Kristin McMurran
May 12, 1986 12:00 PM

Each weekday morning a 24-pound beagle named Jackpot has his teeth brushed with Crest, swallows a vitamin pill and gets suited up in a little green coat stamped with the words “Protecting U.S. Agriculture.” He then heads for his office, the TWA International Arrivals terminal at New York’s JFK Airport. His mission: food detection. Jackpot is Agent 0-1-D in the Department of Agriculture’s Beagle Brigade, a canine force trained to sniff out forbidden fruits, vegetables and meats illegally brought into the U.S. by travelers.

The customs terminal is already abustle when Jackpot, who stands a mere 13 inches high, starts sniffing through a forest of foreign legs, carry-on satchels and garment bags. When he smells food, he sits down firmly and turns a pair of melancholy eyes upward. At the other end of his leash, USDA officer Hal Fingerman rewards him with a treat. After Jackpot makes a hit, Fingerman marks the traveler’s declaration card with a green “A,” and that person’s bags will be searched when he passes through customs. “The defense of our agriculture starts here,” says Fingerman. “We take our work very seriously. Our dogs don’t bite, but our officers do.”

“Hiiii. How are you?” says Fingerman’s fellow inspector Carlos Caraballo, with a smile as wide as a watermelon wedge. He beckons to an unsuspecting passenger from Lisbon whose declaration card bears one of Fingerman’s green A’s. “Do you have any fruta? Carne? Are you sure? Salami?” The passenger smiles and shakes his head. He is asked to open his bag. Carlos embarks on a tour of the man’s slacks, shirts, underwear. Out comes a scuffed brown shoe and inside: an artichoke. Carlos keeps smiling, the traveler looks grim. A pomegranate peers out from another shoe, and a third shelters a lemon and a pear. By the end of the search there are enough comestibles to feed a quirky vegetarian. Travelers caught with contraband are fined up to $50. Meanwhile, at another station, inspector John Plummer is querying a man just off a flight from Athens, who insists he has no food. His carry-on bag, however, is brimming with ripe olives. Clinging to one is a milky white worm, the size of a rice grain, which will later be identified as a fruit fly larva.

“Fruit flies don’t fly across the ocean; people bring them across,” says Fingerman. The excuses offered by smugglers are sometimes as exotic as their methods of deceit. Take, for example, the man from Bangladesh who was recently found harboring a coconut and denied it was food. “I’m not going to eat this coconut,” he insisted, “I’m going to pray to it.” Says inspector Fred Skolnick, “Some people are ignorant, but you don’t wrap a bandolier of sausages around your body or stuff chorizo in your boots and say, ‘I don’t know how it got there.’ ”

In fact, Fingerman and colleagues have found salami concealed in perfume-drenched rags, fruit camouflaged in tins of tea leaves, snails sewn into coat linings, sausages wrapped in soiled diapers and mangoes tucked into a brassiere. “Some of this stuff just grosses you right out,” admits Fingerman. “But I’m real nice. I don’t raise my voice. We give people several chances to tell the truth and make sure they understand, but boy, when they just lie and lie, whew, I’ll fine ’em.”

Fingerman, 33, is the only canine handler assigned to the East Coast in the USDA’s detector dog pilot program, inaugurated in 1984. (Beagles are also posted at airports in Los Angeles and San Francisco.) For Fingerman the job is an ideal combination of his two loves, animals and agriculture. Growing up in Philadelphia in a family that cherished its dogs, ducks and geese, he majored in animal science at Penn State with a view to becoming a farmer, then eight years ago joined the Department of Agriculture. His task is to help overworked inspectors hunt for proscribed plant and animal products. Fresh fruits, vegetables, many meats, dairy products and packing materials like burlap may shelter insects and diseases that endanger agriculture and livestock. The vigilance pays off. Last year USDA officers seized 1,450,000 such products at the nation’s ports of entry. More than 200,000 intercepted items were infested with potentially harmful pests and microscopic enemies not indigenous to the U.S., such as seed weevils, khapra beetles and giant African snails. Some meats may be carrying such devastating viral diseases as hoof-and-mouth or African swine fever; one bird with Newcastle’s disease could obliterate the nation’s bird population.

Fingerman begins an average day not with Jackpot, but with the dog’s backup, a black Labrador named Behr (Agent 1-2-A), who is too menacing to be taken into the passenger terminal but very effective at sniffing checked luggage in a ground floor baggage pit before it is delivered to the terminal. “I let him run around and get used to every smell in the place before the bags come in,” says Fingerman. “He knows what he’s here for.” When luggage from a Barcelona-Lisbon flight rolls into sight, Behr’s nose starts twitching. As airline workers slam bags onto a moving conveyer belt, he scampers among the suitcases, nuzzling each one. “Seizure, Behr! Seizure!” commands Fingerman. When the dog sits, signaling a find, he is awarded his treat and the suspect bag is pulled from the ranks. (Among the 16 bags seized, 14 are subsequently found to contain food.)

Later Fingerman joins his colleagues back in the terminal to keep an eye on passengers while Jackpot sniffs their carry-on bags. “We don’t like to stereotype,” says inspector Louis Vanechanos. “But people who dress like villagers and carry bags tied with ropes are more likely to bring a fig from their backyard tree to a loved one in the New World.”

Every hit is not a seizure. Behr once sniffed a full Concorde flight and found nothing but gummi bears. Candy is legal, as are cookies, olive oil, hard processed cheeses and wine. But the rewards do not always make up for the frustrations of the job. In the line of duty Jackpot has been crushed, bumped and beaned. One afternoon a child set off a firecracker. “It was definitely schizo time for Jackpot. He was out of it for the rest of the day,” says Fingerman, who has been chased by one furious woman and humiliated by another overwrought traveler who splattered him with a full bottle of mustard. “Sometimes it gets to be pretty degrading,” he says, “but I feel I’m doing something positive and I like the dogs.”

Since September he has shared quarters with Jackpot and Behr in a beach bungalow near the airport. “They are the center of my attention right now,” he says. “The dogs are the best tool the USDA has.” Fingerman works an average 60-hour week, and he and the dogs are frequently called back to inspect a post midnight flight.

By the end of the typical day, the USDA contraband room reeks with the dizzying odor of ripening fruit and stale meats. The haul on a recent afternoon included two pounds of garlic, three dozen goose eggs, eight plucked squabs, a Parma ham, sacks of gnarled green beans, citrus leaves and chestnuts, elephant jerky, the remains of half-eaten airline meals and enough sausages and salami to open a corner deli. After inspecting the contraband for disease organisms, agents feed the results into the mouth of a ferocious grinder or incinerator.

It is now 7 p.m., but Fingerman’s day is not over. He brushes the dogs and puts them through a practice drill using dummy suitcases with food so that they leave the airport with the memory of positive seizures. Then he piles the pooches into a balky station wagon and takes them home for a high-protein meal and a run on the beach before they drift off to sleep. At daybreak, Fingerman awakens to the whisper of hot doggy breath on his face and a black paw on his pillow. The routine has begun again.

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