Beaglemania Breaks Out At Sam's Retirement Party

THIS is a story about federal retirement, 11 beagles, and plastic-encased meat products from Germany.

If that doesn't pique your interest, well, I'm sure there's a piece that uses the phrase ''GOP Contract With America'' elsewhere on this page.

It begins with Sam, who has worked for the US Department of Agriculture almost his entire life. Sam retired this week, and his going-away party was an event not to be missed.

Sam is a beagle. The 10 co-workers who gathered in a USDA courtyard to see him off are also beagles. Their job: Sniff out contraband food hidden in arriving luggage at international airports around the United States.

The ''Beagle Brigade'' doesn't get together very often. When it does, it likes to party. Typically, this involves lots of sniffing, and howling that sounds like a set of bagpipes, very poorly played.

For his part, Sam behaved with dignity. He probably didn't want to endanger his retirement package: After a decade of detecting mangos, bacon, antlers, and land snails at Boston's Logan Airport, Sam is now going to live as a pet with his handler, Kevin Dailey.

He'll get to play with Mr. Dailey's two daughters and fondly remember such career highlights as the discovery of 60 pounds of illicit sausage in the bags of a passenger arriving from Germany.

''A lot of German meat products are vacuum sealed,'' says Dailey, proudly. ''They are very hard to detect.''

Of course, Sam was pretty sure he'd find a soft spot for his golden years. At Logan, where Sam was a familiar sight sniffing at baggage carousels, he was a great favorite.

''All the stewardesses kept asking me, 'Have you changed your mind?' '' says Dailey. ''They wanted to take him.''

(True story: As this is being written in a home office, this reporter's own beagle, Annabelle, is flinging her hedgehog squeeze toy at the computer in an apparent ploy to get a mention in the story.)

The USDA Beagle Brigade itself has been in operation for only 10 years, making Sam something of a founding member. There are now more than 30 dog and handler teams at 19 international airports.

The green-jacketed beagles are the nation's first line of defense against prohibited plants or meat products that could carry pests or disease dangerous to US agriculture.

A plantain from Ghana may look innocent enough. But the USDA is fond of pointing out that California's disastrous medfly infestation likely started with one piece of infected, contraband fruit. That makes the $450,000 beagle program appear to be something of a bargain.

USDA uses beagles, instead of, say, Rottweilers, for a number of reasons. For one, they are sweet-natured and not threatening to passengers. Also, they are relatively easy to train.

But most important of all, their noses are as sensitive as seismometers. And beagles' ''natural love of food makes them effective detectives,'' points out Patricia Jensen, a USDA marketing program official.

(Another true story: This reporter learned of the food-motivation aspect of beagles several weeks after obtaining Annabelle from the pound, when he discovered her standing on the table amid Sunday dinner, licking the gravy boat.)

When their 747-sized noses detect an odor of food in luggage, Beagle Brigade members simply sit down. Their handlers then inspect the bag and slip the dog its reward: a treat.

Tastes vary. Jackpot, whose beat is Washington's Dulles Airport, likes pepperoni. Gypsy, from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, likes a brand of snack called Snausages. Clueso, from Seattle, prefers beef-flavored cat nibbles.

THE beagles all come from humane societies or are donated by breeders. When they retire, most simply move from their airport kennels to become their handlers' pets.

That's undoubtedly a well-earned easy life. Still, all the beagles gathered for Sam's retirement party seemed sad to see him go. Of course, beagles always look sad, so it was hard to determine if the emotion was genuine.

Then they all wandered around the courtyard, sniffing in corners where there may once have been a micron of popcorn in the early 1970s.

''They have a nose that rules their heart,'' sighs Sandy Seward, a USDA beagle trainer.

(Last true story: Annabelle has been banished to the backyard, accompanied with a dog-bone bribe. Her hedgehog toy kept bouncing off the keyboard.)

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