IF you're not careful these days, it would be all too easy to trip over one of Kennedy International Airport's newest, and smallest, employees. Barely knee high and smartly turned out in kelly-green jackets, these ``employees'' are of the canine persuasion, members of the Beagle Brigade, a nationwide program launched last September by the United States Department of Agriculture to help cut down on prohibited fruit and meat coming into the US. The beagles, overseen by the Plant Protection Quarantine (PPQ) division of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, are currently stationed at five major US airports: San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and Seattle. These Eagle Scouts of the dog world, chosen because of their extraordinary sense of smell and gentle natures, are trained to sniff out agricultural contraband - mostly citrus fruits and meats - in the baggage of passengers on incoming international flights.
Overall, the program has met with an enthusiastic response.
``The dogs are the best thing that ever happened here,'' says PPQ canine officer Hal Fingerman. ``[They're] good for the morale of the officers, and the passengers love them.''
He's certainly right on the latter point. Everywhere that Kennedy Airport beagles Sam and Jackpot went, squeals of delight from children followed.
Three-year-old Daniel Feith, arriving on a TWA flight from Israel, was thrilled to discover Sam inspecting his parents' luggage. Daniel's father, who didn't look quite so thrilled, was nevertheless amused.
Had he ever heard of the Beagle Brigade or encountered them before? ``Nope. They're cute.''
At another baggage carousel, three little french boys in matching plaid pants crowd around the young dog.
``Tu veux caresser?'' their mother asks one of them. The boy nods, and pets Sam enthusiastically. His brothers quickly follow suit. The beagle patiently endures this shower of affection, keeping an eye on his handler, just in case official duties call.
But why all the fuss about a few mangoes and sausage?
Think back for a moment to 1980, and California's battle with the Mediterranean fruit fly. A single orange brought in from overseas may have been the culprit in introducing that pest to the US - a pest that cost taxpayers more than $100 million to stamp out. And that's just one example.
Often, travellers aren't aware of the potential hazards. Others know the rules, but persist in trying to bring a bit of sausage or exotic fruit back to a relative or friend.
``I've seen a lot of them [passengers] trying to sneak stuff through - but a lot of them just don't know,'' says Larry McMillen, Sam's handler.
Here at Kennedy, Sam, a purebred 2-year-old beagle, is stationed at the TWA international terminal. Jackpot works the Pan Am terminal. Part basset hound, he is a veteran at 4, an old pro who has been working since the pilot program began some 3 years ago. Both dogs occasionally work other international terminals. Housed in ASPCA kennels on the airport grounds, their workday begins at noon.
``The first thing [the handlers] do is take them for a long walk,'' says officer in charge Sonia Dabulis. ``At the end of the day, they get their food'' - and another walk. The beagles are rested frequently during their eight-hour work day, and are off two days a week.
``They go to the vet regularly, and get excellent care,'' she affirms. A dog's working life is from eight to 10 years, and the handler who has been with each dog last will have the option of keeping it as a pet.
``We were very fortunate in finding Sam,'' Ms. Dabulis says. She explains that he was abandoned by a hunter in upstate New York, and was offered to the Beagle Brigade by an alert dog control officer who had heard of the program.
Sam was accepted, and after nine weeks of training along with Mr. McMillen at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, graduated at the head of his class, and is now an enthusiastic member of the team.
Training, says McMillen, starts out simply - placing one orange in a box, letting the dog sniff it, then telling him to sit. ``It's a matter of repetition,'' he explains.
Still rather green (he's only been on the job since Jan. 9), Sam goes about his work eagerly, sniffing at the seams of luggage when McMillen gives him the command ``Seek!'', and sitting dutifully when he smells something suspicious. His efforts are rewarded with a small treat from the green canvas pouch slung over McMillen's belt. (Sam, no dummy, is fond of treats, and occasionally sits when he shouldn't - but not to worry. He's still in training, and statistics kept by the USDA since the pilot program began show that on average, success rates for the dogs is about 70 percent after a year on the job. That goes up to 89 percent after two years.)
