JFK’s Beagle Brigade: pups battling aliens 1

Officer Meghan Caffery and Agent Izzy.

While aliens from outer space do not pose an imminent threat to the United States, prohibited fruit, flowers, vegetables, nuts and meats brought into this country by international travelers can harbor tiny alien pests that can threaten the U.S. food supply.

Despite the risk, some travelers are more than willing to bend the rules to bring in prohibited items. Others simply want to share the foods and plants from foreign countries or delicacies that are hard to find locally.

To combat this threat to American agriculture the Beagle Brigade was established. Members of this unit have great noses, sunny dispositions, green jackets and lots of hair.

The dogs of the Beagle Brigade have been passively trained to detect prohibited fruit, plants and meat that could contain harmful plant and animal pests and diseases, which can threaten U.S. agriculture and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars to eradicate.

The beagles undergo 10 to 13 weeks of training at the National Detector Dog Training Center in Orlando, Fla.

Dogs begin by learning to distinguish five key scents; mango, apple, citrus, pork and beef.

At John F. Kennedy International Airport, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Beagle Brigade canine Izzy, a 6-year-old female, and her handler, CBP Officer Meghan Caffery, are among the several CBP teams who patrol in the Federal Inspection Service areas. The JFK Canine Program is headed by Gary Walck, Canine Branch chief.

Izzy has been trained to sniff the baggage of international passengers as they proceed through the FIS areas at JFK. When she sniffs prohibited agricultural items in passenger luggage or packages she will sit to alert her handler. She is then given a treat for her efforts.

Caffery will check the passenger’s bags, mark the customs declaration if any prohibited items are found and refer them for further agricultural investigation. Passengers who do not declare agricultural items can be fined up to $250 on the spot. Prohibited goods are confiscated without compensation.

Izzy loves her work and thinks of it as a big game.

To make sure Izzy keeps her sniffing skills in top shape, training exercises are conducted. A row of luggage filled with non-target and target items is set up. When Izzy smells the target item she will sit to signal her handler. She is rewarded with a treat. The pieces of luggage are then mixed up and Izzy is tested again.

Last Monday afternoon the Queens Chronicle watched Izzy in action at the International Arrivals Building at JFK.

A flight from Frankfort, Germany had just landed, and as the passengers arrived in the baggage area and picked up their luggage, Caffery and Izzy sprang into action. Swiftly Izzy began sniffing the passengers and their luggage. Spending no more than a second or two on each, Izzy went from bag to bag.

Suddenly, Izzy sat down by a large black piece of luggage and put her paw on it, indicating to Caffery that the bag contained an agricultural product. When the bag was opened it was found to contain banned chili peppers. The owner of the luggage, who gave his name as Eduardo and said he lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., said he purchased the peppers in Norway and was unaware that he could not bring them into the country. The peppers were confiscated.

An airport skycap passed Izzy as he was pushing a cart of luggage. Her sense of smell was so keen that she alerted Caffery to the fact that he had a ham sandwich stuffed in his pocket.

According to CBP officials, Izzy can screen about 1,000 pieces of luggage in about 30 minutes. It would take several inspectors an entire shift to process the same number of bags.

Caffery joined the CBP in September 2006 and became a canine officer in January 2009, when she was partnered with K-9 Izzy.

Izzy’s most unusual agricultural seizure was a 4-foot fig tree, including roots and soil, from the Republic of Georgia in Asia. It was found in a large duffle bag. The tree was seized but the passenger wasn’t fined because Caffery felt she didn’t have an adequate understanding of English.

CBP Supervisor James Armstrong, a 20-year CBP veteran, said that during the Christmas season agents find an influx of chestnuts, hams and salami, which are prohibited, being brought in by international passengers. He added that seasonal fruit is also being brought into the country, such as clementines from Spain during their season, and mangos from Egypt.

Armstrong said that Dutch plant bulbs, also a prohibited agricultural item, which passengers purchase at Amsterdam’s farmers markets, are being brought into JFK airport.

Caffery said that passengers from Beijing have been caught trying to bring back prohibited items that run the gamut from sugar cane, mangos and meat pies to pigs’ feet and duck tongues.

Armstrong said that some people are bringing back prohibited agricultural products to sell at local bodegas. Such was the case with one passenger, he said, whose suitcase contained only a pair of socks and was otherwise filled with prohibited mangos and teas. Such people do get fined, he said.

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