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Inside a border inspection post

01 March 2017, at 12:00am

Lemurs from Tooting Bec and crocodiles from Croydon are just the beginning for the staff at Heathrow’s Animal Reception Centre, affectionately known as the ARC

Like many vets, cats and dogs are all in a day’s work for Andrew Bieniek-Maluszczak. But as a Senior Veterinary Inspector for APHA at Heathrow’s Border Inspection Post (BIP), which oversees the Animal Reception Centre (ARC), he’s just as familiar with parrots, snapping turtles, puffer fish, alpacas and the occasional cheetah. “You could play with them like kittens,” he recalls of two male big cats they hosted in 2016, clicking through photos on his computer that also feature hyenas, an aardvark, lion cubs and a coati. There’s nothing quite up to those wildlife-park standards making its way through customs on the day I visit, but there’s so much else to see it leaves me far from disappointed. The ARC is a busy place – if you count eggs and insects, in 2015 the centre processed around 777 million animals.

We start out in a hangar that’s dedicated to fish and other aquatic organisms – it’s almost empty, but there are a few promising stacks of polystyrene boxes. Laminated clipart images are pinned around the walls, categorising the space into different types of marine fish, crustaceans, freshwater species and, of course, sharks. If it was a Tuesday, I’m told, it would be a struggle to get inside the door – shipments from Asia travel over the weekend and arrive ready for their contents to be acclimatised and sold in UK pet shops on Saturdays.

The figures are impressive – in 2015 alone the centre processed 28 million fish and 1.5 million aquatic vertebrates. Andrew prises the lid from box after box and briefly lifts out their contents, carefully tied up in plastic bags of water: sea dragons, guppies, water snails. They can’t be handled for longer without switching to infrared monitoring, or else a prolonged exposure to light could trigger a shock reaction after their journey – once unloaded at their next destination, they will need a 24-hour acclimation to the new environment. When the shipments pass through the BIP the staff need to do a risk assessment on ten percent of each consignment, checking their compliance with livestock-transport regulations, though for marine fish from reliable shippers they reduce this to one percent to minimise disturbance and exposure.

Out of the hangar and into the main ARC building, an ’80s concrete block where the reception area is full of families waiting to claim their pets. The increasing ease and affordability of transporting pets internationally, especially within the EU, has meant that the ARC workload has grown exponentially during the nine years that Andrew has worked here. Like many vets, he’ll admit that dealing with owners is far more challenging than dealing with the animals themselves.

One of the adaptations made at Heathrow has been to stop scanning animals at the airport immediately on their arrival in the UK, but instead to move the procedures inhouse to the ARC. This brings the building under a new set of rules and regulations, with regular visitations from the Department of Transport to check on the system and procedures. As Andrew walks me through the loading area, everything seems to be working smoothly as a bulldog in a wooden crate trundles past towards the scanners. Staff here are trained to detect explosive organic material or hidden narcotics in the crates, not to mention being drilled in the correct procedure in the case of a bomb threat. If all is well with the shipment, however, the team will be able to issue a certificate to allow the animal to leave the centre.

One unexpected aspect of the ARC’s work, Andrew explains, is that it has become a de facto provider of exotic animal transport expertise, and a specialist veterinary service for exotics found in the UK who may have nowhere else to go. As we work our way around the centre’s sections and meet the various animals, it’s not hard to see why. Storm the parrot is the first creature we meet; as Andrew and a colleague coax him out of his cage to have his details checked, I see that his information form reads ‘Loves a good whistle’ – to a casual visitor, the ARC can seem like an absurdly fun place to work.

But just beyond Storm’s transport crate is a reminder of the more challenging aspects of the BIP’s responsibilities – a row of white plastic containers full of leeches. They were confiscated from a Turkish passenger’s luggage, likely intended for the black-market trade associated with traditional medicine. Although the leeches are CITES listed animals, confiscation is usually as far as the BIP’s role goes, leaving them with the problem of the shipment’s ongoing care and rehoming – often to zoos and wildlife centres. Similar recent cases have involved boxes of European goldfinches (“in a bad condition”), and two Romanian girls on their way to Germany with 13 iguanas secreted in their bags and socks – and not just any iguanas, but a type of which there are only 200 left in the world. It’s one of the reasons the centre is staffed 24/7 by the local government, while APHA oversees the logistics and checks shipments. All in all, Andrew concludes, the BIP plays “a key role in animal health within the UK”.

The ARC can house around 38 cats (not including big cats, who have their own section) and has 20 to 30 dog kennels and several stables, but I get the impression that the team are always having to find space for more animals, and often some unexpected surprises. An enormous python and a snapping turtle like a baby rhinoceros are just two reptiles that have taken up more or less permanent residence at the centre – although they do make themselves useful, featuring in official training classes on how to handle dangerous animals. The turtle was found in an English lake – being apprehended as strays is one way exotics can find their way to the centre, while some are victims of incorrect CITES applications or other import regulations which for various reasons their owners never get around to completing.

“CITES is designed to restrict trade,” explains Andrew. “There’s no leeway for domestic pets.” Any issues with the paperwork at any point and the animal is simply refused and returned to the owner, but sometimes it gets stuck in limbo. This was the case with Andrew’s own cat, Leeloo (named for the heroine of ‘The Fifth Element’). Her original owner was shipping her home to Germany from the US after falling victim to the 2008 financial crisis, but refused to pay the charges incurred when her documents failed. Luckily for Leeloo, Andrew took her in – though he hasn’t gone as far as another colleague he mentions, who he estimates (conservatively) has taken on seven cats, two dogs, several rabbits and a number of chinchillas from the ARC.

Still, you get the impression the colleague has got off lightly. Just a few of the other animals that have passed through the ARC include a geriatric lemur found on Tooting Bec Common, a race horse winner of the Dubai Cup worth 20 million euros at stud, pathogen-free eggs for the pharmaceutical industry, alpacas, sheep, pigs, crocodiles from a garden in Croydon, an orang-utan, small polystyrene boxes of mosquitoes for medical research, wolves and scorpions. It’s a sobering thought that much of this menagerie is destined for private zoos, some in Russia, but “that’s not part of the job,” says Andrew, when I ask how this makes him feel. “I cannot tell you whether there’s going to be a concern or not without seeing the places.” The BIP’s role is to ensure that the animals are processed as quickly and effectively as possible, and to adhere to appropriate welfare standards.

Like most vets in the UK, Andrew has an eye on how the Brexit process will affect his work; most of the legislation enforced by the BIP comes from the EU, so the impacts of the deal struck by the government will be felt by everything from the most routine shipment of domestic pets to rare exotics looking for asylum in UK zoos.