Unphased by the presence of a reporter and a photographer, Sam trots off across the TWA terminal with McMillen in tow (the dogs are kept on leashes at all times while at work).
Flights are arriving this afternoon from Vienna, Frankfurt, Madrid, Tel Aviv, and Paris. Sam works the luggage areas, garnering mixed reactions from the passengers clustered by the baggage carousels: puzzled amusement from adults, delight from children.
At the baggage carousel for a flight from Paris, a well-dressed woman is awaiting her luggage. She looks a bit startled when Sam sniffs at the plastic bag by her feet, but this changes to curiosity as the program is explained. Sam checks out her carry-on case and sits, looking expectantly up at McMillen for his reward.
McMillen asks to see the woman's declaration card and marks an ``A'' (for agriculture) at the top. Later, when she goes through customs, a USDA officer will inspect her bags. (There are currently 51 USDA officers on duty at the various Kennedy terminals, and another 12 in cargo, all of whom work separately from US customs officers.)
What happens if fruit or meat is found?
``If they declare it, nothing,'' says Dabulis. The contraband is simply confiscated. Passengers are also given the opportunity to amend their declarations.
``After you've found one [item],'' she explains, ``you ask if they have any more. If they say no, and more is found, they are fined. [They're] given plenty of warning.'' Fines are $25 for unconcealed contraband, $50 if the passenger has attempted to hide it.
Confiscated goods are stored temporarily in bins under the customs counters. These are emptied periodically and the contents end up in the PPQ office, tucked away behind the busy terminal. There, in a back room, an enormous stainless steel table with a garbage disposal in the center is piled with guava, tomatoes, giant yams, spanish yogurt, honeydew melons, lemons, limes, grapes, and cardboard containers of milk.
The purpose of this quarantine, explains Dabulis, is to isolate the various insects or viruses brought in via the fruits and meat.
``The stuff is seized,'' adds Mr. Fingerman, ``our officers bring it in here, look through it for bugs and diseases, then [it goes through] a giant garbage disposal to the ocean - the organisms can't live in salt.''
PPQ officers then ``write up compilations of figures and stats so they know what kind of stuff is coming from what country,'' he explains.
He says that his department is hoping the Beagle Brigade will help get the message across to the public that bringing prohibited fruit and meat into this country can be hazardous - and potentially expensive to taxpayers.
In addition to their increased presence at airports (``We expect to have three dogs soon at Kennedy,'' says Dabulis, and Atlanta and Chicago are scheduled to receive a team each in 1987), the dogs make occasional forays to local area schools with their handlers to participate in ``career day'' programs.
``We're hoping [the dogs] will be to travelers what Smokey the Bear is to campers,'' he says.
It's all in a day's work for these top dogs
As an afternoon spent following the beagles and their handlers around progresses, the ``war stories'' grow more colorful.
One day, Hal Fingerman relates with obvious pride, his beagle, Jackpot, ``hit a suitcase; [they were] all lined up, no people around. Then he hits another suitcase - same set of luggage. [Finally] he sits on a guy who has a third matching suitcase just like other two. Guy says he has no food - only clothes and `blessed medicine.' Inside his luggage he has 130 pounds of mangoes....''
There are also passengers who try to sneak by with ``bandoleros of sausages'' hidden under their coats.
One man concealed something a bit more exotic. It was a hot summer day, Mr. Fingerman recalls, and a flight had just arrived ``from the islands.'' A man got off the plane wearing a down vest. ``We spotted him instantly in line,'' he says. Customs officers asked him to remove his vest.
``Inside are 70 fresh parrot eggs sewn into little pockets in the lining.'' Traffic in exotic birds is big business these days, with live birds fetching thousands of dollars on the black market. This smuggler had been incubating the eggs during the flight, hoping to make a big profit when they hatched.
``We laugh [about these stories] and it sounds crazy, but the detrimental effects to this country are serious,'' Fingerman says.