SOME of America's most efficient federal agents are being recruited from the pound.
Since the Department of Agriculture created the Beagle Brigade in 1986, scores of dogs have been trained to sniff out potential pests and defend the United States against imported plagues.
``We needed an animal that was non-threatening, had a good nose, and liked to work,'' says Hal Fingerman, one of three regional directors of the program. Beagles fit the bill perfectly.
They are probably the cutest and least threatening of federal employees. All recruits are found at animal shelters or donated by individuals. ``We have yet to pay for a dog,'' says trainer Brent Heldt.
Only 1 out of 15 dogs makes it through the extensive training course here at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. But ``We find a home for every dog we take in,'' Mr. Heldt says.
Those that prove to be up to the job begin working in the baggage areas of busy airports, sniffing out prohibited food crossing the American border.
About 50 dogs and handlers now work in 18 international airports throughout the US. Each beagle wears a green jacket with the words ``Agriculture's Beagle Brigade'' on one side and ``Protecting American Agriculture'' on the other.
Many people mistake the beagles for the drug-sniffing dogs that have been working in US airports for more than 30 years. ``We don't look for narcotics,'' Heldt explains.
Instead, these dogs are using their noses to protect the US from prohibited fruit, meat, and plants that could carry dangerous pests and diseases into the country. The recent Medfly infestation in California may have started from larvae in a single piece of contraband fruit. State and federal authorities are spending millions to eradicate the pest.
``This is the first line of defense for US agriculture,'' Heldt says. ``We're here to protect US customs. The dogs are a tool to help us do the job.''
While passengers wait for their bags and line up to go through Customs, the leashed beagles roam around, sniffing luggage and carry-on items. As soon as the dog smells a contraband item, he sits down next to the bag. If the handler finds something, the beagle earns his pay - a chewy morsel of food.
``The dogs allow us to `look' in all the bags without even opening them,'' says handler Joe Boone. ``Otherwise, your guess is as good as mine.'' After a year on the job, the beagles are accurate 90 percent of the time, and one dog can inspect the bags of 400 people in 10 to 15 minutes.
The dogs are not only more efficient than human inspectors but also less biased. ``They don't discriminate against anyone,'' says Steve Manwaring, an assistant trainer at JFK. ``Inspectors work on profiles of what kind of people are most likely to carry food. But the dogs just respond to odors, not appearance.''
The Beagle Brigade is most useful on flights from Europe and Asia. People flying from Africa, India, and small third-world countries often carry strong-smelling spices such as curry powder. ``If that gets in their olfactory system, it takes a few hours for their `nose' to come back,'' Mr. Manwaring says.
The beagles inevitably draw attention from passengers. Children follow them around and stop to give a pat on the head.
``We don't try to shelter the dogs from socializing,'' Heldt says. ``That's part of the game. Passengers are inquisitive, and that helps us put our message out.''
Inspectors can issue $50 or $100 fines to passengers with contraband items. But such fines are enforced only when there is a clear attempt to smuggle something into the country. ``If it's an apple on the top of the bag, that's not smuggling,'' Boone says. ``Many people don't realize why these things are prohibited. They don't understand the risk.''
When the dogs at JFK aren't working, they relax in their kennel on the airport grounds. Inside, it's heated, and classical music plays softly in the background.
But they seem happiest on the job. ``It's like a kid in the playground,'' Boone says. ``For us, it's work. But for the dogs, it's a game.''