U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Agriculture Canine (K9) Hardy charmed America when he found a roasted pig head in checked luggage at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Another of his canine pals discovered pork sausages in canisters of baby formula at Washington Dulles International Airport.
Kevin Harriger, executive director for agriculture programs and trade liaison with CBP, says these stories are anything but unusual.
“People will go to great lengths to bring in something they want,” he says. “Most people don’t make the nexus between epidemiology and the spread of a foreign animal disease. They think if they want ham, they’ll bring ham into the U.S. with them. It’s that simple to them.”
However, bringing agricultural products across the U.S. border without identifying them is illegal. Working dogs are an additional tool used to detect these prohibited items.
In 1979, USDA launched its first K9 pilot program with large dog breeds such as Labradors. In 1984, the first teams using beagles were trained.
Harriger says beagles were selected for use in air and cruise line passenger environments to help CBP safeguard the nation from foreign animal diseases (FADs). The beagles’ sense of smell is especially effective in detecting agricultural products, he says.
“The beagles are an extremely valuable asset,” he adds. “They are beloved because they want to serve. It’s truly a partnership between the dog and the handler.”
The Beagle Brigade is also used as an outreach and education tool providing information on entry of agricultural products while also indicating risks to U.S. agriculture from invasive pests and diseases.
These K9 teams are the first defense against FADs in the U.S.
“We are not the judge and jury,” Harriger says. “But it’s up to our team to keep plant and animal diseases out of the United States. With African swine fever, for example, the virus can manifest itself in meat or refuse. If it doesn’t go through a sanitary system or get destroyed through an incineration or steam sterilization process, we’ve got a live virus in the U.S. People don’t understand how serious this really is—it just sounds really science-geeky.”
The U.S. prevents pork and pork products from entering the country to limit introduction of diseases, such as swine fevers and foot-and-mouth.
For Harriger, working with the Beagle Brigade is one of the best aspects of his job. He oversees 2,500 agriculture specialists and 114 teams, including 84 beagle teams and 30 large breed teams.
“I’m still so enamored with the beagles,” Harriger says. “I think they are the best thing in the world.”
To read more about what it takes to become a member of the Beagle Brigade, go to bit.ly/canine-weapons