Inside Kennedy Airport’s Terminal 4, where thousands of international travelers arrive daily, Denny zeroed in on baggage containing a 5-pound cooked pork meal. Then the 6-year-old beagle caught another scent and headed straight for luggage that had plants tucked inside, including ginger contaminated by soil, and fresh moringa, a plant often used for health benefits.

The passengers were shocked that the innocuous-looking items had been found and seized, but quickly learned they could be carrying dangerous bugs or pathogens that, if unleashed, could damage crops and vegetation, and kill livestock.

Denny is an enforcement dog at JFK, one of the busiest international gateways in the country, where data shows more than 1 million international passengers filter through monthly. He is one of more than 100 enforcement dogs nationwide trained to detect and help prevent banned plants, animals and illegal drugs from entering the United States.

What to know

For U.S. Customs and Border Protection 2021 fiscal year at Kennedy Airport, which ran from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, dogs helped agricultural specialists find 172 dangerous pests at JFK’s international terminals, according to K-9 enforcement statistics provided by the enforcement agency.

The most common critters intercepted at JFK are aphididae, or aphids; miradae, or plant bugs; and noctuidae also known as owlet moths. These bugs can cause extensive harm to the environment.

Last year, dogs helped agricultural specialists confiscate 9,368 plants and 5,470 animals including cooked and raw meats and poultry. 

"We don’t have, quite frankly, enough people to search every person coming off an airplane. Besides, that’s not what we want to do," said Joe Demalderis, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection canine handler and agricultural specialist at JFK. "We want to facilitate legitimate trade and travel, while at the same time we have our enforcement strategy. We’re really looking for that .1 percent — that proverbial needle."

Denny the beagle, on the job at Kennedy Airport, checks...

Denny the beagle, on the job at Kennedy Airport, checks out some confiscated food. Credit: Corey Sipkin

Denny is a member of the national Beagle Brigade, a group of about 120 trained sniffing dogs, mostly beagles, that team with Custom and Border Protection’s agricultural specialists at airports. The dogs undergo a roughly 13-week training program at the National Detector Dog Training Center in Newnan, Georgia, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The beagles, known for their sniffing powers, are first trained to detect five basic scents: orange, mango, apple, pork and beef. They use these smells to then trace dozens of other odors, Demalderis said.

Drug, firearm and currency sniffing dogs are often larger breeds and trained at the Customs and Border Protection Canine programs in Texas and Virginia.

9,368 plants, 5,470 animals confiscated

Last fiscal year, from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, dogs helped agricultural specialists at JFK confiscate 9,368 plants and 5,470 animals, including cooked and raw meats and poultry, according to JFK K-9 enforcement statistics.

Canines at JFK also help thwart the flow of illegal drugs into the country.

Dogs at the airport stopped about $820,000 worth of opioids, including 13 pounds of fentanyl and 37 pounds of heroin, from being smuggled in last year, drug seizure statistics show. Dogs also helped sniff out about 285 pounds of cocaine, worth about $4.5 million.

In 2020, dogs helped officers confiscate 351 pounds of the synthetic, mood-altering drug ecstasy, worth roughly $320,000 — more than any year since 2016, statistics show.

Those caught smuggling drugs are initially arrested by Customs and Border Protection; then cases get turned over to federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Travelers carrying banned agricultural products may face a fine if they fail to declare certain items.

Depending on the scope of the case, federal agencies may decide to move forward with charges, or the case may get bounced back to Customs and referred to Port Authority police for state-related charges.

Also important is protecting the region’s food industry. Last year, agricultural specialists found 172 dangerous pests in a total of 14,838 agricultural products seized at JFK, the most since 2018, according to K-9 enforcement statistics.

The most common critters intercepted at JFK are aphididae, or aphids; miradae, or plant bugs; and noctuidae, also known as owlet moths, Customs and Border Protection regional spokesman Anthony Bucci said. These bugs can cause extensive harm to the environment.

