So you thought you could sneak that avocado through airport security, huh? Even though we’ve warned you about the consequences of not declaring items to customs, you said to yourself, “It’s just one avocado. No one will ever know.” Well, little did you know that the United States has hired some of the industry’s hardest workers to sniff out even the smallest contraband food items at airports—literally. The Beagle Brigade is on the case, and not even a stray avocado pit will escape their detection.
In 1984, the United States Department of Agriculture brought on one highly trained beagle to sniff out plants and animal products in luggage on international flights coming into Los Angeles. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, this particular breed was chosen for the task because of “their keen sense of smell, non-threatening size, high food drive, and gentle disposition with the public.” Now there are more than 180 teams of these dogs at international airports across the country to make sure prohibited food and plant items don’t contaminate the country’s agriculture.
Most of the working dogs are rescue beagles, and before they head out into the field to perform their duties they spend 10-13 weeks at the USDA National Detector Dog Training Center near Atlanta, Georgia, honing their skills. According to The New York Times, the main focus of the training is picking out five distinct odors: apple, citrus, mango, pork, and beef.
Throughout their service, the beagles are paid with treats and positive reinforcement, and most are adopted by their handlers. By the age of nine or 10, they tend to retire, and a new batch of beagles fresh out of training steps up.
In the first nine months of the 2022 fiscal year, the Beagle Brigade has detected more than 96,000 prohibited items, The New York Times reports. And while some of those finds are clearly food items that were accidentally forgotten in pockets or backpacks, others reveal the creative ways in which people have tried sneaking goods past customs.
Bettie the beagle, who works as part of the Brigade at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, recently uncovered a lemon that a woman was hiding in her bra, Block Club Chicago reports, and in June Bettie sniffed out 30 pounds of sausage that a passenger had hidden inside six diapers in their suitcase.
Back in 2016, 11 Alive reported that Joey the beagle found a whole roast pig in the luggage of a passenger flying into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport from Peru. And in 2019, The Washington Post reported that one bag, which aroused the suspicions of Phillip the beagle at Dulles International Airport, was found to contain a mummified llama fetus.
If you ever think about smuggling produce into the U.S. from your overseas vacation, think again. Nothing gets past the Beagle Brigade.