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Meet the Canine Officers Guarding American Agriculture

DULLES, Va. – As a crowd of travelers at Dulles International Airport made their way to the baggage claim on a sweltering afternoon, a federal officer targeted a tired woman, rummaged through her bags, and sat down.

Hair-E, a six-year veteran of Dulles and a honey-colored beagle, cast a knowing glance at his human companion, Don Polliard.

“Do you have any meat or fresh vegetables or fruit in that bag?” Mr Polliard, an agricultural specialist for customs and border protection, asked the passenger.

Yes, she reluctantly admitted. Smuggling, just as Hair-E suspected. As Mr. Polliard instructed the traveler and her husband to take their many bags and go through a second round of inspections, Hair-E swung at a red plastic bag a carousel away, already following the temptation of the next scent.

A member of the government’s Beagle Brigade, Hair-E is one of 180 dogs deployed at airports, border crossings and mail depots across the country. Dressed in blue vests decorated with government logos, they roam airport corridors to detect and intercept forbidden food or plants that can cause disease and cause economic and environmental damage to U.S. agriculture. And as international travel returns to prepandemic levels, Hair-E and his colleagues are seizing an increasing number of goods that are banned on U.S. soil.

Typical recruits are young rescuers who undergo up to 13 weeks of training at an Atlanta center, where they learn to distinguish five basic odors: apple, citrus, mango, pork and beef. Their time in the field naturally expands their olfactory repertoire. About three quarters of the dogs graduate from the program and are then placed in ports of entry. After a few years of service, members of the brigade retire when they are about 9 or 10 years old, when they are often adopted by their escorts.

Beagles are modest in size, friendly in nature and known for their sense of smell. They prefer to patrol baggage claim, while larger breeds such as Labradors sniff docks and cargo facilities.

“Beagles generally aren’t intimidating at all, and people are usually pretty happy to see them,” says Sara Milbrandt, a regional agricultural dog consultant for customs and border protection who has worked as a handler for 15 years.

Of course, few travelers are thrilled when their carefully hidden treats are unearthed, even if the detection is accompanied by a wagging tail. But neither the dogs nor their handlers loot the confiscated food. Instead, the beagles are given a treat — a pepperoni stick or small milk bone, for example — for discovery, while their companions are bound by Department of Agriculture regulations.

“If you take their $900 prosciutto ham they bought and are sure they can bring in, I understand why we’re not their favorite person, but I promise we won’t take it to the back room to eat, said Christopher Brewer, chief of the agricultural division of customs and border protection for airports in the Washington area.

“The dog is one of the layers of defense to prevent the introduction of anything harmful to agriculture,” he added.

That damage could be catastrophic.

Currently, the Department of Agriculture is prioritizing the detection of African swine fever, a highly contagious and deadly disease not yet found in the United States and at risk of being transmitted through pork sausage and processed meats smuggled in from abroad.

Another threat is the Medfly, a type of fruit fly that is considered one of the most dangerous pests in the world and is often found in tropical fruits and vegetables such as mangoes, contraband that is often nestled in the hand luggage of travelers from South America during May and June. Asia.

On a recent Friday, Hair-E and Phillip, a two-year-old member of the golden-eyed brigade, patrolled an arrivals hall that was teeming with European backpackers, families and reunited passengers returning from Hajj and collecting containers of holy water from the large baggage claim. .

Ever the motivated employees, the beagles prefer it this way: every carousel crammed with luggage to rummage.

“They really enjoy working,” Ms Milbrandt said. “You can probably tell that just by looking at them.”

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

In Dulles, outside of Washington, Hair-E is the fastest and one of the most diligent dogs at the airport, intercepting 12 to 18 prohibited items a day, such as bushmeat, fresh mangoes and homemade produce, according to Josue Ledezma, a farm dog supervisor. . .

When international flights nearly stopped during the height of the pandemic, keeping the dogs motivated has been a challenge, their handlers said. Without a steady stream of suitcases to smell and contraband to spot, the five beagles stationed in Dulles were tasked with discovering food hidden in vehicles to keep the memory of mangoes and pork fresh in their noses.

Certain scents are more appealing than others. Hair-E salivates after identifying meat. Phillip loves the smell of bananas.

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

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

“Some passengers come from food insecure countries or it’s their first international trip and they want to take everything with them,” she said. “For others, it’s a bit of home.”

Mr Brewer cited a recent example: a large tin can opened and resealed, labeled ‘coffee’.

“We were sure they had drugs — obviously that’s not coffee,” he said. “It turned out to be homemade sausages. Grandma made them.”

When asked about the ranking of the dog officers he has worked with, Mr Polliard protested. “They’re all good dogs,” he replied.

As the officers recounted their experiences, Phillip rolled across the floor, robbing in front of the camera, his colleagues and a reporter gathered around him—“a total drama queen,” as Mrs. Woo put it—before going off to an abrupt alarm.

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

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