One of Sacramento’s greatest economic drivers is agriculture. Protecting our crops is crucial.
Sacramento County has a new pest detection team. Cairo—a big black Labrador—and his handler, Mariah de Nijs, arrived in Sacramento this year.
Cairo was discovered in 2010 in a Georgia shelter by the National Detector Dog Training Center. During his time in Georgia he worked with Smuggling Interdiction and Trade Compliance (SITC) and traveled the country intercepting federal quarantine material.
Mariah earned a Bachelor of Science in Animal Science and Management at the University of California, Davis, and has worked as an Agriculture and Standards inspector for more than 11 years.
In 2013, Cairo was teamed with Mariah to protect California’s produce from potentially invasive pests that could eradicate crops and crush the local agricultural economy.
The team begins each week with a full day of training, typically learning new scents in new places (like buses and stadiums) to make learning interesting. Cairo is never reprimanded. He is trained by being rewarded only when he makes a correct indication.
Tuesdays through Thursdays are spent at UPS, Fed Ex and the nearby USPS Distribution Center sniffing boxes for plants or fruit.
As packages pass, Cairo quickly smells them; he indicates to Mariah that he detects an agricultural product in a package by pawing it. Mariah then opens the package and inspects the plants or fruit for invasive pests. If the contents are properly certified and pest-free, she carefully packs it back inside the box, re-seals it, and forwards the package. If live pests are found, the produce is confiscated and quarantined. A formal “Notice of Rejection” is sent to the shipper and receiver.
Mariah and Cairo have had hundreds of notable interceptions, ranging from scales and mealybugs not known to exist in California, to serious bacterial diseases and exotic fruit flies. One of Cairo’s greatest “busts” was the identification of 25 pounds of walnuts from Pennsylvania infested with a destructive moth called a Hickory Shuckworm. The walnuts were addressed to Butte County; Butte County’s most economically viable crop is walnuts. The introduction of exotic pests such as these can devastate crops or can result in quarantines against shipping the agricultural products, causing an economic catastrophe.
And, just two weeks ago, Cairo found West Indian fruit fly larvae in mangoes from Puerto Rico. This fly is an extremely destructive pest that is known to survive in citrus, grapes, and nectarines.
Not all dogs are cut out to be pest detectives. Why did the National Detector Dog Training Center select Cairo from the shelter for such elite training? Mariah’s explanation is more mundane: “Cairo has a very high food drive; he will do anything for a treat. He earned the highest score possible on all phases of the test with the exception of affection/interaction with people. Initially, he did not have any interest is seeking affection or interaction with people unless food was involved. That made him great at the training center as he worked equally well for anyone. Since I have been assigned his handler, I have really worked on bonding with him … He is very friendly now and interacts well with people.”