Heathrow air cargo includes “80 million animals per year” – and largest import is fresh beans

In a long and breathlessly excited and impressed account, a writer for the Daily Mail records his trip to Heathrow cargo warehouses. There are some interesting insights. He says Heathrow handles 80 million animals per year, including “280,000 reptiles, 28 million fish, 16,000 cats and dogs, 2,000 birds and 200 horses every year.” …  and “including bears, lions, penguins, elephants and tigers.”  (There may be good reasons to question the environmental sustainability or morality of shipping non-domestic animals in this manner …) Some of the animals in the Animal Health Centre in Feltham have been seized from smugglers, such as number of African pygmy hedgehogs. Apart from the animals there are vast amounts of flowers and perishable goods. Huge amounts of bell peppers, cucumbers and salmon are shipped to the Far East and the US every day.  Some 100 tonnes of salmon, “from countries such as Scotland and Norway” are flown overseas each day.  Luxury cars are shipped by air, and ship parts.  Drugs are sent when needed urgently.  One of the most daft shipments was “ice cubes sent from London for a swanky cocktail party in Korea” … as well as “rolls of carpets; barrels of olive oil; art, paintings and antiques.”… “The biggest import into the UK are fresh beans, but also berries, asparagus and exotic fruits.”


Terminal Zoo: Inside the Heathrow holding pen that houses 280,000 reptiles, 16,000 cats and dogs and 28 million fish every year (not to mention lions, elephants and tigers)

Every year, Heathrow’s Animal Health Centre accepts 80m animals from across the globe

By Thomas Burrows for MailOnline
27 December 2016

Tucked away in an unsuspecting building on the edge of a dual carriageway between Terminal 4 and the M25, Heathrow’s Animal Health Centre may not look like much on the outside – but inside it is a hive of activity that more closely resembles a zoo.

Every year the centre, affectionately known as the ‘Arc’, accepts 80 million animals from across the globe including bears, lions, penguins, elephants and tigers.

It is the place any exotic creature, pet or rescue animal must come when they first arrive in the UK.

Every year, the Arc handles 16,000 dogs and cats – they are given more space in their kennels than people on economy class

Each crate the animals travel in have to be big enough for them to stand up, sit down, turn around and lie down

The first thing you notice is the noise. Dogs bark, cats miaow and the doors slam open and shut with flashing vehicles bringing in the new dazed arrivals from their respective flights.

The smell is similar to a pet shop and attentive staff are on hand to check over the animals and remove them from their kennels so they can stretch their weary legs.

My visit coincides with the arrival of Astra, a poodle cross pom from Russia and Rory, a corgi from Australia, both of whom look exhausted from their long-haul flights.

Checking over Astra and Rory is animal health officer Will Hall, who is my guide for the day.

‘When they come from Australia, we try to get them out of their kennels as soon as possible. We get lots arriving in the morning from Australia, as well as the USA, and then more from Europe as the day goes on’, he explains.  ‘But they can literally come from anywhere in the world’.

Having been picked up from the aircraft and ferried to the centre, they are given a basic health check-up, fed and hydrated before having their IDs verified by the microchip under their skin.

Dogs, cats and ferrets can enter and re-enter the UK without going into quarantine so long as they have a microchip and valid rabies vaccination under the Pet Travel Scheme.

In addition to that, dogs must also have tapeworm treatment administered by a vet.


The centre handles 280,000 reptiles, 28 million fish, 16,000 cats and dogs, 2,000 birds and 200 horses every year.

Will, who has worked at the centre for six years, is one of the dedicated team of 26 staff who look after the animals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.   ‘One of the best things about the job is you expose yourself to so many different species’, he says.

The ‘dog wing’ – split between the export and quarantine side [for those coming from ‘unlisted countries’ or who failed the checks] has corridors of kennels filled with yapping dogs and whining puppies waiting to be reunited with their owners.

They are put in a snug indoor area which has a 14ft outdoor run and to keep the pets happy, the Arc tries to put them in with a companion.

Will says: ‘The main thing is to make them as safe and comfortable and possible.’

One of the ways their health is monitored is by a graded ‘faeces scoring system’ hanging on the wall, giving a detailed explanation of each type of dog poo.

Away from the barking dogs are four reptile and amphibian rooms full of snakes, scorpions and spiders.

They are each placed in individual plastic boxes which have their own lighting and heating systems.

Some are pets while others have been detained or seized by smugglers looking to cash in on a lucrative market – snakes with interesting markings can fetch up to tens of thousands of pounds.


Snakes are also part of the ‘handling courses’ staff run for police officers and local authority workers who may have to pick up animals they are not used to.

Some of the animals found at the centre are ‘stowaways’ found on aircraft or smuggled pets hidden in handbags or luggage.

I spot a gecko in one of the boxes and Will says a number of African pygmy hedgehogs were recently seized by customs.

All these animals have their IDs checked by specially trained staff and can then be handed over to a more suitable location if required.

‘We’ve had white lion cubs, cheetahs, alpacas’, Will says. ‘Every day is different. I don’t know what will turn up, that’s the beauty of the job.’

Inside the centre, run by the City of London Corporation, there is even a dedicated ‘exotic animal’ section where I spot an iguana, a bale of Northern map turtles seized by smugglers and the appropriately named ‘snapping turtle’.

