Monday, April 27, 2009
Cats...of all kinds, on planes
From the outside, you'd barely notice the Heathrow Animal Reception Centre
- just another shabby-looking building, on the edge of a dual
carriageway, wedged between cargo sheds, car parks and storage areas and
between the M25 and Heathrow's Terminal Four.
But the moment you step inside - through the double-locked and mirrored
security doors, past the offices and into the animal holding area - it's
a different world.
The first thing that hits you is the noise. Dogs bark and yap, puppies
whine, cats miaow, parrots screech and wolf-whistle, monkeys from Madagascar
jump about and pull at their wire mesh cages - and every few minutes a
buzzer signals the arrival of 'five cats', or 'eight boxes of fish', or maybe
'a dozen ferrets' and a lot of door-slamming and banging.
Only a 4ft Komodo dragon is quiet, swishing its tail about in its big
wooden crate and presumably rather irritated by all this racket after a 12-hour
flight from South Africa.
'We call it the Arc, but the animals don't exactly come in two by two -
more like 20 by 20, and that's on a good day - sometimes there are a
hundred,' says deputy manager Bob Wingate, who is 65, sports a splendid white
beard and is my guide for the day.
'As well as thousands of dogs and cats, we've had one-toed sloths, giant
octopuses, bears, elephants, tigers, lions, alpacas, venomous snakes, vampire
bats, racehorses from the Gulf, the Olympic equestrian team -
everything you can think of,' he says, scratching his whiskery chin.
'In fact, the only thing we haven't had in the centre's 31-year history is
a giraffe, but that's probably because it'd be a bit of a packaging
Maybe, but it can't be that easy crating up an elephant, or a pair of
skunks, or a lion?
'Oh no! The big cats are relatively easy and we don't always get them out
of their crates. Dogs and cats can give you more grief - they're much
more likely to bite - and they're what we deal with most of the time.'
The Animal Reception Centre (ARC) - formerly known as the Animal
Quarantine Station and run by the City of London Corporation - is the
destination for hundreds of thousands of animals flown into Heathrow every
Last year, the centre handled more than 11,000 cats and dogs, 331,000
hatchling poultry, 40 million invertebrates and 37 million fish.
Some are here to stay, others are in transit and some - like Paddi, a
very sad-looking black labrador from Oslo with only a stuffed pink reindeer
for company - are off for six months in quarantine.
Flying visit ARC deputy manager Bob Wingate holds up a tortoise recently
arrived at the Heathrow centre
After hours cooped up in the dark, they're all blinking and bewildered as
they have their pet passports and/or travel documents checked, stamped and
logged, are X-rayed and given a brief medical once-over to check they're fit
to travel on.
The pets are then either reunited with their delighted owners in the
'reunion conservatory' ('it can be very emotional - put it this way, we have
to have a mop on hand as the animals get very excited') or, if they have more
than an hour or so before their next flight, popped in a kennel and let
out for a little, er, constitutional.
'Most are too scared to have a wee in the plane, so as soon as they get out
they're desperate,' says Bob. ' Particularly if they've come from
'We let them out of their crates and they literally can't stop peeing for
about ten minutes. It's a right mess.'
Clearly, nobody works here for the glamour factor. 'Most days, it's 90 per
cent cleaning up, and working here can be quite pressured with all the
flights coming in,' says Joel Theobald, 26.
'But the highlights more than make up for it - like having a play with
some lion cubs, or hand-rearing hyena cubs that are too young to travel
farther, or just getting to see a Komodo dragon.'
Lunchtime: Jane feeds some ring-tailed lemurs hungry after their
Bob's been at the Arc for 16 years: 'I love it here, just love it. On my
second day, I flew to Glasgow Airport with a customs officer, boarded a ship
and seized 17 large parrots from some Russians, and it's been pretty varied
The level of care is impressive. The dog and cat kennels are heated and
have access to surprisingly big outdoor runs.
Everyone wears wellies and long green coats and washes their hands
The animals are checked and reassured constantly and their travelling
crates given a thorough inspection.
'We prosecute airlines for flying in animals in carriers that are too
small,' says Bob.
Each crate has to be big enough for the animal to stand up, sit down, turn
around and lie down - all in the natural position.'
So a bit more space than humans in economy - though it can't be very
nice being sealed in for up to 30 hours at a time.
'Animals travel surprisingly well - they're sitting in a darkened,
pressurised hold and the steady drone of the aeroplane is strangely soothing,
they generally sleep. Cats in particular are zonked out for the whole
Maybe, but some of the dogs seem a bit shell-shocked. Not least Penny, a
very shaky-looking beagle who's emigrating from Denver, Colorado, to Swindon
with Alan Wyatt, 39, her analyst owner.
And Vita, a ridiculously fluffy puppy en route from Sweden to Sydney, is
enough to tug anyone's heart strings.
'It's a long flight and she'll be in a box for more than 24 hours, so we
can't give her any food here - but she'll be fine. Animals put things
behind them very quickly.
