Paralyzed Pup Drags Herself to Elephant Researchers' Camp, Begins Healing Journey

A team of researchers in Botswana want to help a little ray of light named Poppy, who needs surgery

Photo: Amanda Stronza

Amanda Stronza vividly remembers the first time she set eyes on Poppy.

“She was doe-eyed, wet, skinny, and unable to walk,” Stronza writes in an email to PEOPLE. “She had dragged herself to us, trusting and hopeful. We don’t know for how long or for how far.”

The fact that the young dog made it there at all was a feat in of itself. Stronza and a team were located at a camp for elephant research in Okavango, a remote region of northern Botswana, filled with lions and other predators, who could have easily taken the vulnerable pooch that was unable to use her back legs.

Amazingly, the dog’s physical state was not an indicator of how she felt inside. “She was bursting with the sweetest spirit, so full of life, despite the desperate condition she was in,” Stronza says. “We guessed she had been trampled by an animal, or more sadly, purposely kicked by a person.”

Stronza, an anthropologist and one of the directors of the camp, says they kept the pup safe for several days and one elephant researcher, Susanne Vogel, took her in, giving her food, a warm place to sleep, lots of love and a name.

Charged with getting the dog medical care, Stronza’s colleague, Graham McCulloch, drove Poppy eight hours in a Land Cruiser to the nearest veterinary clinic in the town of Maun.

“When the vet there, Dr. Rob Jackson, examined Poppy’s x-rays, he said, ‘It doesn’t look good,'” Stronza tells PEOPLE. “He showed me how two of her vertebrae had been crushed together. He said he thought the only way to help her would be surgery to repair her spinal injury.”

The wildlife veterinarian — whose typical patients are lions, wild dogs, elephants as well as domestic dogs and cats — warned that he was not a specialist in orthopedic surgery and told Stronza: “Poppy’s chances of surviving or recovering from the surgery — much less ever regaining her ability to walk — were slim.”

The cost of surgery for Poppy, she was told, would be thousands of dollars — money that Stronza didn’t have.

“I knew Poppy had so much life in her. I knew we needed to honor her will to live and the hard fight she had already fought to find us and stay alive,” Stronza says. “I asked the vet to please do what he could. Before I left, I held Poppy’s face close to mine, kissed her, and whispered, ‘Be strong, Poppy, you’ll make it through. We all love you.’ I worried those were my goodbye words. But I trusted and hoped she would make it.”

As Stronza — a professor at Texas A&M, who travels back and forth to Botswana six times a year — waited for news on the dog, she decided to call on others for help.

“I started the GoFundMe campaign. I’d never done that, but it felt good to try something,” she says. “In less than 24 hours, people with just $5, $10, $20 contributions had accumulated over $3,000. I was heartened by all the love, and also concerned about what I would tell people if Poppy didn’t make it.”

Thankfully, Stronza didn’t have to deliver that news. Poppy received some basic care — including rehydration and anti-inflammatories — and by the next morning, the pup was “bright-eyed, stronger, hungry, and, Dr. Jackson, said, maybe even a little bored and ready to play,” Stronza recalls.

Based on the dog’s improvement, they decided to let Poppy gain strength before trying the risky surgery. “She was even beginning to stand for the briefest moments on her back legs,” Stronza says, “Even more amazing, she began to wag her tail!”

Everyone now believes Poppy’s future is bright. “Our plan [is] to give Poppy lots of care and monitor her progress,” Stronza says. “We’ll see if she can begin to gain mobility in her back legs, and maybe even regain the ability to walk. She gets physical therapy every day.”

The GoFundMe page has raised nearly $8,000 which will pay for the spine surgery that Poppy will eventually have, most likely at a facility in South Africa. Stronza can’t keep the dog herself — “I have a 12-year-old dog, Matilda, who would be heartbroken if I brought another pup into our home!” — so she’s made it her mission to help the pup heal and find her a place to spend forever.

“I am not her owner, but I guess I consider myself her advocate and foster mom,” Stronza says. “Now that she’s gained attention from so many people all over the world — for her tenacity and spirit, her courage and strength — I feel a little bit like her agent! She has her own Facebook page now, and people are eager for regular updates. I will do everything I can to make sure she gets the care she needs, that she feels loved, and that she can eventually find a home.”

While the pup doesn’t seem to be in any pain, it’s hard to know because of that warm, sweet disposition which caretakers have loved from the moment they met her.

“She has a way of drawing you in, especially with her eyes, so beaming and trustful,” Stronza says. “I think it’s her secret to survival. Let the love flow out, feel it come back in.”

To donate to Poppy’s medical fund, click here.

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