If you saw a dog with handler at an airport, sniffing baggage, would you think the dog was looking for drugs or food? Until yesterday, I thought drugs. That’s when I met the Beagle Brigade.

As I was exploring the Honolulu airport, waiting for my transfer to Kauai, two dogs with women in tow dashed past me on the stairs to the garden. Later, I ran into the pair at their “work station” — testing packages as travelers were leaving Hawaii via the US/International terminal. So, I asked the women about the program. The dogs are supposed to sniff out fresh fruit or even dirt. The discussion reminded me of questioning (but no sniffing then) about having visited a farm when traveling to/from New Zealand.

Even though I have flown into the country from Europe and Asia and the Bahamas, I had not encountered the USDA Beagle Brigade until Sunday. In this inspection, the woman had fresh sandwiches in her bag, but they seemed to pass inspection.

Honolulu - Beagle Brigade

Honolulu - USDA Beagle Brigade

According to a very old (1996) USDA promo (local pdf), the Beagle Brigade was originally part APHIS. When launched in the ’80s, Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) officers inspected “passenger baggage, mail, and cargo in the Federal Inspection Service (FIS) areas at all U.S. ports of entry,” usually at baggage claim.

Why beagles? They have a keen sense of smell and can differentiate between odors and are social.

More current info (2008) about Beagle Brigade program reveals that today it is diminished in importance and scope. From the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP):

Agricultural pests and diseases are a threat to U.S. food crops and livestock. Some of these organisms are highly contagious animal diseases that could cause severe economic damage to the livestock industry and losses in production, which would mean increased costs for meat and dairy products. Other pests can affect property values by damaging lawns, ornamental plants, trees, and even homes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are partners in this effort to protect American agriculture against the introduction of foreign plant and animal pests and diseases at our nation’s ports of entry. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) develops the policies that determine what agricultural products can come into the country and what products pose a risk and should be kept out. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at ports of entry enforce these agricultural policies. Confiscated items are carefully destroyed in special CBP facilities.

Notice that there is no mention here of dogs or the Beagle Brigade. Poking around a little more, I found this November 2008 announcement from APHIS (local pdf):

While CBP has primary responsibility for the detection of illegal agricultural products crossing international borders, APHIS continues to be responsible for inspections of passengers, cargo and conveyances originating in Hawaii and Puerto Rico destined to the U.S. mainland.

For good or bad, it appears that most of the beagles (and their human partners) were put out of work as a result of Bush Administration decisions post-9-11.

Photo is part of my 365 project.

  • Place: Honolulu Airport
  • Camera: iPhone4
  • Manipulation: Photoshop, Crop; Camera Bag, border

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KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
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