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Beagles’ big defensive lineBeagles’ big defensive line

Beagles and Labrador retrievers sniff out illegal food products, preventing possible foreign animal diseases and pests from reaching U.S. agriculture.

Kevin Schulz

June 21, 2023

4 Min Read
Beagle dog wearing service gear on leash
LITTLE DOG, BIG JOB: Ozcar may be small, but he has a big job detecting food products and pests that may be hitching a ride with passengers coming into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Kevin Schulz

Ozcar is not even 2 feet tall, and definitely doesn’t break any scales, but he is a force to be reckoned with on the defensive line.

You see, Ozcar is a beagle, and he and his teammates at various airports and other ports of entry across the United States play an important role in keeping foreign diseases and pests from infecting American livestock, crops and forests.

Dogs, humans work as a team

Ozcar and his human handler, Sari Hall, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agriculture specialist canine, work at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago where he screens “passengers, their hand carries and their checked luggage to see if there’s any beef, pork, any fruits, vegetables, anything for the garden to grow or soil that can bring pests or diseases into our country,” Hall says. Customs and Border Protection is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Hall and Ozcar were at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines, Iowa, sharing the importance of the work of Ozcar and his canine colleagues. Hall says Chicago O’Hare is the No. 1 airport in the country in canine seizures, and “last year we found over 22,000 things that we had to take away from folks.” She adds that Ozcar has found more than 20 items in a single day that had to be confiscated.

Prospective Beagle Brigade members go through a three- to six-month training program where they master detection of five core smells: apple, citrus, mango, beef and pork. Once dogs complete their training, a group of handlers comes in to work with the dogs to determine who would make good pairings. Hall says though she worked with a number of dogs in that part of the training, she and Ozcar kept gravitating toward each other. “We really gelled together,” she says of the relationship between her and Ozcar.

Ozcar works a nine-hour shift, three of which are spent monitoring the 11 carousels at O’Hare. Most flights that come into O’Hare have 300 passengers, making for a lot of nose work for Ozcar. The balance of his work shift is Hall transporting him from his kennel, checking his well-being and tending to his needs.

Hall and Ozcar demonstrated his detection ability with a variety of luggage pieces lined up that Ozcar sniffed around. Hall knows that Ozcar “hits” on an item when he sits down next to the offending luggage.

Nose defense

These canine seizures could possibly prevent pork products infected with a foreign animal disease from entering the United States. African swine fever is on most hog producers’ radars, as a recent Iowa State University study estimates that an outbreak of the disease on U.S. soil could cost the swine industry about $7.9 billion annually for up to 10 years.

Joe Scheele, California agriculture liaison for the CBP, says the human and canine workers are tasked with “safeguarding our borders and protecting U.S. agriculture and the public from the biological threat.” There are about 26,000 armed officers in the workforce who are cross-trained in agriculture, “because we know what’s important,” he says.

In 2022, looking at about 860,000 travelers coming into the country by air, water or land, the agriculture specialists are busy. Not all agriculture specialists work with canines such as Ozcar, but Hall says dogs make the job much easier. “We love when the canines work because they’ll find so much more than just our regular screening process,” she says. “They’re quite efficient hunters for fruits and vegetables.”

While the Beagle Brigade gets a lot of ink for their work at airports, Scheele says Labradors also make up a key portion of the force, because they work in more of a cargo environment and are able to climb on pallets to sniff out potentially smuggled content at various ports of entry.

Ozcar and his fellow beagles have busy shifts in the airports, but the Labs’ work can almost seem daunting. The largest cargo ship that Scheele has been on has 18,500 containers. “I can’t look at 18,500 containers on one boat,” he says. “That’s why we have targeting teams. We want to make sure that we look where we need to look, and focus our work.”

On the front lines

As good as the beagles and Labradors are at their jobs, responsibility still lies with travelers in being honest about what they are transporting. “A lot of folks declare items so we can regulate the items that they declare,” Hall says.

Maintaining and strengthening this first line of defense is the reason the National Pork Producers Council led nearly 60 agricultural and other organizations supporting the Beagle Brigade Act of 2023 (H.R. 1480 and S. 759) that was reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. This act would provide permanent authorization for USDA’s National Detector Dog Training Center at Newnan, Ga.

Hall says most of the dogs at the training center are rescue dogs. When Ozcar is retired from service, he will find a permanent home with Hall.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

[email protected]

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