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Meet the beagles protecting US agriculture

The floppy-eared pups, with a keen sense of smell and a gentle disposition, sniff out prohibited items at U.S. airports.
Posted at 7:39 PM, Nov 30, 2023

If you've ever met a beagle, you know nothing gets past their nose. That's why the breed is used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to help sniff out prohibited fruit, vegetables, plants and meat products from high-risk countries that could threaten our nation’s food supply. 

In just over one hour, Mookie and two other beagles helped U.S. Customs and Border Protection specialists at Hartsfield-Jackson International airport in Atlanta confiscate more than 100 pounds of prohibited items. 

The floppy-eared pups have a keen sense of smell and a gentle disposition, which is why the breed was chosen to work with CBP agriculture specialists to approach international travelers and inspect their luggage. 

"This morning, Mookie found biltong that a little one was eating, fresh leaves from Nigeria, he also found branches and pork in a dumpling from Korea," said Marco Collins, an agricultural specialist for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. 

Known as "The Beagle Brigade,” the dogs are trained to sniff out five basic odors: Apples, citrus, beef, pork and mango. These are all items international travelers are prohibited from bringing into the U.S. for fear they could be carrying pests that could threaten U.S. agriculture and livestock. The items could also be hosts for diseases like African Swine Fever, Hand Foot and Mouth Disease, Bovine Flu and more. 

The items are often tucked away in a bag or suitcase, hidden from humans, but no match for the nose of a beagle. 

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"Mookie is very methodical; he's what they call an air-scenter. Once he catches wind of the odor, he'll chase it down and he won't stop until he finds it," said Specialist Collins. 

Once he finds the item, Mookie then sniffs the entire bag before giving Collins the final response, which is to sit. 

From there, agriculture specialists examine the items to determine whether they need to be sent to other agencies for further testing or go into a specialty trash bin to be steam-sterilized and destroyed. 

"A lot of this is coming from the hard and sharp work of the dogs. We do a lot of good work ourselves, but we'd be lost without them," said Bob Grover, another CBP agriculture specialist at Hartsfield-Jackson. 

As for the traveler, specialists said declared items won't result in a penalty. 

Failing to declare an item results in a $300 fine for the first offense. After that, you're looking at a fine of $500 or $1,000. 

And while they may not understand the importance of their work, the beagles do know they love their job and their human handlers. 

Customs and Border Protection has 160 Agriculture Detector Dog Teams across the nation’s airports.