It's unclear precisely how, but some of these invasive insects have crept into the Long Island area, according to Jola Szubielski, spokesperson with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

While it took 20 years to eradicate the wood-boring Asian long-horned beetle from New York City, there are currently 53 square miles quarantined for the pest in central Long Island, according to the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The beetle may have first entered Brooklyn through untreated packing crates from overseas.

Last October, the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County issued an alert because of sightings of the spotted lanternfly, which could damage vineyards by sucking on vine saps. It was discovered on Staten Island in 2020, after likely arriving on goods imported from Asia, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Amanda Tripple, a Customs and Border Protection agricultural specialist and Denny’s handler, said rice and grains are heavily regulated because of the Khapra beetle. Native to India, the beetle is one of the most destructive pests of stored seeds, grains and grain products. In 2017, JFK specialists found the insect hitchhiking in a box of rice in a shipment of household items arriving from Saudi Arabia.

Tripple said mangoes from certain countries can carry fruit flies. Tephritid fruit flies spoil fruits and vegetable and can result in major market losses, according to the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

"Our purpose here is to educate. We want people to understand we are here to protect our food supply," Tripple said, while gently reminding a family traveling from overseas why various plants, including turkey berry, were banned. "This is a noxious weed. It's invasive."

Specialists also are on the lookout for animal diseases that could have devastating consequences on the economy.

In China, an African swine fever outbreak in 2018-19 resulted in 13,355 dead pigs, according to a research article in the Nature Food journal, which publishes research on food and securing food systems. Although the virus has never been found in the United States, pork and meat continues to be restricted, depending on the origination point.

The highly pathogenic avian influenza, also known as bird flu, can be equally harmful to the bird industry. More than 50 million commercial turkeys and hens died or were destroyed during a 2014-15 bird flu outbreak in the United States, according to a report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

At the time, trading partners also imposed bans on U.S. poultry imports. As a result, the industry suffered more than $1 billion in losses. The United States is the world’s largest producer and second-largest exporter of poultry, according to the USDA.

Citrus canker, spread through contaminated material, is believed to have originated in India and was rediscovered in Florida in 2005 after being eradicated. The disease isn’t harmful to people but causes fruit to drop prematurely, making it unsellable.

"Citrus canker down in Florida created a bunch of problems. They had to kill a lot of trees, and that affects our economy. It affects prices and going to the store buying lemons or oranges. It’s one of the only fruits, whether it’s dried or fresh, we regulate it," Tripple said.

Most detector dogs are rescues, adopted

That's where dogs such as Denny come in.

Most detector dogs are rescues, or adopted, and have an 85% sniffing accuracy rate, according to the USDA’s dog training center. Each dog is assigned one handler and has frequent breaks, with walks or runs in between jobs.

Detector dogs are trained to give a passive sitting response, or an active response such as nudging their nose or pawing, and are rewarded with praise, treats or play.

"He indicated, he went to the bag. … He sat next to it and started pushing his nose and clawing," said Tripple, explaining how Denny found the pork. "It’s like a game to them because they’re just looking for that next treat."

Tripple said Denny gets a little more excited when he smells meat, while he has a more subtle sitting response when he smells fruit or plants.

While dogs are an important tool, even without them, specialists at JFK uncovered some peculiar finds last year.

Last spring, two Guyanese men were separately found with more than two dozen live finches tucked inside hair rollers. Both men received a $300 fine and were sent back to Guyana that same day, according to Customs and Border Protection. Bucci said chirping finches are used for gambling competitions in Guyanese communities.

Specialists also discovered 22 highly invasive giant African snails in baggage belonging to a man traveling from Ghana last April. The fast-reproducing snail is considered a dangerous pest that consumes 500 types of plants, and can damage stucco and plaster, according to the USDA. Worse, it can transmit a parasitic nematode to people that can cause meningitis.

When the snail was found in Miami in 2011, it took 10 years and $23.5 million in USDA and state funds to eradicate the invasive species in December, according to the USDA.

In addition to thwarting unintentional threats such as hitchhiking bugs, specialists are also on the lookout for deliberate dangers like agro-terrorism, where toxic substances can be introduced through food and food products. The specialists also confiscate critically endangered species.

"We have an important job to do," Tripple said.

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