Ridley Ranger

A small dog standing on a wooden dock over water.
Ridley Ranger, the first Turtle Dog.

NPS Photo


What happens when the expert staff of Padre Island National Seashore’s sea turtle program cannot find a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nest? They call in Ridley Ranger! Ridley Ranger was a Cairn terrier that had been trained to help find Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nests.


Light Tracks and Windy Days

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are the smallest of all sea turtles found in the Gulf of Mexico. They only weigh 80-100 pounds. They often come ashore to nest during very windy or stormy weather conditions. The winds and rain blow and wash away the turtle’s tracks and scent, making it harder for predators to find and eat her eggs. But it also makes it much harder for our staff to find and protect her nest.

Like crime scene investigators, our sea turtle program staff use clues left behind by the nesting turtle to find her nest. Broken vegetation, disturbed sand, and other signs can lead us to the nest buried deep under the sand. The tracks of the turtle are one of the best clues we have. But on very windy or rainy days, the tracks of the turtle can disappear in just a few minutes. If we cannot find the nest, it is left unprotected and often does not do well. Unprotected nests usually have lower hatch rates (if they hatch at all) and fewer hatchlings that survive.

Ridley Ranger
Ridley has helped find several nests since he joined the sea turtle program at Padre Island National Seashore.

NPS Photo.

Dog Detective

Dr. Shaver, Chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at the park, decided to train her dog, Ridley, to help find nests that were very difficult to find. After months of intensive training, Ridley joined the sea turtle team. Since then, he has demonstrated his dog detective skills more than once.

Early in his training, Ridley was put to the test. Biologists had spent hours searching for a Kemp’s ridley nest but were unable to find it. Weeks later, Dr. Shaver returned to the site with Ridley. He eagerly searched the beach and laid down on the exact spot where the nest was located!

On another occasion, staff and volunteers spent 5 hours searching an area of North Padre Island where beach patrollers had seen a turtle nest. Stumped, they called in Ridley. He found the nest in just a few minutes! Thanks to Ridley, 92 healthy hatchlings from that nest were released a couple of months later.

Ridley came to the rescue once more when another nest on North Padre Island could not be found. Staff and volunteers searched for 3 hours with no success. As the sun started to set and the beach cooled, Ridley was brought to the scene. He charged up the beach, stopped at one spot, and gently pawed the sand. Directly beneath, biologists found the nest of 76 eggs. Ridley’s nose knows!

Through the years he had found a few other nests and had helped confirm to us when nests were not present at some track sites where the female came ashore but failed to lay eggs. Fortunately, staff members have gotten so good at finding nests that Ridley was not needed very often. However, it was great to have Ridley’s nose and eager nest finding spirit as a back-up when our human detection efforts failed.


A Furry Celebrity

Ridley helped the Kemp’s ridley recovery project from time to time. His contributions to sea turtle conservation have been discussed in a variety of media. His success in finding and saving sea turtle nests has been featured in several books, including Dogs of Courage: The Heroism and Heart of Working Dogs Around the World by Lisa Rogak. Ridley has also been featured in articles/media by the Cairn Terrier Club of America, the Corpus Christi Caller Times, Bark Magazine, Dog Fancy, AKC Family Dog Magazine, and Texas Parks and Wildlife.


Ridley's Turtle Dogs

A small dog standing on a wooden dock over water.
Dr. Shaver and Ridley Ranger.

NPS Photo.

Ridley Ranger served as the official nest detection K-9 for the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery from 2005-2018. His passing in the spring of 2018 marked the end of a 13-year career in the National Park Service alongside his trainer Donna Shaver.

A female NPS ranger kneels in the sand next to a German Shepard dog.
Dr. Shaver and Dasha from K9s 4 Conservation.

NPS Photo.

A new generation of Turtle Dogs have been inspired by Ridley Ranger’s efforts. His legacy will continue through the contributions of other certified canines that seek and detect difficult nest sites at Padre Island National Seashore.

Dasha is a search and rescue dog from partner organization K9s 4 Conservation that has been working with the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery on nest detection in 2018.

A small brown dog on a leash behind a sea turtle crawling on the beach.
Kayleigh Sunshine and a Kemp's ridley sea turtle.

NPS Photo.

Kayleigh Sunshine followed in the paw prints of her older brother Ridley. Here is Kayleigh learning to sniff out turtle nests by following the nesting female’s scent trail. She started working with the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery in 2019 and had helped with Kemp’s ridley nest detection since the passing of Ridley Ranger. Kayleigh Sunshine passed away in the fall of 2020.

A small furry brown puppy being held in a person's hand.
Kempy, the newest Turtle Dog at Padre Island National Seashore.

NPS Photo.

Meet Kempy, the newest member of Ridley Ranger’s Turtle Dogs. Kempy is named after the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and other Cairn Terriers in Dr. Donna Shaver’s family that came before him. He has an exciting future ahead of him as a Turtle Dog!

Last updated: April 9, 2021

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 181300
Corpus Christi , TX 78480


361 949-8068
This is the primary phone number for the Malaquite Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore.

Contact Us

Stay Connected