Back on the job after being swarmed and stung by hundreds of yellow jackets in September, Brookhaven Police Officer John Ritch and his K-9 Grizz recently took some time to talk to the press about their experience.
“I was a Tech fan but I’m going to have to rethink this,” Ritch joked, with Grizz by his side panting and anxiously awaiting something to do.
There was no joking, though, when Ritch and Grizz fell into a nest of yellow jackets as they were tracking a suspect through the woods.
“I immediately did not know I was being stung because I was stung so many times; I just knew something was in my eyes, my nose and my mouth,” said Ritch, who said he was having difficulty breathing. “I looked at Grizz and he was laid down in the vegetation covered with yellow jackets.”
They couldn’t just turn and run out of the woods immediately because they were after a suspect. DeKalb Police who were assisting were able to eventually provide cover for them to get out, though.
Ritch said leaving the area was still difficult as they had to climb back up a hillside, and Grizz’s harness and tracking lead had been tangled up in debris and he was unable to move. Ritch said that prolonged the time they were getting swarmed by “thousands” of the yellow jackets.
Once Ritch and Grizz got out of the woods, Officer Russell Chatham helped Ritch remove clothes and body armour, which the yellow jackets had managed to make their way under. Grizz was attended to by other K-9 officers, and was transported to BluePearl emergency vet clinic in Sandy Springs while Chatham drove Ritch to Grady Hospital.
The “pain wasn’t that bad,” Ritch said. “The biggest problem was I couldn’t breathe; it felt like I had 500 pounds sitting on my chest.”
Ritch said that once he got to Grady, doctors gave him medicine that immediately helped him breathe, and then the pain set in. He also had to go back a few days later when he started swelling up again and having more difficulty breathing.
He was also worried about his dog, with whom he’s been working with for some nine years.
“I was really concerned about him because as you can see he’s an active dog who’s full of energy, and at the time of the incident the last time I saw him he was laying on the ground not wanting to do anything,” Ritch said.
As a result of the attack, a non-profit group called We Ride To Provide has donated some first aid and safety kits for Grizz and the department’s other K-9, Dano.
“I did feel really bad about not being there for them,” said the group’s president, Holly Cripps. “I did not know Brookhaven had dogs. Now, we’re going to be there for them.”
Cripps is married to a police chief who is also a K-9 handler, and says the Covington-based group’s purpose is to provide items that can help treat both dogs and the officers before they are able to get medical attention.
The group relies on donations to provide the kits, which contain items like Benadryl, peroxide, rubbing alcohol, cold packs and gauze.
“It’s something; at least it’s a fighting chance,” Cripps said. The group has provided 127 kits to officers across the country. Dano received the 99th kit and Grizz received the 100th.
Once he and Grizz began recovering, Ritch said that other K-9 officers he knows helped take care of Grizz until Ritch could get back on his feet. They returned to work on Oct. 3. Chatham, who was also stung while helping Ritch, was able to return to work the next day.
Ritch says he doesn’t know how close he came to losing Grizz to the dog’s injuries. “I don’t really try to think about that,” he said.