Here's Where Jet Set Pets Go After Landing At Heathrow

By Charlotte Maughan Jones Last edited 15 months ago
Here's Where Jet Set Pets Go After Landing At Heathrow
Heathrow's very own Animal Ark. But this one doesn't float and is looked after by deputy manager, Ross Hayes. Photo: City Of London Corporation/Tim Fletcher

Imagine you're flying into Heathrow with your pet dog. In a matter of minutes you'll be off the plane, but what about your beloved pooch? Or snake? Or Giant African land snails for that matter?

There's no animal line in passport control, but there is the Heathrow Animal Reception Centre (HARC) situated just outside the southern perimeter of the airport, near Terminal 4.

Less biblical, more governmental, this particular ARC is a world leader in animal transportation and care, ensuring the highest standards in welfare for all who pass through its doors, whatever their species.

A golden retriever dog is say in a plastic cage with 2 bowls of water on the door. A KLM airlines plane is seen in the background and the dog appears to be being loaded onto it.
The centre ensure all animals entering the UK comply with legislation. Photo: City Of London Corporation

Forget Snakes on a Plane

"What you see in the movies is the biggest misconception," says deputy manager Ross Hayes, explaining that the hold of a plane is actually very calm, and not what Snakes on a Plane might have you believe.

Shipping of animals by plane, Hayes says, is extremely safe — and staff at this live animal border inspection post take their job very seriously.

Hundreds of butterfly pupae are seen on a cotton wool base. Some of the pupae are beautoful and golden in colour and shimmer.
Ever wondered where the exotic butterflies in a butterfly house come from? Well they come through the ARC. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

So, to paraphrase an old Sunday School song: who built the HARC?

Up until the mid-1970s, all animals stayed in the RSPCA Animal Hostel after disembarking from flights. Then, new rabies control legislation was brought into force, and in response, the City of London Corporation — which is now responsible for animal health and welfare for the whole of Greater London — established HARC to protect public health and uphold these new legislative changes. By 1977, the hostel was closed entirely, and HARC became the go-to destination for animals travelling into the UK via Heathrow.

A set of metal kennels is seen with some dogs behind them. The kennels are external runs for the dog boarding facilities. In the background is a yellow brick building and the "animal reception centre" sign as well as the city of London logo can be seen. The sky is bright blue with no clouds.
Each dog kennel has a long external run — room for stretching legs after a long flight. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

Initially used as a quarantine location, the facilities were repurposed as a live animal border control post when the pet travel scheme was introduced, and widespread quarantine was abandoned. Despite the minor change in use, the building itself remains largely unchanged from its original plans, with purpose built areas to optimise the complex husbandry of a wide variety of species.

X-rayed like any other item of luggage

A black labradoor puppy looks to the right hand side of the image. The animal is help by someone wearing a dark blue polo shirt and wearing light blue gloves.
"Who's a good dog?" Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

All animals or insects arriving in, or transiting through, Heathrow are collected direct from the plane by HARC staff in climate-controlled vehicles, and transported to the centre. Here, they are fed, watered, and checked for obvious signs of ill health, while their paperwork is confirmed.

When outbound flights are ready, animals transiting in the UK are loaded into their cage, and passed through X-ray security — exactly the same as any other item of luggage — before being escorted to the hold of the plane. All flight regulations are written in the hefty IATA Live Animals Regulations book, and the HARC staff ensure these are adhered to.

Animals travelling out of the UK are dropped off directly with the airlines and never come through the centre.

A man in high visibility jacket is carrying a crate with an animal in it into a van. It has just been collected from a plane and the plane can be seen in the background.
Collecting animals directly from the plane. Photo: City Of London Corporation

Every day is different, and the range of animals passing through these doors is vast, from surprisingly-common stowaways (think geckos in bags and spiders in bananas) to pet cats and far bigger cats e.g. lions.

The only animal that staff don't remember seeing is an elephant.

A giant land snail is in the foreground of the image. The bottom of the cage is filled with mud and their are scraps of vegetables visible in the background.
African Giant Snails. Not all those who pass through are cute and cuddly. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

It’s hard not to get giddy at the thought of working with such magnificent beasts all day. But for deputy manager Ross Hayes, the most unusual or exciting situation that he has ever found himself in involved overtaking a jumbo jet while attempting to catch and release a wild swan from a Heathrow runway.

Dealing with a honey badger also gets an honourable mention.

