Beagle Brigade

Carrying crocodile meat or contraband tulip bulbs? Watch out for the Beagle Brigade!
By Genevieve Rajewski, June 2009, Updated August 2015

Staring at the x-ray screen at Boston’s Logan International Airport, Tara Kennedy didn’t know what to think.

After circling and sniffing the suitcase in question, her dog, Lily, a six-year veteran of the US Customs and Border Protection’s Beagle Brigade, had confidently sat down—the signal that agricultural products were hidden within. However, the x-ray machine revealed nothing more than clothing, the usual personal effects and several boxes of legal cigars.

“Open it up,” Kennedy told the x-ray technician.

An initial search of the bag yielded only the items seen on-screen. But the cigar boxes turned out to have a secret. Each contained a row of cigar-shaped sausages, complete with decorative paper bands—tacky and probably tasty souvenirs that, unfortunately for their owner, would never leave the customs area.


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It was a typical day for the Beagle and her handler at Logan’s international terminal, where two things are certain: When you sniff around someone’s suitcase, you never know what you’ll find inside—a butchered hog, crocodile meat, land snails, live pigeons. And if there is meat, produce or plants to be found, a Beagle’s nose trumps x-rays every time.

Although the term “detector dog” evokes the image of tough-looking German Shepherds searching for narcotics or bombs, sunny-tempered Beagles are equally important members of CBP’s canine team. Nationwide, Beagle Brigade teams patrol international airports, land border ports of entry and major international mail facilities, where they help inspectors seize about 75,000 prohibited agricultural products a year.

Agricultural Time Bombs
On one hand, contraband beef, mangos and tulip bulbs certainly aren’t scary. On the other, they and other agricultural imports can harbor devastating threats to the US food supply and economy.

Together, CBP agriculture inspectors and their US Department of Agriculture counterparts intercept about 2 million agricultural products each year. The seized goods include more than 295,000 lots of unauthorized meat and animal byproducts that could carry diseases to poultry and livestock.

Kennedy says the Beagle Brigade refers to its watch list and only seizes meat “from areas that are known to carry disease in the particular type of meat we are seizing.” As an example, Jim Silverio, who works at Miami International Airport, describes a llama fetus his female Beagle, Q-T, found on a passenger from Peru. “It was some kind of religious article. But llamas can carry cattle diseases, and Peru does have foot and mouth disease, so it was confiscated.” Anyone who recalls the news footage of UK travelers scrubbing their shoes with bleach can understand this degree of caution. All confiscated meat is incinerated on site.

In addition, CBP agriculture inspectors and their USDA counterparts found nearly 55,000 exotic plant pests last fiscal year, including diseases and noxious weeds. Intercepted fruits and vegetables are checked for foreign pests and destroyed. Preserved insects and plant material are sent for further inspection and identification to USDA specialists.

“If you made a list of the 100 worst insect pests in the country right now, probably 99 of them have come from overseas,” says Robert Tracy, entomologist for the USDA’s inspection station in Linden, N.J. Al Falco, the officer in charge, agrees: “Japanese beetles, gypsy moths—all the common pests we are trying to control now—were originally exotic.” Tiny Mediterranean and Oriental fruit flies—found in fruit seized by the Beagle Brigade—multiply quickly, and they could decimate crops if they were to hitch a direct or connecting flight to Florida or California.

Also costing the nation hundreds of millions of dollars to control are diseases imported on plants, according to Martin Feinstein, a USDA plant pathologist at the Linden, N.J., facility. These include citrus canker, which has damaged citrus crops and residential plantings in many Florida counties after arriving from Asia, and sudden oak death, an exotic disease of oak and other woody species that has killed tens of thousands of oak and tanoak trees in California and threatens the US ecosystem wherever susceptible flora flourish.

Ambassadors and Unbiased Agents
Of course, an awkward aspect of patrolling for potential threats is that—unlike those smuggling explosives or illegal drugs—passengers with agricultural goods often don’t realize they are doing anything wrong.

“[Passengers usually] aren’t bringing in stuff maliciously,” says Kennedy. “They are doing it so they can go out in their backyard and pick fresh lemons. Or it’s a special kind of meat their grandmother likes. It’s hard to explain why we are taking away their products. It’s only a possibility that the meat contains a virus. It’s only a possibility that the mango has insects.”

Working with Beagles not only allows inspectors to clear passengers faster and with more accuracy, but it also keeps the process objective and free from profiling. “Let’s face it, I put everything on Lily,” says Kennedy. When people become angry about being searched, she explains, “I’m sorry, m’am or sir, I’m only doing what my dog is telling me to do.”

In fact, the Beagles’ secondary role as goodwill ambassadors was one reason they were chosen to work among travelers. In addition to the high food drive that makes them so trainable, and a hound’s predilection to follow their noses, Beagles are not the least bit intimidating.

“They’re small, cute. People want to touch them,” says Kennedy. “Most people think I’m walking my dog. They don’t notice my badge or uniform. They don’t even notice [Lily’s] uniform, which she wears to emphasize that she is a working dog.” Kennedy appreciates being able to work without adding stress to the terminal, which is hectic enough when hundreds of people are getting their bags among jostling baggage carts and whirring luggage carousels.

When Lily subtly sits by a traveler, Kennedy asks if they are carrying any fruit, meat, vegetables or plants—or if they have eaten anything during the flight that may have left a residual odor. Even if they deny having anything on them, Kennedy has learned to trust Lily.

