CHICAGO - Every single day, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at O’Hare International Airport find unwelcome and potentially harmful meat products, fruits, and vegetables that travelers are trying to bring into the country.
But the "Beagle Brigade" is there to sniff out trouble.
In many cases, travelers don't realize the items they’ve packed from overseas could be devastating to our country’s agriculture.
Other times, they are trying to smuggle those products in.
The detector dog program, known as the Beagle Brigade, was established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1984 and continues to advance today.
On Wednesday, international passengers arriving at O’Hare Airport had to go through Rockie – a three-year-old beagle and member of the highly trained brigade. FOX 32 went behind the scenes to see the team in action.
O’Hare’s Beagle Brigade has 10 beagles on the squad, including Rockie. He and his K9 handler, Connie Totzke, work together to scan bags in the international terminal, looking for possible agricultural violations.
"He goes through and smells peoples’ bags. If he alerts, I will talk to the passenger and find out if they have any food and what they have," said Connie Totzke, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agriculture Specialist.
When the canine detects something questionable, items are either seized on the spot by the beagle’s handler or bags are sent over to CBP officers who unseal them and examine what’s inside.
"Rockie himself has found about 30 pounds of cowhide in one bag," said Totzke.
In the last 48 hours alone, customs officers at O’Hare confiscated ruminant meat, prohibited fruit, fried pork skins, leaves, yams, bush meat and other products that could be carrying diseases and insects. These pests can harm our crops and damage our ecosystem.
"Right now, one of our biggest diseases that’s running rampant around the world is African Swine Fever. And it’s a very devastating disease. Our next-door neighbors over in Iowa have a high production of pork," said Totzke. "You also have Avian Flu, which most people have heard about and is making a large resurgence in the world. Again, Iowa also has lots of chickens and so when that gets into one of those farms, they end up having to unfortunately usually kill off all the animals because it will just go through all the animals in that farm."
All the pups and their handlers go through extensive training at the USDA National Detector Dog Training Center (NDDTC) in Georgia.
They are the first line of defense in stopping foreign pests from wreaking havoc on our nation’s agriculture.
"Every day is a new adventure," said Totzke.
Once seized, fresh products such as fruits and vegetables are inspected for pests, then submitted to USDA entomologists for examination.
Confiscated meat, on the other hand, is steam-sterilized and disposed.
U.S Customs and Border Protection currently has more than 115 agriculture K9 teams across the nation that do this type of work.