'This was torture': Memphis dog set on fire receives support from around the world

·5 min read

Despite being wrapped nearly head-to-toe in bright, colorful bandages, Riona enters the room with her tail wagging. She warms quickly to strangers, licking hands and nuzzling her face into legs, revealing the sweet puppy underneath the blistered skin and singed fur.

On June 22, residents of the Nutbush area saw Riona, a 1-year-old pitbull mix, running down the street engulfed in flames. They rushed to put out the fire, and she was taken to Memphis Animal Services, where Tails of Hope Dog Rescue took on her case. She was then transferred to a veterinary clinic for treatment.

"All you could smell was gas," said Mallory Mclemore, the manager at Bluff City Veterinary Specialists, where Riona is being treated.

Riona, a 1-year-old dog, is recovering from her injuries at Bluff City Veterinary Specialists on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, after she was strangled, doused in fuel and set on fire. Nonprofit Tails of Hope Dog Rescue is raising money through a social media campaign to pay for her treatment.
Riona, a 1-year-old dog, is recovering from her injuries at Bluff City Veterinary Specialists on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, after she was strangled, doused in fuel and set on fire. Nonprofit Tails of Hope Dog Rescue is raising money through a social media campaign to pay for her treatment.

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Mclemore said it took them two hours to shave and bathe Riona and clean her wounds. They determined she was doused with gasoline beforehand and suffered from fourth degree burns on the left side of her face and body. They also found signs of her being restrained with a cord around her neck.

Mclemore, who is fostering Riona, took her home over the weekend to give her 'round-the-clock love and care.

"She's just always wagging her tail," Mclemore said. “That’s what makes it even worse, I guess. Not that it would ever be OK, but just being so sweet and for somebody to do something like this to her. She just loves everybody.”

The Tails of Hope Facebook page has shared Riona's recovery, garnering hundreds of comments, likes and shares on each post from individuals as far away as Canada and Scotland. The organization is raising funds for her care through T-shirt sales and donations on Facebook, as well as offering a reward of $5,500 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for her injuries.

Riona, a 1-year-old dog, is recovering from her injuries at Bluff City Veterinary Specialists on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, after she was strangled, doused in fuel and set on fire. Nonprofit Tails of Hope Dog Rescue is raising money through a social media campaign to pay for her treatment.
Riona, a 1-year-old dog, is recovering from her injuries at Bluff City Veterinary Specialists on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, after she was strangled, doused in fuel and set on fire. Nonprofit Tails of Hope Dog Rescue is raising money through a social media campaign to pay for her treatment.

The pet supply store Hollywood Feed got involved too. This Friday, Saturday and Sunday, donations made at all 11 of their Memphis locations will go toward Tails of Hope and Riona's medical costs, and Hollywood Feed will match those donations up to $5,000.

The clinic is accepting direct donations of supplies as well through an Amazon wishlist compiled by Mclemore.

“There’s a whole room next to us that’s almost completely full with bandages and things that people have donated,” said Cory Fisher, the small animal veterinary surgeon at the clinic.

Fisher tended to Riona's wounds when she first arrived and said that, although she showed signs of trauma, she otherwise seemed to be in "great spirits."

Rescue dog Riona was treated for her severe burns after arriving at Bluff City Veterinary Specialists.
Rescue dog Riona was treated for her severe burns after arriving at Bluff City Veterinary Specialists.

The staff said for the first two to three weeks of her treatment, they will monitor her condition and give her supportive care by administering medication and refreshing her bandages. Then, once the wounds have had some time to heal on their own, they will assess where she needs surgical skin grafts.

Fisher said that, in these extreme cases, they often receive comments on social media telling them to euthanize the animals instead of prolonging their pain. However, Fisher and Bluff City Veterinary Specialists have past experience dealing with severe cases like Riona's. In 2018 the clinic completely rehabilitated another of Tails of Hope's rescued dogs, Apple, who had suffered four broken legs and a broken pelvis.

"Apple's a great example of that," he said. "If they have the money, these rescues can give them a normal life."

Ginger Natoli, Tails of Hope founder, hopes to do just that. Her rescue is a preferred placement partner of Memphis Animal Services, usually taking on medical cases of animals that are injured and need treatment before they can be adopted.

“When my husband and I started Tails of Hope back in 2010," Natoli said. "you’ve got to decide which dogs you pull out of the shelter. It’s easier said than done.”

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Natoli worked with other rescue operations before, but she said she felt uneasy about some of their practices. She decided to open her own rescue, where she could make sure all her cases were treated and healed properly before being put up for adoption.

Now, through Tails of Hope, she said she can take care of her rescues "from beginning to end." In Riona's case, this includes aiding in catching her abuser.

“The problem is, someone that did this, they’re dangerous,” she said.  “Being a rescue, we see abuse, we see neglect. This was torture.”

As of June 30, Memphis police have made no arrests in connection with the case. Natoli hopes offering a reward will prompt someone to come forward and lead to the arrest of the perpetrator.

Mallory Mclemore pets Riona, a 1-year-old dog, as Riona continues to recover from her injuries at Bluff City Veterinary Specialists on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, after she was strangled, doused in fuel and set on fire. Nonprofit Tails of Hope Dog Rescue is raising money through a social media campaign to pay for her treatment.
Mallory Mclemore pets Riona, a 1-year-old dog, as Riona continues to recover from her injuries at Bluff City Veterinary Specialists on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, after she was strangled, doused in fuel and set on fire. Nonprofit Tails of Hope Dog Rescue is raising money through a social media campaign to pay for her treatment.

For now, she is putting her energy toward Riona's recovery. Although the clinic staff suspect it will be another two to three months before she makes a full recovery, once Riona has been given the all-clear, Natoli and Tails of Hope will handle her fostering and adoption, a lengthy and intense process.

“There’ll be a lot of applications for her," said her current foster mom, Mclemore. "But they definitely want to make sure that she goes somewhere that nothing like this will ever happen to her again.”

Niki Scheinberg is a news intern at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at monika.scheinberg@commercialappeal.com.

Report a tip

If you have any information on who is responsible for what happened to Riona, you can private message the Tails of Hope Dog Rescue Facebook page or leave an anonymous tip on CrimeStoppers at crimestopmem.org.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis dog set on fire: Donations raised for care, reward offered