“Show me,” Kennedy instructs Lily, and show her Lily does: quickly, but gently, striking the exact location of the smell with her paw. When a prohibited item is uncovered, Lily receives a food reward, while the passenger usually gets a warning and the item is taken away.

“I choose carefully who I fine,” Kennedy says, citing the time her former canine partner Casey found six plants sewn into the lining of a passenger’s jacket. “I [had] no hesitation fining someone who obviously knew that bringing in plants and soil was not allowed.”

Sometimes the scope of the intentional smuggling surprises even veteran CBP inspectors. In June 2004, Silverio stopped a passenger from Cuba when Q-T sat at the base of the woman’s motorized wheelchair.

“So I got down on the floor and looked, and I saw some things strapped underneath it,” recalls Silverio. “I questioned the woman, and she acted like she had no idea. I reached under and pulled out a black cloth bag. Inside, there were four plastic tubes, and I peeked in them and saw live birds. There ended up being five of those cloth bags, with a total of 39 birds,” he recalls. “I’d say half were already dead, and more died shortly after that from the stress of the travel.”

Under US law, imported birds must be placed in quarantine upon arrival as a safeguard against the numerous diseases they can carry. “Of course, right now, there is a lot of talk about the bird flu,” says Silverio. “There is also a lot of concern about diseases that would be harmful to the poultry industry, like Newcastle disease.”

An Education in Discrimination
Interestingly enough, the Beagle Brigade is not trained to ferret out wildlife. However, animal scents can cause the dogs’ natural hunting instincts to kick in, says Kennedy, and the dogs respond by alerting officers to the unusual contraband. The officers reward their Beagles—even though they are acting outside their training—because live animals can host so many diseases.

“We also have the [gratitude] of Fish and Wildlife inspectors [for] the endangered live species that have been saved by our Beagles’ curious noses,” says Kennedy, whose Beagle partners have discovered live pigeons, parrots and even endangered Egyptian turtles that were eventually returned safely to their native country

Instinct may lead dogs to detect animals, but the Beagles’ agricultural finds require extensive and ongoing training on how to—and how not to—use their powerful noses. Beagles undergo 10 to 13 weeks of training at the National Detector Dog Training Center in Orlando, Fla., depending on whether they are intended to clear international travelers or vehicles, ships, containers and palletized materials. For the 40 to 46 teams the center trains each year, the center’s staff “may look at anywhere from five to 15 dogs to find one good candidate,” says Director Mike Smith.

Likely candidates—who must be between one and three years old and are not necessarily purebred—are often found in animal shelters, but also come from private owners and breeders. The right dog is outgoing, with a serious interest in food.

Dogs begin by learning to distinguish five key scents: mango, apple, citrus, pork and beef. The dogs receive food rewards for passively sitting when they locate target items hidden in loose cardboard boxes. As the Beagles’ skills improve, targets are placed in first soft, then hard suitcases and typical tourist items are added to the bags to simulate real airport situations.

“They start adding other foods commonly carried by passengers to make sure [the Beagles] are bypassing chocolate, candy, crackers, peanut butter,” says Kennedy. “Products like apricot shampoo and coconut hand creams are added, too, to make sure that the dog is being very specific about whether he smells a fresh mango or mango shampoo.”

Not every candidate will make the grade. “Some dogs are just not as intelligent as we had thought; their food drive may be really high, but they just can’t grasp what is requested of them,” says Smith. Other dogs cannot concentrate amidst the commotion of the typical work environment, or may turn out to have a preexisting medical condition, such as hip dysplasia, that will keep them from working comfortably. All dogs, whether retired or flunked, are found homes through the center’s popular adoption program.

Once on the job, Beagles spend four hours a week training “to keep them sharp” and work on any problem areas, according to Silverio. After six months, Beagles sniff out prohibited material correctly 80 percent of the time. Their success rate rises to about 90 percent with two years’ experience, and some Beagles have been known to recognize nearly 50 odors during their five- to seven-year careers.

And while spectacular beagle busts—such as pounds and pounds of fresh fruit—make for great photo opportunities, Kennedy says Lily’s most impressive find was a single chestnut.

“It’s one thing for Lily to find a bag of fresh chestnuts, but it’s another to find one chestnut in a pocket when someone has a winter coat on over it,” says Kennedy. “I think that’s much more significant to find one tiny smell when there are so many other smells floating around.”

This ability is what makes dogs much more effective than machines for odor detection, says Dr. Larry Myers, a professor of veterinary medicine at Alabama’s Auburn University and researcher at the school’s Institute for Biological Systems Detection.

“There are instruments that are certainly more sensitive than a dog is,” says Myers. “But dogs sample the air better, and they do it in what amounts to real-time. In a matter of a second or less, they can say, ‘Yep, it’s there.’”
“I don’t want to make it out like dogs are magic: they’re not,” continues Myers. “But they are really pretty impressive. If there is a single chemical, or a ratio of chemicals, unique or pretty close to unique to a target, dogs can be trained to detect it. So take your drugs, your bombs, your off-flavor catfish, your termites—dogs can detect all of them.”

The program may eventually expand its reach. The National Detector Dog Training Center has been experimenting with teaching Beagles to pinpoint specific agricultural hazards—such as invasive knapweed in rangelands, Asian longhorn beetles in palletized materials and citrus canker-infected plants within an orchard. With talent like that, the Beagle Brigade —hard-working hounds with curious noses—will not be disbanding any time soon!

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 36: May/Jun 2006

Photo: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), U.S.

Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people.