Every year, about 60 million humans – and 200 million animals – land at Heathrow Airport and continue their onward journey. The humans pass through customs. The animals must pass through the animal reception centre. On the outside, it resembles one of the many hangar-like buildings on the outskirts of Terminal 4. You would not think it was full of queues of pythons, crocodiles, lizards, toads and scorpions waiting for their passports to be stamped.
Of course, the animals don’t have passports. They mostly arrive in crates. Tristan Bradfield, one of Heathrow Animal Reception Centre’s two deputy managers, is sitting in his office, giving me a breakdown of what’s been through in the past year. “Three crates of alpacas,” he says. “That’s 18 individuals. One-hundred-and-eighty-nine thousand reptiles – so that’s 700 reptiles a day. Thirty-two million fish; 166 million invertebrates. That sounds like a lot, but you can have several million bees in one consignment. Ten cows; 268 horses; 7,000 dogs; four goats.” The centre employs 25 people to check the animals as they come through.
Bradfield wears a lab coat and sturdy boots. Every time he passes from the office to the animal area, he must walk through a disinfectant bath. As a visitor, I must do the same. Wellington boots are provided. The first thing we see is a large dog in a crate. Some kind of hound on its way to New Zealand. Bradfield checks the documentation on the crate. It’s all in order, as are the size and ventilation specs on the crate.
Sometimes, Bradfield says, dogs turn up dead. That’s often because they have been given an overdose of sedative. “It’s like humans drinking alcohol on an aircraft,” he says. “Flying intensifies the effect. A lot of vets don’t realise that.” He opens a door. On the door is a sign that says: “Beware!!! We can jump and will chase you!!!” There are two police riot shields by the door. We enter the room, which is about 10ft square. We don’t pick up the shields. We’re not wimps. Inside, there is a bright lamp and a small pool filled with water. It’s the crocodile room. In the far corner are two Cuban crocodiles. Their scales are a mixture of yellow and black. They are 4ft or 5ft from nose to tail. They remain absolutely still, watching us. “They are part of a zoo swap,” says Bradfield.
Animals pass through Heathrow for many reasons. Some are pets on the same journeys as their owners. Some are en route from zoo to zoo; it makes sense to swap animals, to give visitors more variety. Some animals are sent to zoos for breeding purposes. “We had some red pandas recently,” says Bradfield. Occasionally, animals are seized because they have not been labelled correctly, or packed according to regulations.
Bradfield hands me a face mask. “To filter out fecal dust,” he says. We walk into a rank-smelling room containing several black-throated monitors – lizards the size of terriers. Their feet are like the wizened hands of Egyptian mummies. They have crinkly necks with dry, shedding skin, like Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective. Tongues shoot out of their mouths like party tricks. When Bradfield gets too close to one of these lizards, the tail, which is getting on for a yard long, whips against a crate.
These monitors have been seized by customs officials. En route from Tanzania to Mexico, they were checked at Heathrow, and found to be packed inhumanely. “They were in bags, inside crates,” says Susie Perry, the centre’s other deputy manager. “And the bags were much too small. The monitors weren’t able to move around.” Perry and Bradfield don’t know what would have happened to them in Mexico. This wasn’t a zoo shipment. Maybe they would have prowled the gardens of rich Mexicans. Now they live in concrete rooms, until further notice. They hiss. They remind me of some of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Up close, they smell bad – terrifyingly bad. This must be the last thing an African rat smells before it’s eaten.
Karen Farrell, another of the animal handlers, shows me a python. It’s about 10ft long, and keeps trying to constrict her arm. The little head is active, looking at everything, tongue darting out. Reptiles don’t have to be fed very often. This one eats two newborn chicks a week. In the wild, with a greater expenditure of energy, it would eat more. When she moves the python around, Farrell puts it in a duvet cover. I pick the duvet cover up; the python is about as heavy as a spaniel. Every so often it flaps like a big fish.
Bradfield and Perry are waiting for a consignment of reptiles from Egypt. When I ask them what’s the most difficult thing about their job, they don’t talk about crocodiles or cobras. Bradfield says it’s cats that escape. Perry talks about paperwork. They say someone recently handed in an American rat snake, much bigger than any snake you’d find in Britain. It had been living in the engine of a car, seeking warmth.
The reptiles from Egypt arrive. There are six crates, each the size of a large suitcase. The crates are tied with wire, which Bradfield snips. Inside, the crates are sectioned, and in each section is a linen bag, about the size of a small carrier bag. Bradfield picks one up. It’s wriggling. It’s full of gekkos – 15 or 20 of them. This complies with regulations. Bradfield and Perry open more bags. Some are teeming with toads. Some contain tiny frogs. One lizard has died, but Perry puts it back in with the live ones, so the numbers tally. “Saves arguments,” she says. She takes swabs from some of the animals, to check for diseases; she’s helping a vet with his PhD project.
The animals in these bags will be sold in pet shops. One bag is full of clear plastic containers; inside each container is a solifugid spider – not actually a spider, because it has 10 legs, a maggot-like body and a ferocious death’s head-looking jaw, with four mandibles, so it can bite two ways at once. They eat scorpions. “One of nature’s weird things,” says Bradfield, checking the paperwork. He puts the containers back in the bag, ties the bag, and closes the crate. He smiles. His day’s work is done. The animals are free to go.
William Leith is author of ‘Bits of Me are Falling Apart: Dark Thoughts from the Middle Years’