O’HARE AIRPORT — Bettie the beagle wants to sniff your bag.
Bettie is a dog who works at O’Hare airport: a sweet and caring authority who sniffs out people who illegally bring agricultural products and animals into the United States.
It’s a key job at O’Hare, one of the world’s busiest airports. And Bettie is one of the best: She has helped officers make more than 3,500 seizures since July 2021, the second most among airport K9s in the United States, according to data from US Customs and Border Protection. USA
Bettie, a five-year-old rescue dog, is a true “workhorse,” said her keeper, Jessica Anderson.
On July 20, Bettie added to her tally, jogging around the international arrivals baggage carousel in Chicago. She sniffed out five bags with questionable content in the first few minutes: apples and oranges and a Munich meatball sandwich.
“She’s very excited to work today,” Anderson said.
The tired travelers smiled. A boy tried to pet Bettie when the beagle stuck his face into a woman’s purse and pulled an apple out of it.
“No,” said the boy’s father. “That dog is working right now.”
Bettie’s tail wags faster as she approaches her next bust. She slams her leg on the bags of fish.
Once, Bettie booed a woman in the chest.
“She took a lemon out of her bra,” Anderson said. “She said she was nauseous.”
Work pays in cookies: Bettie trades the food she sniffs for treats, “rolling her tongue to clear her palate,” Anderson said.
“It’s more of a game for her than a job,” Anderson said. “She gets very excited. It is difficult to lift it off the ground. When he knows she’s right, he’ll rip her bag apart if I don’t get to her fast enough.
Most of the findings are from people accidentally leaving stowaway snacks in their bags, but others are more cunning.
“One or 2 percent of people are actually smuggling stuff,” Anderson said.
In June, Betty they found six diapers stuffed with 30 pounds of sausage. He caught pork stuffed in a thermos and mangoes along a man’s legs. There was a cowhide hidden inside a dried fish.
Anderson has noted a recent spike in banned plants from Qatar, seeded seeds from Romania and mystery mangoes from Bangladesh, he said.
“Not everyone feels that food is the same in every country. For some people, food has a connection to home,” said Anderson. “People will bring plants from their grandfather’s garden.”
About 17,000 food items have been stopped this year by beagles at O’Hare. That’s about twice the size of the next airport, Los Angeles International, according to customs data.
O’Hare employs eight beagles who “play with each other, competing over who can find the most,” Anderson said.
Officially, they are part of the National Beagle Brigade. It was established by the US Department of Agriculture in 1984 and operates at airports across the country.
The beagles are a “useful tool” and a “public relations stunt that went very well,” Anderson said.
“They wanted a cute, cuddly face for farming, a search dog that wouldn’t be intimidating,” Anderson said. “And beagles have big ears that push scent up the nose faster, and a high demand for food. They work well for cookies.”
Bettie is right about 95 percent of the time, Anderson said. A man flying from Amsterdam was startled when Bettie went straight for her banana bread, which is allowed.
“She is being a beagle; I apologize,” Anderson told him.
Anderson has worked with K9 for nearly 20 years and has owned three dogs: Dixie, with more than 20,000 seizures; Frodo, with more than 30,000; and Bettie, with over 10,000 and counting.
Rescue pups and their handlers are trained at the Department of Agriculture’s National Detector Dog Training Center in Georgia. The last time Anderson went, she was assigned to a chihuahua mix who “freaked out when we got to the airport.”
Bettie was the only dog left in the class.
“He had a big scar on his neck and he had lost the hair on his ears. They said she couldn’t go to Chicago because she was too shy,” Anderson said. “But when they go through the tests together, they learn to walk at his speed, they form a bond and everything falls into place.”
Bettie is catching more bags than ever before, sometimes more than 40 a day, as travel rebounds from the pandemic, Anderson said. But sometimes she just needs a little time to “cool down with the fan in the back,” Anderson said.
After a hard day’s work, the beagle flopped down against his keeper’s leg.
“We’re a real team,” Anderson said.
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