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The Beagle Brigade

As you travel through an airport on your way to some exotic or perhaps mundane location, you're gleefully unaware of some of the action that goes on behind the scenes: drug seizures, sorting through lost luggage...and at some 21 airports around the country, the beagle brigade. For the past 11 years, the department of Agriculture has relied on the trained noses of beagle dogs to sniff out illegal produce, plants and meat. We sent reporter Deborah Clark, who's frankly just a little bit goofy about dogs...out to the Los Angeles Airport to investigate.

The Beagle Brigade
by Deborah Clark

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So, the first question has to be...

Song: "Who let the dogs out. Bark, bark, bark, bark. Who let the dogs out?"

In this case, it's Camille Morris. She's one of the canine handlers for the Los Angeles Airport. Every morning she and Lily work the carousels in the baggage claim area at the Bradley International Terminal.

The Beagle Brigade

Like the other 4 dogs in the airport's K-9 program, Lily has been trained to detect the items on the U.S. department of agriculture's restricted list - basically anything with meat in it, some fruits, veggies and plants. The risk is that these products can carry foreign pests or diseases. But people bring them in anyway...either deliberately or more likely, because they simply don't know the rules. And who hasn't been tempted - by the Asian pears you fell in love with in Japan, or the plant specimen you were bringing back from Eastern Europe for your new age herbalist to check out. Think the salami you picked up at the Venice Airport is going to make a lovely gift for the neighbor who took care of your cat while you were gone? Uh uh.

Verity: "The airport gift shop wants to sell the product...the US has regulations. A lot of people have told me the guy at the gift shop said it's ok. I went to Italy and asked them if it was okay if I brought it back and they said yes. I said I know for a fact it's not."

That's Diana Verity, she's the western regional canine program manager stationed here at LAX. And though I don't want to mention this to the other handlers, her dog, Hal, is by far the cutest. He's one of those classic-looking beagles...think Snoopy, except Hal can't type.

The Beagle Brigade

At 6 years old, he's the most senior, and has the most authoritative of barks.

Verity: "Show me Hal, where is it? Hal has some meat he's found. Asian pork that's been shredded and cooked."

But this is more than just fun and games...this is serious business. So far this year, the dogs and their handlers have worked 3575 flights. They've found 4800 plant materials like fruits and vegetables, and seized more than 2900 pounds of meat. Every once in a while, one of the dogs will find something kind of weird, as Camille describes her catch of the month.

Morris: "Like once Lily was sniffing on the floor, it turned out to be birds. 15 birds from Jordan. I just happened to notice that when she started sniffing, the bag was moving."

These officers love their dogs, by the way. Soroya Stith, another of the K-9 officers, is positively ga-ga about hers - he's named Brutus. He was rescued from the pound, this close to being euthanized. He's got a lazy eye and he's a bit overweight...but you've gotta love him.

Stith: "When I take him out of the cage, he's ready to go, his tail is wagging. I'm very attached."

Beagles are the dogs of choice for each of the 21 airports with a K-9 program. I assumed that's because they're super smart.

Morris: "No...mainly just their sense of smell."

The Beagle Brigade

No loyalty from Camille there. But seriously, Diana the supervisor tells me that part of it is how much people love Beagles, and associate them with Charles Schultz' famous cartoon. It makes her job, sorting through people's stuff, much easier.

Verity: "I don't think if I just walked up to the carousel and looked in people's bags without the dog, I'd have as much success in dealing with the passenger."

Apparently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers the beagle program such a success they're looking to expand the brigades. Over the next 18 months, 50 more teams will be distributed across the country. Here at LAX, they'll be getting 6 more.

Hmm...sounds like a follow-up story might be needed.

At Los Angeles International Airport, I'm Deborah Clark for the Savvy Traveler.


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