After She Was Doused in Gas and Set on Fire, This Dog's Road to Recovery Is Paved With Love
A sweet dog in Memphis, Tenn., whose lovey personality captured the internet's heart after a horrific attack last month has taken the first major steps in her recovery—all while love continues to pour in for her on TikTok and Facebook.
Thanks to all that support, her two champions, and some innovative surgery, Riona should be ready for adoption just months after she was set on fire.
On the evening of June 20, residents of the Nutbush community in Memphis were shocked to see a dog running down their street completely engulfed in flames. Good Samaritans immediately doused the dog in water from hoses and pools, but the damage was extensive: fourth-degree burns on over 60 percent of the little dog's body.
After initially being taken to Memphis Animal Services, the pup was then delivered to the caring hands of Tails of Hope Dog Rescue and their friends at Bluff City Veterinary Specialists. That's where Riona first met Tails of Hope founder Ginger Natoli and Bluff City veterinary technician Mallory McLemore, the two women who would spearhead the extensive recovery efforts.
The 1-year-old pit bull mix had been covered in gasoline before she caught fire.
"When I first saw a photo of her, I said, 'Oh, she's got some road rash. Yeah, we can help her,'" Natoli tells Daily Paws. "It wasn't until we saw her in person that we knew this was something more serious."
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Riona's Worldwide Support
With Riona in safe hands, a her rescuers undertook a two-pronged approach. Natoli began her own detective work, speaking with neighbors and witnesses to help pin down exactly what happened and assist the Memphis Police Department's investigation. McLemore and the staff at Bluff City began Riona's medical care: cleaning wounds, changing bandages with Riona under anesthesia, and feeding her by hand.
To help document the process and raise awareness of Riona's situation, McLemore also started a TikTok account for her, Justice4Riona.
"She started it just expecting to reach a few people, and all of a sudden that first video had 3 million views and we were all amazed," Natoli says.
That first video now has 6.4 million views on TikTok, and McLemore keeps the account's 115,000 followers updated with several posts a day.
The reaction to the videos has been overwhelming for the two women who have made Riona's care their priority. Not only have people flooded each post with comments and likes, but they've also sent the recovering pooch countless letters of support, donations, and a bevy of toys, blankets, and snacks via Amazon. A limited run of "Justice 4 Riona" T-shirts has sold over 2,000 units to help defray the costs of her care.
Every video of Riona taking a short walk outside or showing off her latest colorful bandages ignites a new wave of love and support on social media. For a small shelter like Tails of Hope, every single dollar donated or blanket bought or petition signed does a world of good, both physically and in morale.
Surgery—and Breast Implants—Help Her Heal
Now, nearly three weeks after Riona came into their lives, Natoli and McLemore have good news to report on both fronts of the doggo's story. On July 12, Memphis police arrested Quishon Brown, Riona's owner, on suspicion of setting the pup on fire.
As Brown had his bond hearing in front of a judge, Riona underwent an almost four-hour surgery (the first of many to come) to repair the damage to her skin. McLemore posted on TikTok that the surgery was a success. Rather than attempting skin grafts, Bluff City has opted for creating "flaps" of Riona's existing skin to cover the wounds.
"Using skin flaps gives us a better chance at healthy skin because everything stays attached and retains blood flow," McLemore says. "She'll have one on her neck, on her abdomen, and probably a spot on her leg that will need one as well."
To make sure there's enough skin to cover the affected areas, the healthy skin needs to be stretched. It calls for an unconventional approach.
"You're going to think I'm making it up, but I've been in contact with a local plastic surgeon," McLemore says. "We're going to take breast implants that we can fill with saline and put those under the skin. Then we can slowly fill them and the skin will stretch around that."
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Riona has a long road ahead, but her prognosis looks good. McLemore—who is also serving as Riona's foster mom—says she may wind up losing her entire left ear, but her left eye is healthy and functional. She has good mobility and high spirits but will need several more procedures to get all the skin flaps attached.
"The main issue with these procedures is that you kind of have to do one, then wait a couple weeks, then do the next one," she says.
Natoli says the total recovery time is expected to be about four months, though that can vary depending on infection or how Riona responds to individual treatments. In the meantime, everyone says the traumatic experience has done nothing to dampen the little dog's spirit.
"She's never met a stranger," Natoli says. "She loves everyone. She wags her tail so much, they had to bandage it to keep her from hurting it."
Once she's done with surgeries and her injuries heal, Riona will go up for adoption; a time Natoli expects to be highly anticipated thanks to all the exposure the little dog's story has received over the weeks. Natoli says the shelter will be extremely choosy when it comes to Riona's new home, but she will eventually leave Tails of Hope.
"Do we ever fall in love with the dogs we foster? Of course," she says. "But you can't keep them all. Because if you kept them all, eventually you couldn't save anymore."