Monday, July 13, 2020
July 13, 2020

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Customs beagles on pork patrol

Dogs last line of defense against African swine fever

3 Photos
Phillip, a beagle, sniffs incoming passenger's luggage with his handler, Valerie Woo, a Customs and Border Patrol Agriculture Specialist and Canine Handler, at the international arrivals terminal at Dulles International Airport.
Phillip, a beagle, sniffs incoming passenger's luggage with his handler, Valerie Woo, a Customs and Border Patrol Agriculture Specialist and Canine Handler, at the international arrivals terminal at Dulles International Airport. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post) Photo Gallery

DULLES, Va. — Phillip has a preference for small handbags. Larger bags may yield bigger loads of contraband, but he doesn’t care. For him, it all pays the same. A single Snausage, or maybe a Pup-Peroni dog treat. Wearing his dark blue vest that says, “Protecting American Agriculture” above the U.S. Department of Homeland Security logo, he alerts. The subject is, at first, oblivious. She has her roller bag, her shoulder bag, she ambles toward the exit.

Phillip’s partner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection K-9 officer Valerie Woo, moves in, makes the collar. From that shoulder bag comes a ham sandwich secured in plastic wrap that Woo says was a snack on the 1:10 p.m. Air China flight arriving in Dulles from Beijing. It is the first of three ham sandwiches Phillip and fellow canine team member Beazley find from that flight alone. Phillip also sniffs out two apples and two oranges.

Prohibited items include meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, plants, seeds, soil and products made from animal or plant materials, the details predicated on a traveler’s embarkation point. But it is the pork that is most troubling right now.

African swine fever is estimated to have killed a quarter of the world’s pork population since last August, including half of China’s swine herd, the world’s biggest. Since then, the disease has spread to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, North Korea and the Philippines. It has been reported in Romania, Poland, Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries; in September it was found near Saint-Leger in Belgium. ASF has invaded more than 40 countries to date. There is no cure, no vaccine, and while the virus is not dangerous for humans, American pork producers and the U.S. Agriculture Department are terrified it will reach North American soil.

This is the most challenging time of year says Steve Sapp, public affairs officer of the Mid-Atlantic region for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. International travelers pour in from abroad bearing foodstuffs as gifts, as holiday fare. Grandma’s famous siu mai dumplings, the crispy rice cakes with pork floss the family enjoyed while vacationing in Vietnam. Food is central to the holidays, and experts say human travel is the most likely vector for the disease.

David Ng, a supervisory agriculture specialist for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, estimates officers seize 100 to 400 pounds of contraband at Dulles each day, “99 percent of it food.”

Phillip and Beazley have found mango weevil, pink hibiscus mealybug and citrus canker. They are trained to identify five things: apples, mango, citrus, beef and pork. But right now, the bulk of their olfactory attentions are paid to that last one. The USDA is in the process of ramping up their canine presence, adding 60 beagle teams for a total of 179 to expand screenings of incoming international flights, commercial ports, seaports and cargo planes.

Why beagles? They are friendly, nonthreatening, smart and have great noses. Also, Woo says this may be the most important, they are exceedingly food motivated. There are larger breeds patrolling for U.S. currency and firearms, different dogs that sniff out narcotics, still others looking for bombs. Teams at the airport tend to be beagles or beagle mixes, animals plucked from shelters and rescues around the country to get a second chance.

“We could look at 100 dogs and not come back with any,” says Kathleen Warfield, training specialist at the National Detector Dog Training Center in Georgia. “And once they go through initial testing, the percentage of those dogs that make it is maybe 70 percent. We want searching to be their main priority.”

The dogs start slowly with a progressive training, all positive reinforcement with treats and a clicker, moving from boxes either empty or containing illicit food items to more complicated luggage with its zippers and multiple compartments. They train for 10 weeks, dog and human partner, learning each other, practicing, smelling smells.

“When a beagle walks into a room, they are checking everything,” Warfield says. “They can walk by and smell a whole line of bags or a moving carousel. The dogs save millions of dollars in law enforcement.”