A camelid is wandering round the outdoor space. Stables are seen in the background.
It's certainly not all puppies and kittens. Camelids are also welcome. Photo: City Of London Corporation

As for those lions: the work involved in preparing a big cat for flight is actually often less than that for a cat or a dog. Whereas household dogs and cats like to be given the space to stretch their legs after transportation, wild animals can become excessively stressed with too much handling and movement, therefore such creatures tend to be left in their airline containers in secure, temperature-controlled rooms — periodically checked and given water.

In the space of a year, the team of 65 highly-skilled and dedicated staff provide care for around 22,000 dogs and cats, 400 horses, 100,000 reptiles, 1,000 birds and a staggering 28 million fish, due to a 30% increase in animal transportation during Covid.

A small black dog is looking up at the carrier. The dog is in a kennel with green flooring and a soft sheepskin bed.
One of the 22,000 cats and dogs. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

The centre occasionally puts up VIP animals too, including those from the Royal Cavalry of Oman (who participated in the Platinum Jubilee celebrations), and the champion (and rather expensive) racehorse Black Caviar who came through on her way to race at Ascot.

"Two primates are today's most notable guests"

Coming here as an owner, you'll only see a tiny fraction of the centre, so what goes on beyond the reception desk?

A green parrot is sitting magestically on a perch, staring out of its cage.
The centre has facilities for a wide variety of globe trotting species. Photo: City Of London Corporation.

As you enter the reception area, a rolling feed of the day's flights, and their onboard animals, is on display. Two primates are today's most notable HARC guests.

Walking through the loading bay, protective clothes are adorned and a bath of disinfectant walked through to enter the area housing the animals most at risk of carrying diseases such as rabies, before their health certificates are checked.

As most animals only stay for a few hours before being reunited with their owners, painted concrete and brick are the internal building materials of choice, meaning cages can be quickly and thoroughly disinfected to allow a swift succession of inhabitants, one right after the other.

A view down the corridor of the dog wing with yellow painted brick walls. The kennel doors are metal and have blankets hung on the outside.
Dog kennels. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

Cats and dogs are kept in separate areas for welfare reasons (phew), and there are separate climate-controlled areas for reptiles, a self-contained bird wing, outdoor stable facilities for horses and a further warehouse building for fish.

Most areas are multifunctional, and can be adapted to an animal that may fly into Heathrow that day.

A plastic police riot shield is hung up on a yellow brick wall. There is a first aid box to the right as well as boxes of disposible gloves.
Standard issue police riot shields dotted around the facilities. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

As you walk around, an air of calm prevails — the animals seem content, and the staff clearly love their jobs. It's easy to forget the potentially dangerous nature of the work they do, though reminders are scattered unobtrusively throughout the facilities: snake hooks, restraint cages, riot shields and security X-ray scanning equipment.

Illegal imports and banned species

The nose of a turtle can be seen poking out of the front of a turtleshell The turtle is being held by someone and their hands and body can be seen in the background.
One of the centre's more shy accidentally illegal residents. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

HARC sees its fair share of illegal imports and banned species. Sometimes in this case, animals are temporarily held as criminal evidence, and staff work closely with other agencies such as Border Force.

The vast majority of illegal imports are accidental — due to lack of knowledge of the import, or export process leading to incorrect paperwork. Many of these animals are swiftly given up by their owners due to hefty quarantine fees and lengthy stays, and instead become property of the Crown until they can be rehomed.

2 meerkats peer out of their cage.
The animals went in two by two hurrah... Photo: City of London Corporation.

Even working and service animals have to go through the same rigorous checks on arrival in the UK. One of the most difficult aspects of the job, Hayes tells us, is telling someone that their guide dog has been refused entry due to incorrect paperwork. He recommends doing your research far in advance of travelling with your pet.

Everything comes down to poo. Assessing the health of animals in their care is a cornerstone of what the ARC does. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

Advice for travelling with your pet

4 stables are seen to the left of the photo. The area is spotlessly clean and the sky is bright blue.
Spotless stable facilities at HARC. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

Considering taking to the skies with your pet? Here's some other advice HARC staff have:

  • Get them used to their crate to minimise stress
  • Make sure the crate complies with guidelines
  • Speak to your vet far in advance to ensure all the health requirements are fulfilled in good time
  • Never underestimate how helpful a professional shipping company can be in facilitating legislative compliance.

Last Updated 01 September 2022