'Cats tend to sulk a bit, but dogs seem to be a bit more: "Hello! there's a
person!" They're just pleased to see someone, anyone, and forget to be
As well as being unbelievably noisy, and not a little smelly, the Arc is
like a Tardis.
There are corridors of kennels, four reptile and amphibian rooms full of
venomous snakes, scorpions and spiders, and a huge room with adjustable cages
for big cats - currently populated by about 60 tortoises nibbling on
bits of apple and basking in the warmth of a fan heater ('Mind where you put
your feet,' says Bob).
Outside, there's a separate fish wing ('They're sealed up in cardboard
boxes, so there's not much to see'), a dedicated bird wing with a
state-of-the-art air filtration system ('Bird flu has changed everything - we
handle 250,000 a year, but now it's more like 2,000') and a horse section
at the back.
As well as racehorses and polo ponies, a large section of the Canadian
mounted police have been through ('such smart red jackets'), plus a horse given
to the Queen by her Canadian subjects.
The larder's quite something, too. Hundreds of tins of dog and cat food, a
huge black bin crawling with crickets for the scorpions, wriggling
mealworms for the meerkats, fresh meat for the big cats and an enormous chest
freezer brimming with dead chicks, baby mice, dead birds and dozens of black
A scribbled note on the noticeboard reads: 'Night shift - please get out
The busiest time is the morning, when most of the long-haul flights arrive
from Australia and America and each animal, still in its crate, emerges out
of the hold, down a bright green conveyor belt, is hoisted into a lorry
and whisked away to the Arc for processing.
It might all sound a bit daunting, but it's a step up from the human
immigration controls, because the staff here clearly adore animals.
Deaf to the terrible racket, their voices are full of cooing and soothing
and they'll fit in a cuddle wherever they can.
'I'm always on the lookout for someone who needs a little word, a bit of
reassurance or a "Hello, are you OK?"' says Julie Hyatt, who's worked here
longer than she'll admit.
'I like reassuring the animals and they do remember you the next time you
come down the corridor to see them - it cheers them up a bit.'
And the noise? 'We've got ear defenders, but it's not usually too bad.
Sometimes, the really big dogs can get a bit deafening.'
Blimey. We're yelling already - I'm not sure how much louder it could
get, or more hectic.
For exotic animals, the 23 members of staff usually get at least a day's
notice ('If it's something exciting like a crocodile or a lion, we'll all
come in on our day off to have a look,' says Joel).
And big shipments are usually booked in - such as when an elderly
British couple relocated their animal rescue centre from Greece to the UK, 53
cats and three dogs - 'It took us hours to process them all,' adds Bob.
Things don't always run so smoothly. BA might turn up with a box of puppies
right at the end of a shift, or a recalcitrant flamingo might not fancy
donning its straitjacket for the journey.
'It's very fiddly, but it's the only way to travel if you're a flamingo -
they have to be held upright because if they collapse in their box
they'll probably not get back up again.'
And there was the time one of the big cats escaped from its box in the
'A puma, I think it was,' says Julie. 'The armed police were rushed over
and had to dart it with a tranquilliser to get it back here. It would have
woken up with a nasty headache, poor thing.'
Not all animals make it out the other end. Some aren't deemed fit enough to
travel on, such as Joel's hyena cubs. Others don't have the right
A few are stuck here indefinitely, as their owners wrangle over them in
court - one blessing is that since 9/11, the smuggling of exotic animals
has been dramatically reduced.
Popeye the yellowheaded parrot has been here so long that he barks and
miaows more than he screeches.
And a few are here to stay - the poisonous vipers and scorpions in the
padlocked and bolted venomous snake room; the pet tarantula, all thick hairy
legs and bulbous body, in a glass tank on Bob's desk; and the occasional
stowaway - a snake that came in on some tiles, or an exotic spider that
caught a lift on a banana.
'We'd never destroy anything here - we'll always look after it,' says
A tiny handful, however, never actually make it off the plane.
'Very occasionally, you go to pick something up from the flight and it
comes down the belt and it's not moving. You look in the box and you know
straight away whether it's alive or dead, and it's a horrible moment.'
And almost invariably it's the result of an overprotective owner who has
sedated a pet in the hope of making the journey less traumatic.
'Never, ever drug your animal,' says Bob. 'It lowers blood pressure and so
does altitude and it can cause heart attacks. Nothing is worse than telling
an owner - it's just heartrendering, and worse because they'll blame
Happily, there's none of that today. Everything is going to plan - the
Komodo dragon is off to London Zoo to find a mate, Paddi the labrador's off
to quarantine, Popeye the parrot is still barking and miaowing.
And in the reunion conservatory, it's Penny the beagle's big moment.
She's ready to start her new life in Swindon and suddenly couldn't look
happier - a spring in her step, tail wagging like a mad thing, just the
teeniest accident on the floor, and not even a backward glance at Julie, Bob,
Joel or all that racket behind the double-locked door.
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
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