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PALM LATITUDES

The Fuzziness Factor

June 16, 1991|Tom Johnson | Edited by Mary McNamara

Everyone knows Kojak," says David Rothman as the 20-pound beagle drags him through the crowds at Los Angeles International Airport's Bradley International Terminal. "He's got a reputation."

Kojak, a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beagle Brigade, spends his days sniffing baggage. He isn't a police dog, however, and his job is not to discover illegal drugs. Decked out in a bright green jacket lettered with "Protecting American Agriculture," Kojak is trained to detect illegally imported food and plants that might carry with them next year's equivalent of the notorious Medfly. When he smells something suspicious in a bag, he sits down next to it, wags his tail and is rewarded with a piece of beef jerky. It's a trick that has made Kojak one of the USDA's most effective public-relations reps.

"He's so cute, the travelers seem disappointed if he doesn't stop at their baggage," says Rothman, who has been Kojak's handler for two years. "The stewardesses say hello and want to play with him, and the customs people all know him."

Beagles are usually calm, friendly dogs, Rothman says, which makes them ideal for the job--that and their extraordinary sense of smell. But when Kojak, 5, is on duty, no amount of affection or attention can sway him from the task at hand. He's been sniffing his way through crowds of incoming tourists for three years.

The Beagle Brigade, a national program that started at LAX in 1984, is composed of 14 beagles making random searches at eight airports across the country. Kojak and his canine brethren (including Sherlock, who inspects incoming mail and packages at LAX) have stopped innumerable agricultural pests from entering the country. In a small lab at LAX, USDA inspectors proudly display a rogues' gallery of disgusting insects and parasites from which Kojak and his pals have saved the country.

"He's happy when he's at work," Rothman says. "He wags his tail and people pet him. But when he finds something in someone's luggage, he sits down and gets these real sad eyes, like he really didn't want to do it. But, hey, it's his job."

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