ST. PETERSBURG — The veterinarians had to pull up a stool next to the emergency table at Partridge Animal Hospital for St. Petersburg police Officer Joseph Lehmann on Thursday night.
His department dog, Ajax, had been struck by a poisonous rattlesnake earlier in the day, and Lehmann wanted to remain within patting distance as long as possible. He stayed until 1 a.m.
"I'm not going to leave his side. He saved my life — where am I going to go?" Lehmann said Friday morning, an anxious Ajax panting by his side after his release from the clinic.
Animal doctors gave the dog three vials of antivenin and a blood plasma transfusion to thwart the venom from a 4 ½-foot Eastern diamondback, which bit Ajax while he sniffed in the woods for a man who had run from police Thursday morning.
The strike could have killed the dog, but Lehmann got him to the hospital quickly and clinicians were optimistic he would be all right. Friday morning, Lehmann said, Ajax still had some swelling under his face and around his nose, but he was otherwise in good health, bounding out of an SUV and turning frantic circles in front of an arc of television cameras at police headquarters.
Lehmann said Ajax might be back in the field in a couple of weeks. Though the snake struck him on the snout, veterinarians said it should not affect his sense of smell.
"He's a very playful, high-energy dog," said Lehmann, a canine patrol officer for 24 years. Ajax is 2 ½ years old and has worked in the field for about 10 months. "I'm happy he's back to the way he is. Sometimes he's a pain, but I'll take that pain over anything else right now."
The officer and his dog responded to an apartment complex at Fourth Street and 119th Avenue N about noon Thursday. Detectives had called for help after a man they identified as acting suspiciously fled into the woods.
Lehmann recalled looking for footprints as Ajax sniffed around about 10 feet in front of him. Then he heard a yelp.
"I looked, and he was jumping up and I saw the snake recoiling from the strike," Lehmann said. "I heard the rattle."
Lehmann released the leash and Ajax ran away. He took out his gun and fired three shots, killing the snake. He then caught up with Ajax and hurried to the hospital.
"He came out, I saw the blood on his face, and we just crawled out of those woods," Lehmann said.
Hours later, police said, investigators found the man Ajax and Lehmann had been tracking. He was charged with misdemeanor loitering and prowling.
Lehmann planned to take Ajax home Friday. Dogs typically live with their handlers, and Lehmann has three children, two of whom visited the animal hospital Thursday. He said he will spend the next two weeks exercising Ajax and bringing the dog to veterinary appointments.
Talking about the snake bite and the reaction of his fellow officers and the veterinarians left Lehmann choked up. He said police dog handlers from around the county texted him their well wishes.
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Three more steps, Lehmann said, and he might have been bitten instead of the dog. Had he been struck, he might not have been able to radio for help, and the other officers on scene didn't know exactly where he and Ajax were.
"We may not have had as good an outcome as we did now," Lehmann said.