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Meet the Canine Officers Guarding American Agriculture

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DULLES, Va. — As a throng of travelers at Dulles International Airport elbowed their strategy to the bags carousel on a recent sweltering afternoon, a federal officer zeroed in on a drained woman, sniffed her suitcases and sat down.

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

“Do you’ve any meat or fresh vegetables or fruit in that bag?” Mr. Polliard, an agriculture specialist for Customs and Border Protection, asked the passenger.

Yes, she reluctantly conceded. Contraband, just as Hair-E suspected. As Mr. Polliard instructed the traveler and her husband to take their many bags and undergo a secondary round of inspections, Hair-E lurched toward a red plastic bag a carousel away, already following the lure of the subsequent scent.

As a member of the federal government’s Beagle Brigade, Hair-E is one in every of 180 hounds deployed at airports, border crossings and postal depots across the country. Clad in blue vests emblazoned with government logos, they roam airport corridors to detect and intercept prohibited foods or plants that might carry diseases and wreak economic and ecological havoc on American agriculture. And with international travel returning to prepandemic levels, Hair-E and his colleagues are seizing an increasing number of products outlawed from entering American soil.

Typical recruits are young rescues that complete as much as 13 weeks of coaching at a middle in Atlanta, where they learn to discern five basic odors: apple, citrus, mango, pork and beef. Their time in the sphere naturally expands their olfactory repertoire. About three-quarters of the dogs graduate from this system and are then placed at ports of entry. After a number of years of service, members of the brigade retire at about 9 or 10 years old, after they are sometimes adopted by their handlers.

Unassuming in size, friendly in nature and renowned for his or her sense of smell, beagles are preferred to patrol baggage carousels while larger breeds like labradors sniff out docks and cargo facilities.

“Beagles are generally not intimidating in any respect, and individuals are normally pretty joyful to see them,” said Sara Milbrandt, a regional agricultural canine adviser for Customs and Border Protection who worked as a handler for 15 years.

In fact, few travelers are thrilled when their fastidiously hidden delicacies are unearthed, even when the detection comes with a wagging tail. But neither the dogs nor their handlers are swiping the confiscated food. As an alternative, the beagles receive a treat — a pepperoni stick or tiny milk bone, for instance — for the invention, while their handlers are sure by the Agriculture Department’s regulations.

“While you’re taking their $900 prosciutto ham that they bought and were sure that they’ll herald, I get why we’re not their favorite person, but I promise we’re not taking it to the back room to eat,” said Christopher Brewer, the Customs and Border Protection agriculture branch chief for airports within the Washington area.

“The dog is one in every of the layers of defense to forestall the introduction of something harmful to agriculture,” he added.

Learn more about our often disregarded, and at times startling, superpower.

That harm could possibly be catastrophic.

Currently, the Agriculture Department is prioritizing the detection of African swine fever, a highly contagious and deadly disease not yet present in the USA that risks being transmitted through pork sausages and cured meats smuggled in from abroad.

One other threat is the Medfly, a species of fruit fly considered some of the dangerous pests on this planet and sometimes present in tropical vegetables and fruits like mangos, contraband continuously nestled within the carry-ons of travelers from South Asia in May and June.

On a recent Friday, Hair-E and Phillip, a two-year member of the brigade with golden eyes, patrolled an arrivals bay bustling with European backpackers, reuniting families and passengers coming back from the hajj retrieving canisters of holy water from the oversize baggage claim.

Ever the motivated employees, the beagles prefer it this manner: every carousel filled with luggage to smell.

“They really, really enjoy working,” Ms. Milbrandt said. “You’ll be able to probably see that just by watching them.”

The Beagle Brigade confiscated greater than 96,000 items in the primary nine months of the 2022 fiscal yr and is heading in the right direction to surpass the variety of seizures made within the previous two years of the pandemic — about 102,000 annually.

At Dulles, outside Washington, Hair-E is the fastest and some of the industrious dogs on the airport, intercepting 12 to 18 prohibited items a day like bush meat, fresh mangos and homemade goods, based on Josue Ledezma, an agriculture canine supervisor.

When international flights all but halted throughout the height of the pandemic, keeping the dogs motivated was a challenge, their handlers said. With no regular stream of suitcases to smell and contraband to identify, the five beagles stationed at Dulles were assigned to uncover food hidden in vehicles to maintain the memory of mangos and pork fresh of their noses.

Certain scents are more enticing than others. Hair-E drools when he has identified meat. Phillip loves the smell of bananas.

Some are the phantom smells of a sandwich or apple eaten long before landing, because the dogs can detect residual odors from food now not present in a traveler’s bag.

And others still are so strong that even the handlers can smell it, like Phillip’s most up-to-date jackpot: a suitcase full of 22 kilos of raw beef and 33 kilos of raw, smoked goat meat. But Valerie Woo, his handler, is sympathetic to the temptation, even whether it is her job to protect against it.

“A number of the passengers come from food-insecure countries or it’s their first international trip and so they need to bring all the pieces,” she said. “For others, it’s a bit of home.”

Mr. Brewer listed a recent example: a big tin canister opened and resealed, labeled “coffee.”

“We were sure they’d drugs — clearly, that isn’t coffee,” he said. “Turned out to be homemade sausages. Grandma made them.”

Asked to rank the canine officers he had worked with, Mr. Polliard demurred. “They’re all good dogs,” he replied.

Because the officers recounted their experiences, Phillip rolled around on the ground, mugging for the camera, his colleagues and a reporter gathered around him — “a complete drama queen,” as Ms. Woo put it — before coming to an abrupt alert.

His nose wriggled, as he again smelled something within the air.

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