O’HARE AIRPORT — Bettie the beagle wants to sniff your bag.
Bettie’s a dog with a job at O’Hare Airport — a cute and cuddly authority who sniffs out people illegally bringing produce and animal products to the United States.
It’s a key job at O’Hare, one of the busiest airports in the world. And Bettie’s one of the best: She’s helped officials make more than 3,500 seizures since July 2021, the second-most among airport K9s in the United States, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Bettie, a five year-old rescue dog, is a true “work horse,” said her handler, Jessica Anderson.
On July 20, Bettie added to her tally, trotting around the luggage carousel for international arrivals in Chicago. She sniffed out five bags with questionable contents in the first minutes: apples and oranges and a meatball sandwich from Munich.
“She’s very eager to work today,” Anderson said.
Weary travelers smiled. A child tried to pet Bettie as the beagle stuck her face into a woman’s purse and pulled out an apple.
“Don’t,” the child’s dad said. “That dog is working right now.”
Bettie’s tail wags faster as she narrows in on her next bust. She smacks her paw atop fishy suitcases.
One time, Bettie booped a woman on the chest.
“She removed a lemon from her bra,” Anderson said. “She said she had air sickness.”
The gig pays in cookies: Bettie trades the food she sniffs out for treats, “rolling her tongue to clear the palate,” Anderson said.
“It’s more of a game for her than work,” Anderson said. “She gets really excited. It’s hard to pull her off the floor. When she knows she’s right, she’ll tear the bag apart if I don’t get to it fast enough.”
Most finds are from people who leave stowaway snacks in their bags by accident — but others are more sneaky.
“One or 2 percent of people are actually smuggling stuff,” Anderson said.
In June, Bettie found six diapers stuffed with 30 pounds of sausage. She nabbed pork jammed into a thermos and mangos along a man’s legs. There was a cow skin hidden inside a dry fish.
Anderson has noticed a recent spike in prohibited plants from Qatar, seedy seeds from Romania and mysterious mangos from Bangladesh, she said.
“Not everybody feels food is the same in every country. For some people, food has a connection to home,” Anderson said. “People will bring back plants from their grandfather’s garden.”
About 17,000 foods have been stopped this year by beagles at O’Hare. That’s about double the next airport, Los Angeles International, according to customs data.
O’Hare employs eight beagles who “play off each other, competing for who can find more,” Anderson said.
Officially, they’re part of the national Beagle Brigade. It was established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1984 and operates at airports across the country.
Beagles are a “useful tool” and a “PR stunt that went really right,” Anderson said.
“They wanted a cute and cuddly face for agriculture, a non-intimidating search dog,” Anderson said. “And beagles have big ears that push odor up to the nose faster — and a high food drive. They work well for cookies.”
Bettie gets it right about 95 percent of the time, Anderson said. A man flying in from Amsterdam was startled when Bettie made a beeline to his banana bread — which is allowed.
“She’s being a beagle; I apologize,” Anderson told him.
Anderson has worked with K9s for almost 20 years and has had three dogs: Dixie, with more than 20,000 seizures; Frodo, with more than 30,000; and Bettie, with 10,000-plus and counting.
Rescue pups and handlers are trained at the Department of Agriculture 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 in the class left.
“She had a big scar on her neck and had lost the hair on her ears. They said she couldn’t go to Chicago because she was too shy,” Anderson said. “But when you go through trials together, learn to walk her speed, you form a bond, and everything clicks.”
Bettie is catching more bags than ever before — sometimes more than 40 per day — as travel rebounds from the pandemic, Anderson said. But sometimes she just needs a little time to “cool off by the fan in the back,” Anderson said.
After a hard day’s work, the beagle flopped against her handler’s leg.
“We’re a real team,” Anderson said.
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