Peter de Souza presses a keycard against an ivory-hued wall, and a door you'd never notice if you didn't know where to look pops open. As de Souza is a serious federal agent outfitted in a serious blue uniform, there must be an acronym describing this hidden-door entry. An HDE, perhaps?
We enter a hulking freight elevator and descend into the bowels of San Francisco International Airport. It opens into a series of well-lit, antiseptic corridors leading to an imposing door emblazoned with an eagle motif.
This is where they keep the beagles.
Soft classical music emanates from a room stocked with enough doggie biscuits to qualify as a canine Valhalla. De Souza methodically slices them into TicTac-size chunks, which he refers to as "cutting treats" (CT?). He carefully transfers the pile into the pouch he wears on his right hip in lieu of a holster. De Souza looks up and grins. "I am, basically, a Pez dispenser for the dog."
Behind him sit four fenced-off kennels containing two dogs. One, Floyd, is tired and shy. But de Souza's dog, Skipper, is practically dancing. He can't wait to get to his Pez dispenser. There is nothing he wants more than to be given a treat.
But treats aren't given. They're earned. And in order to earn a treat, Skipper must play the game: Find the meat, get the treat. It's the same game they play every day at SFO.
Find the meat, get the treat.
Upstairs, the hidden door pops open, and de Souza and Skipper emerge, blinking, onto the airport's international concourse. The baggage carousel is full and churning noisily, and the area is thick with passengers deplaning from a Shanghai flight shouting over the din. Skipper pulls, frantically, at his lead.
It's time to play the game.
"The first thing everyone asks," says a supervisor in the Department of Homeland Security's department of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), "is 'What's the craziest thing you and the dog have found?'"
Your humble narrator takes note. That's our second question.
Answers: men with live birds taped to their bodies; dried monkey or rat meat from Africa "with the teeth still in it"; and, in de Souza and Skipper's case, a Giant African Snail the size of a NERF football.
It was alive.
And that's the game: Beagles and their human Pez-dispensers rush through the baggage area, searching for contraband fruits, vegetables, meats, and the occasional snail the size of your foot (these are forbidden in the United States as they'll devour all the crops they can find — or plaster and stucco if they can't). But Skipper doesn't care if he unearths an orange, a rat sausage, or a snail. It's all the same to him. Whatever he finds earns him a treat. A beagle and his canine enforcement officer can make up to 30 seizures a day. Last year at SFO alone, government-owned beagles sniffed out 18,256 rats, fruits, and God knows what other crop-destroying varmints or pest-laden snacks.
That's a lot of doggie treats.
A female customs agent uses an acronym she forbids us from printing to indicate that an elderly couple eating pears in the baggage area have had the fruits taken away from them. Counterintuitively, fruits and vegetables are even easier for beagles to sniff out than meat. Since the dogs are so bottom-line oriented — there's nothing they want more than that treat — some gravitate wholly toward flora. This must be remedied, a supervisor says, with "meat training."
But that's not a problem with Skipper. The agents tell tales about this animal that mirror a superhero's origin story. A mid-sized beagle with eyes that'd be oversize on a 100-pound dog, he was discovered, as a puppy, running the streets of Detroit. But he had a gift: Even among dogs, this was a food-obsessed creature, with a nose to match. Workers at the shelter noticed. They took him to a hardware store and larded the place with doggie treats.
Skipper found them all.
Video of Skipper at work was forwarded to the director of the National Detector Dog Training Center in Newnan, Ga. Her response was succinct: "I want that dog."
She got him.
Skipper takes off like a bull out of the chute, with de Souza struggling to keep pace. It immediately becomes apparent why this is a job relegated to tiny beagles — apart from possessing a nose for fruit that puts Toucan Sam's to shame. The beagle slaloms in and out of stacked bags and leaps over baggage carts. He crams his face into people's pant cuffs and backpacks and paws, aggressively, at any bag containing items that he feels will earn him a treat. A panting De Souza later notes that his canine partner has but one shortcoming: "He's crazy!"
Skipper's antics draw points and laughter from the jet-lagged Chinese passengers. But a full-size dog accosting people and their bags with this degree of obsession wouldn't be very funny at all. Federal officials don't much care if a German Shepherd scares the bejesus out of a drug runner. But with someone whose mom packed him an illicit ham sandwich, that would be suboptimal.
Skipper is a high-energy kind of crazy; while most beagles indicate a suspect package by sitting next to it, he leaps atop them and digs like he's at the beach. De Souza unzips the bag — Oscar Mayer wieners are within. Score one for Skipper.
In fact, in order to keep the dog sharp, three other dummy bags have been scattered around the carousel by de Souza's supervisor. Skipper homes in on them like a shark on the trail of a bleeding cow; he tips over the blue purse atop the garish plaid rolly bag, and leaps, with all four legs, to point out a black satchel atop a cart (contraband: more wieners and an orange). But Skipper isn't done yet. He yanks his now-sweating handler across the floor to pounce on an elderly Chinese couple's suitcase. They unearth a roll of toilet paper, and then a cup of dry noodles.
No dried rats. No giant snails. No live birds.
But not so fast. It turns out this is the couple made to disgorge their offending pears. Skipper's change of behavior ("COB" in handler-speak) was due to residual pear odor (RPO?).
Skipper accepts the treats he has coming to him. But there's always room for more. He places both paws on your humble narrator's backpack. It's dumped atop the airport carpet, and Skipper bays and digs with abandon. Within, de Souza discovers four apples, two bananas, three carrots, and, for good measure, a tin of herring. We're busted. But no hard feelings.
Don't hate the Skipper. Hate the game.
For a trove of photos of Skipper in action, see SFWeekly.com/slideshow