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    Beagles to join bay area defense against foot-and-mouth disease


    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001

    TAMPA -- In response to the international scare over the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in livestock, the Beagle Brigade will come to the rescue here as early as next fall.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture has received funding to place a food-sniffing dog and a handler in the Tampa Bay area full time as soon as possible following a warning by a top state official last month that this region, Miami and Orlando are susceptible as entry points for the devastating virus.

    "I know Tampa has wanted a team for a long time, and it was the foot-and-mouth scare that got the job done," said Lee Newport, the USDA's state program manager for agriculture quarantine inspection. "We expect to get it done by October."

    Terry Rhodes, state agriculture commissioner, complained to the USDA in March that the state's three main points of entry for travelers from Europe either have no canine inspection teams or too few to adequately search airlines and cruise ships for contraband fruits, vegetables and meat.

    Passengers from infected countries could carry the foot-and-mouth virus in meat products or on their clothes. Meat is of particular concern because of recent outbreaks of the disease in the United Kingdom, where cattle are being killed and incinerated to try to bring the disease under control.

    The cost of a dog and handler can run as high as $100,000 in the first year if the handler is a new hire, Newport said. After the first year, the costs are the handler's salary, plus kenneling and veterinary costs for the dog and the price of luggage used in the training process.

    "Reward treats for the dog can run as high as $1,000 a year, too," Newport said.

    All of the dogs in the program are beagles, for their acute sense of smell and non-threatening demeanor. Generally, they are pound puppies or donated pets. They sniff incoming passengers and their carry-ons. When they catch an illicit scent, they are trained to sit down and stare at the bag it is coming from.

    "Meat is easy," Newport said. "It's a smell any dog will react to naturally. And most dogs like fruits like grapes and oranges, so they will react to those, too. More difficult are vegetables, onions and green beans."

    Initially, the team will work only Tampa International and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International airports, Newport said, but its duties could be expanded to port facilities in Tampa, Manatee County and as far south as Fort Myers as the dogs' training expands.

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