Airport dog finds illegal food stowed in luggage

On a recent busy afternoon at Kennedy Airport, a beagle with plaintive-looking eyes was lying on the floor of Terminal 4, oblivious to the chaos of rolling luggage and human activity teeming all around her.

There was no prying this dog off the ground — despite the best attempts of Officer Meghan Caffery, her closest companion and partner.

"Izzy," Caffery said, a note of exasperation in her voice. "You've only been here an hour."

The 6-year-old beagle, who works for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, can't be faulted for taking a break. She spends most of her time trotting briskly around the baggage carousels with Caffery in tow, searching for illegal food stowed in luggage arriving from international flights. Thousands of bags stream through this terminal every hour, and Izzy is the first line of defense against food or plants that could wreak havoc on American agriculture.

"Some flights are, you know, just apples or sandwiches that people had from the plane they forgot in their bags," said Caffery, an agriculture specialist canine handler. "Some flights are notorious for bringing in sausages or fresh fruits."

Izzy is among a small cadre of luggage-inspecting beagles who live and work at the airport, though federal officials won't disclose the exact number of canines employed. Technically called a "passive response dog," she is trained to sit whenever she smells one of several odors: fruit, meat, plant, seed or vegetable.

With just one sniff, Izzy can determine whether a bag is worth searching — a seconds-long appraisal that would take human officers hours to do, given that about 1 million travelers pass through Kennedy Airport in a single month. During her three years of employment, she's found everything from duck tongues to pigs' heads and feet. The agricultural products vary according to the time of year.

On average, about 28 pounds of food are collected every day, most of it from people who are trying to sneak in food from their native countries.

"We pulled a four-foot fig tree out of a bag one day," Caffery said. "The roots and soil and everything, like it was just dug right out of the ground."

Her nose never fails to spot a trace of food, sometimes even picking up the scent of a snack that was removed from a bag hours before. During one lap around a carousel, as they wove in and out of startled passengers, Izzy paused before a pile of bags, tail wagging.

Caffery looked around and called out: "Whose bags are these?"

The young man who claimed them acknowledged, upon further questioning, that there were indeed an apple and a banana inside. Caffery marked down the items on a blue Customs declaration form.

Izzy stayed put, waiting for a piece of food to emerge from Caffery's pocket: Her reward for a successful find.

"She'll eat just about anything," Caffery said.

Sometimes it's a bit of a struggle to keep Izzy moving after she's found something. Caffery was forced to drag her along the floor a couple of times, urging her to keep going.

"Come on, find it," she said. "Come on, you can't lay down."

Passengers often take great pains to hide their loot, stuffing it in soda bottles or coffee cans or sewing it into their coats. Some even tape food directly to their bodies. Though a piece of fruit may seem harmless enough, officials say each item is potentially dangerous.

"Something as simple as an apple could carry the larva of a Mediterranean fruit fly," said Officer James Armstrong, who supervises the agricultural searches, "which, if it got loose in our citrus crops in the United States, could cost billions of dollars."

Confiscated items are brought to the airport's grinding room, which has a long steel table piled with rotting food. That day's haul included sausages, barley, burlap, curry, beets and an assortment of fruits and vegetables, among other things. Officers send out samples to a lab for analysis and then crush the remainder through a hole in the table that acts like a garbage disposal.

"This is discovery. You know, this is neat," Armstrong said, waving a gloved hand across the table. "This is where you open it up and you find an insect or a larva or something and it kind of completes the mission, you know? That's what it's all about."

Throughout the day, Caffery and Izzy are affectionate with one another, and during a lull in flight arrivals, they can invariably be found hugging or cuddling.

"I'm with her more than I'm with my family, for the most part," Caffery said. "It's constant."

Luckily for these two, they'll never have to be separated. Izzy will continue working at the airport for several more years. After that, she gets to start a new career: as Caffery's personal pet.