rule is because we only want people in the park when we can make it safe."
Park officials are now considering adding hours-of-operation signs at all park entrances.
One of the trapped park visitors called a friend, and, after being locked inside for more than an hour, the group was freed when someone showed up with a pair of bolt cutters.
"I don't necessarily agree with [cutting the lock], but the gate was open so we left," Lauren said. "We were so disgusted that we're not going to patronize [Shelby Farms] anymore."