Snakes and tigers and crocs! Oh my! By law, every animal passing through the UK has to spend time living in a most unlikely menagerie: a nondescript depot in Zone 6. Alexi Duggins visited the Heathrow Animal Reception Centre to find out what happens to scorpions in the post.
You’ve quite possibly shared a plane with a tiger and never known it. While you were paying £65 for a limp ham sandwich, you may have been mere feet away from snoozing pandas. And it’s entirely plausible that the reason your airline check-in assistant was so clenchy-buttocked about luggage allowance is because their cargo bay was jam-packed full of little piggies. Which isn’t a euphemism.
‘If you’re on a plane, there’s a good chance that you’re sitting above travelling animals,’ says Rob Quest, assistant director of Heathrow Animal Reception Centre (HARC), the border inspection post that checks every animal entering the country to ensure they’re here legally. Mostly, they travel in the holds of standard commercial flights. ‘We get hundreds of thousands of animals through here each year,’ says Rob. ‘Including the insects and fish, we’re talking well over 25 million.’
As we’re taken on a tour of the forbidding-looking facility next to a dual carriageway, we’re shown a huge warehouse full of enormous water tanks housing what appears to be the cast of ‘The Little Mermaid’. A lengthy corridor is populated with yapping dogs. Snakes slither under bright lights. A humongous snapping turtle thrashes around in a pool and there’s a sizeable stables for the hundreds of racehorses that briefly make this place their home. It’s hard to imagine there are any species that don’t regularly pass through here. Except, perhaps, cows. Because… erm, because… well. How to put this?
‘Nowadays it’s all semen,’ says Lawrence Broome, one of the animal health officers. ‘We used to get a lot of cattle travelling for breeding purposes. But thanks to artificial insemination I’ve only seen one in nine years.’
Fortunately, the sights get a lot more entertaining than bull spunk. In reception, a hysterical sausage dog has just been reunited with its owner, and draws a collective ‘awww’ as it treats their lap like a bouncy castle. Rob regales us with a tale of having seen a horse wearing an ‘anti-jetlag suit’. And in one section there are three whole rooms full of hundreds of tiny, cute-as-a-button tortoises, which have clambered atop each other to form an impressive reptilian pyramid. Sadly, though, we’re not allowed to photograph them. ‘They’re involved in an upcoming court case,’ explains Lawrence. ‘If an animal’s seized for legal reasons, they often come to us.’ As a result, a good number of HARC’s residents end up there as a result of shady goings-on, ranging from people trying to sell endangered species, to those who think it’s appropriate to simply pop dangerous bugs into an envelope and stuff it into a postbox. ‘We had a scorpion that the Royal Mail seized recently,’ says Rob. ‘The trouble with the internet is that you can contact someone abroad, say, “I’m interested in scorpions,” and they’ll post some to you.’
Other than that, HARC functions like an airport run by Dr Dolittle. Cats in travel boxes are put through an X-ray machine to ensure they’re not packed full of explosives. Puppies grab a quick bite as they wait for a connecting flight. People greet animals that have flown in to meet them. And it all happens 24/7, 365 days a year. Just think, if HARC wasn’t around to ensure that animals are safely stowed, all hell might break loose. ‘Sometimes there literally are snakes on a plane,’ says Rob. ‘Not that it’s anything like “Snakes on a Plane”.’ Well, thank God for that.
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