We had a call from on board a Cuban flight. A tarantula had been spotted walking down the aisle of the plane“We recommend that owners get the crate in advance,” says Claire. “If the dog or cat sleeps in the box in the weeks leading up to the flight, they’re a lot more relaxed about travelling.” The conditions of the area of the hold in which the animals travel are the same as those in the regular cabin, the air is heated and filtered, though they’re left to their own devices for the duration of the trip. To keep them company, owners will often leave a personal item in the crate with their pets, perhaps a blanket that smells of home for example, or in one particular case, a pair of the owner’s underpants. “We’ve had some strange requests. I remember we had one dog who was only allowed to drink bottled Evian water.”
It’s not only our pets who take to the skies. The centre oversees the safe transit of zoo animals, too, typically flown around the globe as part of international breeding programmes, and most often from Jersey and Edinburgh zoos. They see everything from tigers, flamingos and llamas down to lizards, spiders and leaf-cutter ants (the entire colony of which must be transported in one go). “The biggest I’ve seen is a sea lion,” says Claire. But don’t they need to be kept near water? I ask. “I think they just dampened it a bit,” she says. Stowaways are a common problem, too, especially on flights departing tropical countries. “You dread the call asking you to catch a scorpion or a spider,” says Claire. “We had a call from on board a Cuban flight. A tarantula had been spotted walking down the aisle of the plane, and it was my job to board the plane and get it. There was panic, and crew members were standing on seats. Luckily, by the time I’d arrived they’d managed to trap it in a jug. People go to the beach and put their bag down, and a lizard or an insect will climb inside. It happens more often than you’d think. I’ve had a lady open up her handbag and find a snake.” Our chat is interrupted by some new arrivals. A shutter door clatters open and for a minute the peace of the centre is interrupted by the sounds of the busy airport outside. Two crates are placed on two trolleys, and a pair of shivering dogs are wheeled out of the cold and into the building. The staff scan their microchips and fill in forms as the dogs are moved into their individual kennels, where they have a bed and water. They pace about nervously, stopping occasionally to look into my eyes and woof confused, gentle woofs. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them. They’re both Portuguese and have no idea what we’re saying. Even if they did, the most basic concepts of aviation would be beyond them. It will be a few hours until they see their owners again. Until then they are strangers in a strange land. When reunited with their owners they can relax, and once again enjoy being one of the privileged few pets who join their owners on holiday.