Just a little over a year ago, Jason Parker launched Gunnar’s Wheels, an effort named after his beloved black Lab.
Gunnar’s Wheels helps disabled animals by providing loaner wheelchairs to rescue or shelter pets or critters whose owners can’t afford them free of charge until the cart is no longer needed, or the animal passes away.
On Aug. 23, 2016, Parker launched a GoFundMe campaign, hoping to raise $10,000, so he could purchase loaner carts. Back then, the rural Strum man said his goal was to have at least 50 carts available for loan to animals in need.
As of 5 p.m. Friday, Parker had loaned out 399 carts, and the GoFundMe campaign had raised more than $100,000. (That full amount doesn’t go to Gunnar’s Wheels. GoFundMe, according to its website, deducts a 5 percent fee from each donation, along with a processing fee of about 3 percent also from each contribution.) A number of people also have donated carts their pets no longer needed.
While the bulk of the carts have gone to animals all over the United States, some have been shipped across the border and overseas. International donations have included England, Italy, Portugal and Zambia.
“That’s how far social media will reach,” said Parker, who is blown away at the popularity of the nonprofit, now called the Gunnar’s Wheels Foundation.
“It’s just crazy,” Parker said. “I never ever thought this would get as big as it has. (But), there are a lot of Gunnar’s out there.”
The foundation will continue to help animals as long as funds are available.
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Gunnar was struck by a pickup on Feb. 16, 2014, the day before his seventh birthday. The impact broke the dog’s upper palate and some teeth, and knocked him out. He also suffered a spinal cord injury, rendering his legs useless.
Shortly after the accident, Gunnar regained the use of his front legs as he healed at home. Parker and his wife, Stephanie, eventually got him a cart.
“He was happy as heck to be upright and moving on his own,” Parker said of Gunnar, now 10. Over time, the dog was able to stand on all fours and walk on a limited basis.
“He wouldn’t have had a life if it wasn’t for his cart,” Parker said. “When he gets in his cart, he doesn’t have to worry that his hind legs don’t work. He can be a dog again, and he can go out and sniff and fetch and run.” The pair also still duck hunt.
Because of Gunnar’s injury, the Parkers had some hefty vet bills, but they received a lot of help from family, friends and strangers. Because of that kindness, the Parkers started the Gunnar’s Wheels Foundation to give back.
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Jason Parker estimated the cost of a dog wheelchair at $300 to $500 each, an amount animal rescue organizations, shelters and some pet owners can’t afford.
“I’ve heard so many stories over the past year,” Parker said. “ ‘I’m a single mom,’ ‘I’m on a fixed income,’ ‘I have a lot of vet bills, so I can’t afford a cart.’ I don’t care what their story is. It’s about helping their animals.”
The only thing Parker asks is that the carts be returned to him after an animal no longer needs it, so it can be loaned out again to help another. (Some of the carts are on their third recipient.)
The majority of animals the Gunnar’s Wheels Foundation has helped have been dogs, including retired La Crosse Police Department K-9 Brutus, but Parker also has loaned out carts for a menagerie of other critters, including cats, a lamb and even a rabbit named Emmy Lou.
On Friday, he got a request for a cart for a goat. In a different request, a woman wanted one for a llama, which passed away while Parker was working on securing wheels for the animal.
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While Parker will never meet 99 percent of the animals the Gunnar’s Wheels Foundation has helped, he loves getting photos, videos and updates from the pets’ owners or the shelter or rescue, which he shares on the Gunnar’s Wheels Facebook page.
In one video update, a dog named Sadie is off on a walk in Salt Lake City.
“She is loving them,” Greg Record said of the dog’s new wheels in the post. “Once I got them set up right, she took off for a half-mile walk. We had to turn her around to get her home.”
In another post, a dog being fostered by Lindsey Schoepfle of Glenwood Springs, Colo., is pictured exploring a creek.
“Thanks to an amazing organization and the donations of some awesome people, she has a wheelchair (that) lets her do whatever she wants,” Schoepfle wrote in the note accompanying the photo. “What a happy dog.”
“I always encourage owners to share their animal’s story,” Parker said. “Seeing an animal be able to get around and do what it wants is awesome.”
That visual also helps people see there are options out there for disabled pets other than euthanasia, an option Parker was offered multiple times after Gunnar was injured.
“I had to give him a chance, and I’m glad I did,” he said. “And through Gunnar’s Wheels, we are giving that same chance to a lot of other Gunnars.”
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