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Beagles Help Defend America From Foot-And-Mouth

by Joe Boyle

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Agriculture Officer Darren Bartnik and his partner, Max, patrol the baggage claim areas of Detroit Metro Airport's international terminal.

ONE OF THOSE dogs is a specially-trained Beagle named Max, who works with human partner Darren Bartnik at Detroit Metro Airport to make sure people don’t sneak in meats, plants, fruits or vegetables from overseas.

by Joe Boyle

Agriculture Officer Darren Bartnik and his partner, Max, patrol the baggage claim areas of Detroit Metro Airport's international terminal.

ONE OF THOSE dogs is a specially-trained Beagle named Max, who works with human partner Darren Bartnik at Detroit Metro Airport to make sure people don’t sneak in meats, plants, fruits or vegetables from overseas.

“It’s not really a job for these guys, it’s like a game of hide and seek,” said Bartnik, a U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Protection and Quarantine K9 officer who has worked with Max since 1997.

Max and the 66 other dogs working for the Agriculture Department don’t actually smell foot-and-mouth, or any other disease. What they can smell are foods that could transport diseases, insects or non-native species into America. The dogs work at airports, cargo terminals, mail hubs, cruise ships, private planes and stations on the Mexican and Canadian borders.

“They’re finding so much stuff that we don’t want here,” Bartnik said.

Though foot-and-mouth is not the only thing the department tries to prevent from entering America, the virus is very much in focus right now, Bartnik said.

“We’re very afraid of it coming here because it is such a contagious disease. That’s the scary thing about this one,” he said. “If we got it here, that would seriously affect our exports.”

MAX’S JOURNEY

Most people think of threats to our country as bad guys with guns or bombs. But just as dangerous can be non-native insects or diseases. The perfect tool to find these threats is not a metal detector or an X-ray machine - it’s the sensitive sniffers of a dog.

The Agriculture Department chose Beagles as their weapon against foreign foods and plants for several reasons, Bartnik said. First, the dogs are small, cute and not very intimidating - meaning they won’t frighten most people. And second, the dogs have a sense of smell 1,000 times more powerful than humans - while humans have 5 million scent receptors, dogs have about 220 million!

Max’s journey to the duty of his country began at a dog pound in Maine, from where he was rescued by a Beagle group and recommended to the Agriculture Department as a good candidate for a food detective.

Officials made sure that Max was friendly, and wouldn’t be scared by big crowds or loud noises - both of which are common in big airports.

He then went through a three-month course with Bartnik, after which he could identify three smells: Apples, oranges and beef. Over the next year, he and Bartnik trained with other foods. Now, Max can pick up the scents of more than 40 different banned fruits and vegetables, as well as a variety of meats.

Bartnik isn’t just trained to work with Max. He has a bachelor’s degree in biology, which gives him a lot of background beyond enforcing the laws.

FINDING CONTRABAND

When the work day begins, Max is ready to play. Bartnik takes Max for a walk through Detroit Metro Airport’s international terminal. Max, dressed in an Agriculture Department vest, sniffs at bags while people wait at the baggage carousel.

Many suitcases are nearly airtight, so Bartnik taps the bags just a little bit to release the smells. And many times, there are a lot of smells for Max to sort through with his sensitive nose. People carry perfumes, deodorant and even smelly clothes when they come back from other countries. But with his keen sense of smell, Max can pick up the banned items over all the other smells.

If Max finds the smell of prohibited agricultural items, he sits down right next to the bag. As soon as he does, Bartnik reaches into a pouch to give the dog a treat.

“Beagles have a high food drive,” Bartnik said. “They smell for food and get rewarded with little treats as a reward. Beagles love to eat.”

When Max points out a bag, Bartnik asks the owners if they have brought back any plants, vegetables, fruits or meats from another country. If they say yes, Bartnik will get the item out of their baggage and it will be marked for destruction. If they say no, Bartnik looks through the bag to make sure. If it turns out the person lied about not having a banned item, the penalties can be heavy.

“There’s a spot fine of $50-$250. If you want to contest it, it goes to federal court where the fines will run from $250 to $1,000. And, I’ve heard, the department has never lost a case,” Bartnik said.

Some of the things Max and Bartnik find might seem very different to American eyes, though they could be delicacies in a traveler’s home culture. The team has found fried monkeys, a freshly slaughtered goat and many different insects.

“It’s amazing the variety of foods that come into this country,” Bartnik said.

It’s important for the officers to talk with the people about why their items aren’t allowed into the United States, even if an interpreter is needed.

“We want people to understand why it’s not allowed. Some are scared we steal it and eat it,” Bartnik said.

What actually happens to the illegal goods is really far less interesting than a giant feast in the offices. The fruits and vegetables are ground up, treated and disposed of. Meats, woods and plants are incinerated just outside the department’s offices at the airport.

“They get killed so they don’t get further than this doorstep,” Bartnik said.

TEAMWORK

Sometimes, the agriculture officers will find contraband that involved other agencies, like the Customs Department, Fish and Wildlife Agency, Food and Drug Administration or Immigration Service. All of the agencies work together to help keep unwanted things out of America.

“Everyone helps everyone else. We can’t be everywhere at once. We all work together to help each other,” Bartnik said.

And working especially close together Max and Bartnik. It’s the human’s job to make sure the dog can do his job, Bartnik said.

“It has to be fun for them,” he said.

For every hour of work, Max gets to rest for about a half-hour.

After working together for four years, Bartnik can tell if Max is getting tired. If the “game” stops being fun for Max, Bartnik takes him back to the office to rest for a while.

And sometimes, Max gets to call in sick.

“They have their good days and their bad days,” Bartnik said. “You don’t want to push them too far.

“They’re the best partners to have.”

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).