When his beloved dog, Gunnar, was hit by a truck and left paralyzed, Jason Parker, from Osseo, Wisconsin, decided to fight for his canine’s life before inaugurating a non-profit organization in his name. Today, Jason provides wheelchairs for other injured animals in an effort to give them renewed joy and a new lease on life.
In an email interview with The Epoch Times, Jason shared his and Gunnar’s story.
The Tragic Accident
“Gunnar was hit by a truck in February of 2014 and left a paraplegic,” Jason began. “We took him to the University of Minnesota for emergency surgery, but there was too much damage to his spine for him to make a full recovery.”
Jason and his wife, Stephanie, were offered by the veterinarians who treated Gunnar to have the dog put to sleep, but he refused to give up hope. Jason, a volunteer firefighter, maxed out the couple’s credit cards paying for surgery, boarding, and months of physical therapy for Gunnar, but it was to no avail; the dog’s hind legs were irreparably damaged.
‘Giving for Gunnar’
The devastated dog owner then took to researching options to improve Gunnar’s quality of life and discovered canine wheelchairs, but by then the couple had exhausted their funds. However, an article in a newspaper saved the day.
“A local newspaper contacted me after hearing about Gunnar’s story, which I had chronicled on social media, and wanted to do a story on him to run in the Sunday paper,” Jason explained. “The title of the story was ‘Giving for Gunnar.’”
“Without my knowledge they had set up an account in Gunnar’s name where people could donate to his ongoing care,” he continued. The couple then purchased Gunnar’s first $600 wheelchair with the donations, and by spring of 2014, Gunnar had regained his mobility.
“People from all over the reading area sent cards, money, and well wishes to a dog that they had never met,” Jason recalled. “It restored my faith in humanity.”
‘Full of Joy’
Jason reflected that Gunnar’s life was “full of joy” even after his accident. “The first time we put him into the wheelchair, his eyes lit up,” Jason said. “I will never forget that look, or the way it made me feel seeing the life come back into his eyes.”
Jason and Stephanie then decided that the best way to express gratitude to the community that had donated its hard-earned money to help their dog was to pay it forward by doing the very same thing for other animals in need. “I wanted to pay it forward to folks that were in our position, and shelter and rescue animals that needed a mobility device,” Jason explained.
In August 2016, a pit mix stray named Hope, from Texas, became Jason’s first case. Hope had been hit by a vehicle and needed to get back on her feet, so Jason located a used wheelchair, purchased it, and shipped it to Hope’s caretakers. After a few months of rehabilitation, Hope was successfully adopted.
“Along with some great physical therapy,” said Jason, “she recovered and now runs freely without the need for the wheelchair.”
Soon after, a charity with a brand-new mission was born: Gunnar’s Wheels. “I wanted everyone involved to experience the same joy that Gunnar and I enjoyed while he was in his wheelchair,” Jason explained.
A Typical Day at Gunnar’s Wheels
On a typical day, Jason rises early to read messages received overnight from owners and rescues. Describing the charity as a “lifetime loaner program,” Jason then matches returned wheelchairs with potential recipients based on their breed, weight, and body measurements.
“It costs nothing for rescues and granted owners,” Jason explained. “All we ask is that the chair is returned to us when finished with use, whether the animal passes away or recovers, so we can match it up with the next animal in need.”
Jason asks each owner to affix a photo and brief biography of their dog to their wheelchair before returning it so that each dog is remembered and the “pay it forward” philosophy becomes more tangible. “I believe it helps with the grieving process for the previous owner, and provides hope for the new recipient,” Jason reflected.
As of 2020, Gunnar’s Wheels has over 1,300 wheelchairs in its fleet and has helped almost 2,000 animals in need since 2016. Jason counted dogs, cats, goats, rabbits, a baby deer, a tortoise, and even an opossum among the charity’s many recipients.
Among Jason’s favorite success stories is a German shepherd named Champ that survived distemper. The dog retained some motor control and was thus fitted with a four-wheeled chair called a quad that can be used for walks, play, and exercise. “We outfitted his cart with a handle,” Jason explained, “so his mom can help steer him clear of obstacles and help him maneuver through crowds.”
As Jason continues to help animals in need with his non-profit, his best piece of advice for anyone caring for a special-needs animal is simple: don’t be afraid to try new things. “Think outside the box to help you and your animal adapt to a new normal,” he advised. “Research and ask questions.”
Jason refers to the online community as family, explaining, “these folks are some of the best people you may or may not ever meet.”
Strength, Love, and Compassion
Sadly, Gunnar passed away in October 2017, but his legacy lives on in Jason’s ongoing work for other injured animals.
“Gunnar was a magnificent animal, much like anyone’s animal,” Jason reflected. “There is a saying: ‘Everyone thinks their animal is the greatest, and none of them are wrong.’”
“My fondest memories of him were post-accident,” Jason continued. “We had a great life pre-accident, but post-accident is where he showed me the true meaning of strength, love, and compassion.”