Some of the best X-ray machines at airports across the United States are cuddly creatures with tenacious noses. Using their keen sense of smell and gentle demeanor, these four-legged furry agents for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) quietly go about the business of detecting contraband agricultural products brought into the U.S. from foreign countries.
This is the Beagle Brigade, an army of Beagles employed by CBP to protect our borders against harmful pests that threaten the agricultural economy of the United States. Their job is to find hidden plants, vegetables, fruits, and meat products that may be harboring deadly insects or diseases.
Beagles make great secret agents because they are small, friendly dogs who have an easy time walking among people without alarming anyone. They trot through miles of unsuspecting passengers waiting to enter the United States at the customs area, gently sniffing and snuffling around luggage in hot pursuit of their quarry. These hard-working hounds in their bright green vests are not intimidating to travelers. Most passengers pay little or no attention to the adorable dog at their feet, until he or she subtly sits next to their suitcase and doesn't move. Seconds later, a CBP agent holding the other end of the Beagle's leash appears, and suddenly this is more than a cuddly canine.
The agent then asks the passenger a series of questions about the contents of his suitcase, which is searched for prohibited agricultural materials. If discovered, they are confiscated and destroyed - mission accomplished for the Beagle Brigade.
Thanuja Hall, Program Manager with the Canine Enforcement Program of the U. S. Customs and Border Patrol, believes the Beagles are a vital defense in the fight against animal and plant diseases entering the United States. Together, these dynamic duos seize about 75,000 prohibited agricultural products a year, saving farmers millions of dollars from potentially lethal invasive species.
"CBP agents and their dogs have a duty to protect American agriculture, and these dogs are very good at their jobs," she says. "[Beagles] are incredible tools. It's almost like having an X-ray machine walking around because they can smell things we can't see."
Hall said quite often passengers unknowingly bring prohibited items into the country, such as parents who have cut up an apple for their child to eat on the plane, or those bringing home delicious mangoes from their trip to South America. Most travelers don't realize it is illegal to bring certain gricultural products into the United States, but the Beagle Brigade is always on duty to remind them.
The Beagles are trained to distinguish five basic odors: apples, citrus, mango, pork, and beef. As training progresses, food odors commonly carried by passengers, such as crackers, candy, and chocolate, are added, and the dogs are taught to ignore these scents. To train the dogs to distinguish between real and synthetic food smells, products like coconut lotion and peach shampoo are also used.
There is no hiding from a trained Beagle's determined nose.
"These dogs are able to find exactly what they're looking for no matter where it is in the bag," Hall says. "Even if the plant material is packed with your shampoo or dirty laundry, they go through all different types of smells and are able to find it."
efore she became Program Manager, Hall worked at the Miami International Airport with Saint, a busy Beagle who sniffed his way around international passengers at one of the country's busiest airports.
Saint's specialty was finding plants hidden inside suitcases and purses. During one routine mission, the sleuthing Beagle was busy sniffing luggage that had arrived with the passengers from Central America when he hit upon a bag. He sat next to the suspicious suitcase, then immediately went on to another bag, which was mixed in with other pieces of luggage, and sat again. Saint repeated this behavior six times, indicating to Hall that there was a banned substance in each of the bags. When CBP agents searched the pieces of luggage, they found leaves from Central America in all six bags.
"Saint is a great dog," Hall says. "Once he discovered that first bag, he went right to the next one that was probably five or six bags away, and sat next to it. He's very good at finding plant materials, and he kept going until he found all the bags containing the leaves."
During a routine inspection of passengers arriving from London at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, a CBP Beagle named Shelby smelled something interesting in one traveler's bag. Upon inspection, agents discovered two small plastic boxes containing dozens of live snails, which were seized by the agents. Even though these snails had little or no distinctive smell to the human nose, Shelby knew something lurked deep inside the suitcase, and this determined dog was not going to let it escape unnoticed.
Beagles are naturally curious dogs who love the thrill of the hunt, and for these pint-sized detectives, every working day is a game to find hidden treasure, possibly a stray sausage or a sprig of holly concealed in someone's suitcase. They may look cute and cuddly, but these dogs are powerful warriors in the battle against alien species, and you can be sure of one thing: the Beagle Brigade always gets their pests.