Meet the Canine Officers Guarding American Agriculture

DULLES, Va. – As a crowd of travelers at Dulles International Airport were tiptoing their way to the baggage carousel on a recent sweltering afternoon, a federal officer caught sight of a tired woman, sniffing her suitcase and sit down.

Hair-E, a six-year veteran of Dulles and a honey-colored hound, glanced intently at his human handler, Don Polliard.

“Do you have any fresh meat or vegetables or fruit in that bag?” Mr. Polliard, an agricultural expert with Customs and Border Protection, asked passengers.

Yes, she reluctantly gave in. Smuggled goods, just as Hair-E suspected. As Mr. Polliard instructed the traveler and her husband to pick up their multiple bags and go through a second round of checks, Hair-E lazily approached a red plastic bag a conveyor belt away, following Follow the temptation of the next scent.

A member of the government’s Beagle Brigade, the Hair-E is one of 180 hounds deployed at airports, border crossings and postal depots around the country. Wearing blue vests with government logos on them, they roamed the airport corridors to detect and intercept prohibited food or plant can bring disease and economic and ecological devastation to U.S. agriculture. And with international travel returning to pre-pandemic levels, Hair-E and its colleagues are seizing more and more goods banned from entering US soil.

Typical recruits are young rescuers who complete up to 13 weeks of training at a center in Atlanta, where they learn to distinguish five basic smells: apple, citrus, mango, pork and beef. Time spent in the fields will naturally expand their sense of smell. About three-quarters of the dogs graduate from the program and are then sent to ports of entry. After a few years of service, members of the brigade retire at around age 9 or 10, when they are usually adopted by their managers.

Small in size, nature-friendly, and renowned for their sense of smell, eagles are preferred for patrolling luggage conveyor belts while larger breeds like labradors sniff out docks and vehicles. freight.

“Beagles in general are not scary at all and people are usually not scary,” said Sara Milbrandt, a regional agricultural canine advisor with Customs and Border Protection who has worked as a handler for 15 years. quite happy to see them.

Of course, few visitors are thrilled when their carefully hidden delicacies are unearthed, even if the discovery comes with a tail wag. But neither the dogs nor their handlers swiped the confiscated food. Instead, the beagles receive a treat – a pepperoni bar or small milk bones, for example – to explore, while their handlers are bound by Agriculture Department regulations.

“When you take the $900 prosciutto ham they bought and make sure they can take it back, I understand why we’re not their favorite, but I promise we won’t bring it. he goes to the back room to eat,” said Christopher Brewer, director of the agricultural division of Customs and Border Protection for airports in the Washington area.

He added: “The dog is one of the layers of defense to prevent the entry of something harmful to agriculture.

That harm can be catastrophic.

Currently, the Department of Agriculture is prioritizing detection of African swine fever, a highly contagious and deadly disease not yet present in the United States that is likely to be transmitted by imported cured meat and pork sausages. smuggled from abroad.

Another threat is the Medfly, a fruit fly that is considered one of the deadliest pests in the world and is commonly found in tropical fruits and vegetables like mangoes.

On a recent Friday, Hair-E and Phillip, a two-year member of the brigade with golden eyes, patrolled a bay bustling with European backpackers, reuniting with family and friends. Passengers returning from hajj take holy water cans from oversized luggage storage. .

As long as employees are motivated, the bears love it this way: every carousel is crammed with luggage to sniff.

“They really enjoyed working,” Ms. Milbrandt said. “You can see that just by watching them.”

The Beagle Brigade seized more than 96,000 items in the first nine months of fiscal 2022 and is on track to surpass the number of seizures made in the two years prior to the pandemic – about 102,000 per year.

In Dulles, a suburb of Washington, Hair-E is the fastest dog and one of the most diligent at the airport, intercepting 12 to 18 prohibited items a day such as bush meat, fresh mangoes, and homemade goods. , according to Josue Ledezma, an agricultural industry supervisor. .

When all international flights were halted during the peak of the pandemic, keeping the dogs motivated was a challenge, their handler said. Without a steady stream of suitcases to sniff and detect contraband, five eagles stationed in Dulles are tasked with detecting food hidden in vehicles to keep the memory of mango and pork fresh in their noses. .

Some scents are more appealing than others. Hair-E drooled when it identified the flesh. Phillip loves the smell of bananas.

Some are the ghostly smell of a sandwich or apple eaten long before landing, as dogs can detect residual odors from food that is no longer in the travel bag.

And others are still so strong that even handlers can smell it, like Phillip’s most recent jackpot: a suitcase stuffed with 22 pounds of raw beef and 33 pounds of raw smoked goat meat. But Valerie Woo, his handler, sympathizes with the temptation, even if it is her duty to guard against it.

“Some passengers are from countries where food is not secure or this is their first international trip and they want to bring everything with them,” she said. “For others, it’s a home.”

Brewer listed a recent example: a large tin that was opened and closed, labeled “coffee.”

“We’re sure they have drugs – obviously, it’s not coffee,” he said. “It turned out to be homemade sausage. Grandma made them.”

When asked to rate the canine officers he has worked with, Mr. Polliard responded. “All of them are good dogs,” he replied.

As the officers recounted their experience, Phillip rolled on the floor, intently searching for the camera, his colleagues and a reporter surrounding him – “a drama queen”, as Ms. Woo put it – before giving a sudden warning.

His nose twisted, as he smelled something in the air again.

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