The Beagle Brigade: Stopping Entry
of Harmful Pests, Plants and Foodstuffs
Protecting U.S. agriculture, customs Inspector Carla Blackmon
and her canine teammate, Chip, work the international baggage
of San Francisco International Airport to interdict contraband.
Photos by Luke
January 21, 2008
They barely made it to their baggage carousel in the International
Terminal by the time the Feds closed in with a K-9 team. And within
moments the targets coughed up their contraband. In the wake of
the bust other passengers tossed stashes right onto the floor,
leaving behind plastic bags no one would claim for fear of Chip,
a U.S. Customs and Border Protection beagle.
As a last line of defense against disaster, a beagle may not
be your first choice. Yet Chip and other K-9 beagles in use at
San Francisco International Airport are considered indispensable
to authorities as they seek to protect against entry of exotic
pests and plants from foreign countries that could devastate California
Better in crowds than bigger dogs, beagles' lineage as scent
hounds makes them ideal for the task. On January 16, Chip and
his handler, Inspector Carla Blackmon, were confiscating oranges
from giggling school girls arriving on a flight from Singapore.
That may seem like small potatoes, but in the same week beagles
helped confiscate potentially tainted beef from Japan and other
items containing trouble of the microscopic kind.
Blackmon and Chip detect oranges
in the carry-on-luggage of a group of Singaporean school girls.
The problem of exotic species entering America, whatever the
intent of the bearer, is constant and demonstrable. Agricultural
inspectors with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service
in Oakland in November found tiny pests never before seen in America
that were living inside bamboo sticks shipped over from China.
In Denver last fall, inspectors found an exotic live slug inside
grape leaves and beef products that went undeclared before being
Gone undetected, either pest may have the potential to wreak
havoc in the form of lost harvests, disease, and other damage.
When Mediterranean fruit flies, or medflies, were discovered in
California in 1982, the widespread eradication effort that followed
-- including massive use of pesticide and National Guard troops
at checkpoints -- became controversial even as farmers warned
that billions of dollars of crops might be lost. And 25 years
later, medfly larvae are still being discovered in California.
Despite the risk, some travelers are more than willing to bend
the rules to bring in prohibited items, which vary depending on
the country of origin. Prepared foods from Great Britain like
a steak-and-kidney pie are deemed unsafe due to the outbreak of
foot-and-mouth disease in that country in 2001, and beef from
Germany is another no-no. Similarly, officials deploy K-9 beagle
teams when passengers disembark from flights originating in Vietnam,
Laos, China and the Philippines due to the high incidence of banned
items -- sometimes dozens of plants in a single suitcase.
Often, travelers simply want to share the foods and plants from
their home countries, or delicacies that are hard to find locally.
Fruits like mangosteens
from Asia, or mamey
sapote from Mexico or South America, are routinely detected
and confiscated. Less common are the tales of determined travelers,
one who hid live parrots inside a stereo boom box outfitted with
an internal fan controlled by the volume knob, or the woman who
pretended to be pregnant as a ruse to smuggle in a watermelon.
To become a handler, a previously trained agricultural inspector
will spend 10 weeks with their K-9 partner at the National Detector
Dog Training Academy in Orlando, Florida before fanning out nationwide
for airport deployment. Most handlers have educational backgrounds
in animal science and self-identify as dog people. As Blackmon
says, "It's kind of hard to work a dog if you don't like
Chip and other beagles maintain a 95 percent proficiency rate
during training and are tested yearly for their ability to sniff
out five basic scents: pork, beef, apples, citrus and mango. Trainers
will mock up luggage with items commonly found in travelers' bags
from different regions of the world, and put the beagles to the
test. With the onset of avian flu the dogs have also been trained
to identify poultry.
One of Chip's canine co-workers indicates with his paw a suitcase
containing a mango.
But sniffing food and doing it right take time: Blackmon has
worked extensively with Chip so he won't destroy luggage or become
too aggressive. "Chip has this nickname -- 'The Incredible
Hulk' -- but he's a lot better now," Blackmon says. The correct
way for the beagle to signal a "hit" is to sit, and
if prompted, place a paw on the offending bag. In practice the
handlers are keen to any distinct change in behavior.
Giving of treats is also harder than it looks. If a handler fails
to give the beagle a treat immediately upon discovery of a problem
bag, the dog may construe that as a signal not to sniff out such
bags. "The dogs aren't the only ones who need to be well-conditioned,"
Thirsty work: Contraband detecting beagles work 3-hour shifts.
There are a total of 86 beagles working at SFO and other airports
across the nation, and most were not groomed for the job since
birth. Many are rescued from homes where they didn't fit in. As
a result, not all are poddy-trained or easy to direct, but in
time they fall in line. And the perks of the job include regular
veterinary care, "retirement" after nine years of service
in the form of adoption, and treats every time they sniff out
Health care for the beagles continues even if they leave service
-- one received treatments for cancer -- and their wellbeing is
treated seriously. The airport environment is hazardous for beagles,
subject to runaway luggage carts and groggy travelers. And there
are some who lash out at the dogs despite it being leashed to
a uniformed customs inspector. A person who kicked a beagle in
2000 led to passage of a federal law establishing a maximum $10,000
fine for abuse of beagles and other "detector" dogs
working in an official capacity.
"People don't realize sometimes and are startled by the
dogs, and others just go and freak out," said Inspector Peter
de Souza, a K-9 handler who works with Blackmon and other inspectors
at SFO. "Every day we train the dogs not to touch anybody,
and every day we have to remind people not to touch the dogs."
It's all serious business -- until the day is over. When Chip
completed his shift, Blackmon removed Chip's blue top coat and
Chip took the opportunity to roll onto his back to expose his
belly for a few rubs. Then he stuck one paw out and propelled
himself upside-down across the floor. "He would do this all
day if I let him," she said.