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Doggie detectives are a farmer's best friend

Mar./Apr. 2005 California Country magazine

The Beagle Brigade, found not only in airports but also along the U.S.-Mexican border and in postal facilities, helps keep infested fruit from getting in to the country.


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Working as a team and seeing eye to eye is all in a day's work for Beagle Brigade officer Joanne Ranchie and her partner, Peggy Sue.

They're cute, they're cuddly, and they're some of the best federal agents we have. They're the Beagle Brigade, a group of highly disciplined, highly effective dogs trained to sniff out agricultural contraband from passengers' luggage.

Located in 22 U.S. international airports, these "champions of agriculture" put their noses to the test every day. They sniff the the luggage of travelers who could be harboring potentially dangerous plant and animal diseases that could have a devastating effect on this country's agriculture.

The Beagle Brigade began back in 1984 at the Los Angeles International Airport with a single beagle and a lone handler. Today, the Beagle Brigade can be found across the country, and not only in airports, but also along the U.S.-Mexican border and in postal facilities. The success of the program has even led to several other countries looking to start similar programs of their own, including Canada, Australia, Mexico and South Korea.

One of the program's most dedicated agents operates at San Francisco International Airport. Don't let her furry coat fool you--she means business! And her business includes protecting California's agriculture.

Five-year-old Peggy Sue is the top dog on duty at SFO. Peggy Sue and her handler, Joanne Ranchie, confiscated more than 6,000 prohibited items last year.

"Peggy and I work an average of six flights a day, with about 300 passengers on each flight," Ranchie said. "You multiply that by each passenger having at least two pieces of luggage and that adds up to her sniffing about 3,600 pieces of luggage each day. She's always ready to do it again the next day, too."

Just how important is the work these doggie detectives accomplish? Well, consider that just one orange carried by a traveler may have introduced the Mediterranean fruit fly to California in 1980, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. State and federal agencies ultimately spent more than $100 million to eradicate the pest. Another big concern for ranchers is foot-and-mouth disease, a cattle ailment that ravaged Great Britain in 2001. Economists say that an outbreak today would cost farmers billions of dollars in lost production and lost export markets. But consumers might end up paying the most, through both tax dollars and higher food prices.

"We know we're the front line," Ranchie said. "We know we've got to stop it here before any of it goes through and becomes a danger to our farmers and ranchers. People don't understand that a single piece of fruit you put in the trash after you get off a flight might have the fruit fly larvae on it that can trigger an outbreak that could devastate the citrus industry of Southern California."

Before the beagles can go to work, they must go to school. Just like other federal agents, they are put through an intense eight-week boot camp at the national Beagle Brigade headquarters in Orlando, Fla. During training, the beagles start by using boxes scented with the odors of beef, citrus fruit and mango. They learn to recognize these odors and sit passively near the box when they detect them, to allow the handler to inspect the box closer. After several weeks, the dogs are matched up with a handler, who has also gone through her or his own training. In order to be effective, the two must learn to work together, which has never been a problem for Ranchie and Peggy Sue.

Since they began working together nearly two years ago, the duo has been inseparable. They're also a pair to be reckoned with if you're trying to sneak in food from outside the United States.

While Peggy Sue concentrates on the luggage, Ranchie emphasizes safety and education. She looks out for both passengers and for Peggy Sue to make sure she's not stepped on or mistreated. The education part has to do with teaching passengers why she's taking their food.

"We're not there to scare or intimidate them. We want to educate them so they know what to bring and what not to bring into the states. Every time I take something from a passenger, I explain why they can't bring it in, so they know the next time they travel," Ranchie explained.

But for the team to be really effective, the dog still has to have fun. This big game of "hide-and-go-seek" for the dogs is what keeps them wanting to "play," and sniff out more contraband.

"We have to keep it interesting to the dogs because if they lose interest in the 'game,' it's really hard to get it back," Ranchie said

To help keep it "just a game" to Peggy Sue, Ranchie has her rotate working at the airport with working at the airport post office, where Peggy Sue walks the package line sniffing out contraband items. In addition to Peggy Sue, the post office relies on x-ray machines to find anything that the dogs might have had trouble picking up.

But if there's any dog to do the sniffing, it's got to be the beagle. The dogs were picked to participate in the program because they have some of the best noses in the business. Their sense of smell is more than 10,000 times greater than a human's. Also, because of their calm disposition and small stature, beagles are great for working with the public. All the dogs in the program are rescued from animal shelters, saved from an otherwise bleak future to become not only man's best friend, but a farmer's best friend as well. Ranchie reports that Peggy Sue knows what it's like to live on the streets, because when she was rescued, she was a skinny, pregnant, homeless dog with no future. Now she's a dog on a mission.

"Dogs like Peggy Sue know what it's like to live a hard life and they know how good they have it now--they get food, a nice place to live and they get to be with their best friend eight hours a day. They have a real purpose in life," Ranchie said.

So while traditionally dogs have been thought of as protectors of people, homes and farms, the Beagle Brigade dogs are in charge of safeguarding something even bigger--the nation's agriculture. And while they may be small in stature, they make up for it with their heart and determination.

(Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the popular weekly television program, California Country. She may be reached at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at tsellers@cfbf.com)


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