TURES COLUMN: How dogs can protect us from African swine fever and other invaders

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, March 23, 2022

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As we finally turn the corner from COVID-19, I’m sure you are going to be dismayed to learn that we’ve got another problem heading toward the United States. African Swine Fever has ravaged sub-Saharan Africa, China, Mongolia, and Vietnam, has entered the European Union, and could be headed toward the United States. Fortunately, America may be able to keep it from spreading to the USA, thanks to a bipartisan pair of US Senators, and the dogs they support.

On the first of March, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a press conference in Newnan, Georgia by Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock. There I got to meet an unusual ally in the fight against African Swine Fever: the “Beagle Brigade.”

Fortunately, African Swine Fever isn’t deadly to humans. But it’s highly lethal to pigs, killing many and forcing farmers to slaughter their herds to protect the uninfected. As my dad was raised on a hog farm, I’ve heard how tough it is for such farmers to face such a deadly enemy.

I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about the beagle. My wife and I had one when we lived in a trailer park in Tallahassee, and “Emily” was about the most undisciplined creature I’ve ever encountered. But the folks at the USDA’s National Detector Dog Training Center showed me that these Agricultural Department folks know how to train a Beagle to effectively find a whole slew of invasive pests.

USDA Undersecretary Jennifer Moffitt told me all about other problems these beagles, along with fellow pooches include Jack Russell Terriers and Yellow Labradors, can sniff out. There’s the Spotted Lantern Fly that came from China to Pennsylvania, and has gone after the Eastern and Western Coasts, attacking everything from forests to fruits orchards. Then there’s the Brown Tree Snake, which attempts to infiltrate through cargo. Its bite is dangerous to kids, and it has wiped out bird populations and other species where it’s gone after animals of all types.

“These dogs are well-trained, are food-motivated, and know their nose,” Moffitt added.

“If they’re so great, why are we only doing this now?” I asked. Then I learned that these Beagles and other dogs have been funded largely by USDA user fees, not Congress. The Beagle Brigade Act will provide legislative funds to expand the program, and allow them to be deployed on a wider scale, a must have in today’s cargo-based global economy. Plus, these cute canines are less threatening than larger types of dogs typically employed for law enforcement duties.

Plus, I discovered from the USDA trainers that these dogs serve for nearly a decade, and are frequently adopted by their handlers upon retirement, before any formal adoption process occurs.

Democratic Senator Warnock isn’t alone in pressing for this. He’s got a strong co-sponsor in Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa. At the press conference, when I asked the Georgia Senator about strategies to break down “Build Back Better” into smaller, more manageable popular bills, he replied “I’m more about positive outcomes than process.” He documented the positive “shot in the arm” from the American Rescue Plan, the expanded child tax outcomes, cutting child poverty, and finding ways to get health care to residents of states which refused to expand Medicaid.

But it’s clear that this bipartisan “Beagle Brigade Act” is going to be a key piece of legislation that will help keep our farm economy and environment from “going to the dogs.”