Dogs help sniff out possible trouble at Kennedy Airport

Dogs help sniff out possible trouble at Kennedy Airport

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 polluted by soil, and fresh moringa, a plant often used for health benefits.

The passengers were shocked the not harmful-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 by 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 shared 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 ecosystem.

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 ease authentic 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 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 approximately 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 money sniffing dogs are often larger breeds and trained at the Customs and Border Protection Canine programs in Texas and Virginia.

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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 approximately $320,000 — more than any year since 2016, statistics show.

Those caught smuggling drugs are initially arrested by Customs and Border Protection; then situations get turned over to federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Travelers carrying banned agricultural products may confront 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 vicinity’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 shared 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 ecosystem.

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 by 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 inspects luggage at Kennedy Airport. Credit: Corey Sipkin

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