Will, kitted out in a lab coat, wellington boots and face mask, reaches in to a large area to scoop up the huge creature, another resident at the centre.

As he admirably poses for pictures with the restless turtle, it demonstrates its vicious jerking movement at Will on three separate occasions.

Outside there is a fish wing, a bird area with computer controlled lighting to imitate sunset, sunrise and moonlight and a horse section at the back. There is also a large room with adjustable cages for big cats and fearsome predators.


The ‘unsung heroes’ loading every item imaginable into planes travelling around the world – including band equipment for Beyonce, luxury cars and tonnes of salmon

As the thousands of passengers who pass through Heathrow every day prepare to board their aircraft, the cargo team on the ground spring into action.

‘Cargo are the unsung heroes’, Janine Brown from American Airlines tells me. ‘It’s not a sexy part of the operation and very few people know about it, but there are so many different facets to it and some really interesting stuff is put into the aircraft.’

I am watching on the chilly, windswept airfield as the slick cargo team unload ten tonnes of packaged boxes into the belly of an empty AA plane, bound for Miami, before any passengers have taken their seats.

The team have only 30 minutes to load the cargo and ensure the weight is evenly distributed – described as an ‘art form’ – to maximise efficiency and fuel burn.

One of the main items being loaded into the belly of the plane today are flowers from Holland.

Cargo is loaded onto the American Airline an hour before the plane departs and the slick operation takes only 30 minutes. Cargo is loaded into both the front and back of the belly of the jet to try and maximise efficiency and fuel burn

Paul Griffin, AA cargo operations manager in the UK, explains: ‘Flowers, normally things like tulips of lilies, come from Holland overnight at about 4am or 5am. When they arrive in London they are X-rayed for any explosives and then put on a flight out to the US about 11am in chilled boxes. They will then arrive the following day.

‘But it can be anything. Not too long ago the British museum held an exhibition of Colombian gold and we bought the gold in…and then after six months when the exhibition was over, we had to take the gold back again.’

Aside from flowers, the airline transports huge amounts of bell peppers, cucumbers and salmon to the Far East and the US every day. It flies 100 tonnes of salmon – from countries such as Scotland and Norway – overseas on a daily basis.

As the cargo team finish packing the last boxes into the plane, managing director of cargo sales Tristan Koch tells me: ‘We take it for granted but there’s always surprise at the breadth and scale of it…it’s big business. It’s all about the speed and transportation of fragile things.

‘We have cars that are held in place in special car carrying pallets which strap them down and we move very expensive racing cars. We also send out ship parts when there is a rescue situation and we send lifesaving drugs to countries that need it.

‘We have moved band equipment for Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and Madonna.’ He pauses. ‘In that situation the ramifications of not getting it right can be very severe.’

American Airlines flies 100 tonnes of salmon from countries such as Scotland and Norway overseas on a daily basis.

American Airlines has state-of-the-art transport equipment for perishable cargo such as produce, seafood, flowers and live tropical fish.

Before cargo reaches the aircraft it is held in huge storage warehouses.  The Mixed Freight Services, in Feltham, is one such company that delivers freight to the airlines.

In front of the never-ending piles of boxes they have in their storage units – including one with a Ryder Cup 2018 ticket stamped on it – are two shiny supercars, a BMW and Mercedes.

Company director Steve O’Keeffe says: ‘We get every luxury car you can imagine.’

Pointing to the flashy motors, he explains: ‘These are going to Bangkok and Thailand…people there want to be seen with good things, like we were in the 1980s and they show their cars off on weekends.  They typically want English things as they are seen as being better quality.

‘Everything is security checked for bombs, so to make sure the supercars are safe we have to drive them.’ He chuckles before adding, ‘apart from the Formula One cars we get.

‘But we have driven a £2m antique Rolls Royce and the fleet of cars from the movie set of Transformers.’

I ask what is in particularly high demand ahead of the frenetic Christmas period. His response is not what one might expect.

‘Avatar baby bottles and baby powder, mainly going to China. We are collecting 80 pallets every day. The pound is weak at the moment and people like British brands.

‘E-commerce is so big as well. I don’t think people appreciate just how much it has grown – it’s increased tenfold in 12 months.’

Steve, who has worked for the company since 1989, has seen almost every item imaginable pass through his doors.

This has included ice cubes sent from London for a swanky cocktail party in Korea; sand for horse racing in Dubai; dead bodies (that all have to be screened for bombs); space satellite dishes for space companies (a ‘very valuable industry’); metal cages for the barricades round Camp Bastion in Afghanistan; rolls of carpets; barrels of olive oil; pandas; tigers; and art, paintings and antiques. [(Do they really need to be air freighted?   AW comment]

‘You just can’t predict what’s going to come in’, Nick Platts, the airport’s jovial head of cargo, interjects.

‘People don’t realise that 30/35 per cent of UK trade value comes from Heathrow and a third of all UK trade comes from Heathrow. As a port it’s more valuable than Felixstowe, Southampton and Liverpool…people don’t understand how important air cargo is.

‘Heathrow currently serves 180 routes, over the next few years it’s not just about opening up new routes and adding capacity but increasing the frequency of the routes we currently serve.

‘Heathrow handles 70 per cent of the air cargo market and take goods from across the UK. The biggest import into the UK are fresh beans, but also berries, asparagus and exotic fruits.’

As he looks around the warehouse, he adds: ‘Everything you can think of comes through Heathrow.’