Want a happy ending?
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Here’s one: a dog’s wagging tail.
Here’s another, and not unrelated: Riona, the pit bull mix who became an international celebri-dog after the tale of her torture and rescue was publicized on social media, on Tuesday found a “forever home.”
Riona’s initially heartbreaking saga came to a heartwarming conclusion at about 11 a.m., when the 2-year-old, 38-pound dog was united for the first time with her adoptive family, which includes a mom, a dad, four kids and what Ginger Natoli called “two doggie sisters.”
“Our goal was to get her a forever home, and that’s exactly what we found,” said Natoli, co-founder (with her husband, Rob) of Tails of Hope, a Memphis-based nonprofit organization that provides foster care and, ultimately, homes for rescued dogs.
“Riona has other dogs to play with, she has children to play with, she’s got a big yard to play in, she’s got a family that has experience in the medical field and an understanding of what her injuries were.”
The location of Riona’s new home and the identity of her new family are not being revealed, for what Natoli called “security reasons, just to be on the safe side.” But the home is about a 10-hour drive from Memphis, she said, meaning that Riona met her new family at the end of a two-day road trip with Ginger and Rob.
With a supermodel’s worth of suitcases filled with donated doggie items in tow, Riona arrived to a hero’s welcome. The kids had made “Welcome” signs for her, adorned with hand-drawn Valentine’s hearts and paw prints, and the other pooches treated her like long-lost kin, Natoli said. “It was like she’d known them forever.”
The current happy ending to Riona’s story came a year to the week after Riona first made the news near the end of June 2022, when residents of the Nutbush community saw the dog running down the street, engulfed in flames.
Someone “poured diesel fuel on her, and set it on fire,” Natoli said.
Quishon Brown, the dog’s former owner, faces three counts of aggravated cruelty to animals and one count of setting fire to personal property or land. He posted bail in early June and will next be in court on July 18.
“Sixty percent of her body had fourth-degree burns,” Natoli said. “She lost her left ear because it was basically burned off.”
The dog was taken to Memphis Animal Services, then Tails of Hope Dog Rescue took on the case. Mallory Mclemore, the manager at Bluff City Veterinary Specialists, where the dog was treated, became Riona’s foster caregiver.
At first, “It was a 24/7 job that required ’round the clock medical care,” Natoli said. Her wounds had to be cleaned and her bandages had to be changed repeatedly.”
The Commercial Appeal’s Niki Scheinberg reported after a July meeting with the dog: “She warms quickly to strangers, licking hands and nuzzling her face into legs, revealing the sweet puppy underneath the blistered skin and singed fur.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Cory Fisher of Bluff City Veterinary provided some $92,000 worth of care, including surgeries.
Riona’s plight was reported on the Tails of Hope Facebook page and on a TikTok page created by Mclemore that amassed close to 500,000 followers. The story was picked up by social media and news outlets across the globe, and worthy families from all over contacted Tails of Hope to ask about adopting Riona, who is now “completely healed,” Natoli said.
“She went worldwide on TikTok and Instagram,” Natoli said. “A lot of people applied for her, a lot of really good people. We heard from Germany, Sweden, England.”
ANIMAL STORIES:‘That was his dog’: Memphis family reunited with dog 6 years after she was stolen
But in the world of dog rescue, one happy ending invariably is followed by a troubling new chapter.
Given her new moniker by Natoli, Riona — pronounced Ree-Oh-Nuh — is a name of Irish origin that means “queenly.” About the time Riona was getting ready to leave Memphis, a new and also burned pit bull mix was enterting the care of Tails of Hope. Dubbed King Gideon, this dog — rescued from the Jackson, Mississippi, area — suffers from dog bites and severe chemical burns on his back. He’ll soon need a home, too. Said Natoli: “Riona left, and Gideon came in.”