When pigs fly (and horses and cats and dogs, too)

Eye on safety: The Ark at JFK, a combination international import/export checkpoint and luxury pet-transportation facility, is focused on animal health.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

It took Noah some time, too.

Extrapolating from clues provided by the Book of Genesis, theologians calculate that God’s favorite shipbuilder spent between 55 and 75 years constructing his namesake ark. The goings aren’t quite that slow at The Ark at JFK, though it’s taking Ark Development LLC a fair amount of time to finalize its comprehensive animal handling and shipping facility at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

It won’t spare earth’s human and animal landlubbers like Noah’s historical construct, but The Ark at JFK aims to spare four-legged voyagers – from dogs and cats to pigs and horses to the way more exotic – some travel-related stress. That goes for winged wanderers, also: Phase 2 of the multiyear construction project, opening soon, includes The Ark Aviary.

The unique terminal also intends to provide government-stamped monitoring of international animal imports and exports, joining a very small list of federally approved way stations tracking beastly travel (there are similar facilities in Miami and Los Angeles, and JFK’s current international equine arrivals are trucked to a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection station in upstate Newburgh, and that’s it).

Such ambitions take time, and The Ark at JFK – including a 108,650-square-foot animal-handling center and a 63,515-square-foot cargo-handling facility – is coming together in pieces. Phase 1, including equine exporting services, opened Jan. 1; an Equine Importing Quarantine operation and that aviary are included in Phase 2, which needs only the USDA’s sign-off and should be flying high by July, according to Business Development Director Lindsay Seeger.

Ark Development, a subsidiary of New York City-based investment firm Racebrook Capital Advisors LLC, projects The Ark will be fully operational – including occupancy by subtenants, such as an around-the-clock veterinary clinic and long-term pet-boarding facility – when Phase 3 is completed this fall.

When all is said and done, the $65  million Ark, already approved by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, will be North America’s first 24-hour, privately owned, airport-based quarantine facility for the import/export of horses, pets, birds, livestock and exotic creatures – and the only multi-purpose “luxury” animal-handling facility of its kind.

Kristen McGowan: Horse sense.

While the fully functioning Ark at JFK will provide airside and landside services for animals both large and small, it figures to be an especially good friend to horses. Between regional events like the annual Hampton Classic Horse Show and a yearly slate of international racing seasons, plenty of prized mares and stallions pass through Kennedy Airport – and with the new terminal providing way more import/export convenience than distant Orange County, Ark management is expecting a flood of equine traffic.

Seeger estimated that up to 5,000 horses pass annually through the Newburgh checkpoint, with thousands more hoofing it through a USDA facility at Miami International Airport and a small, private horse and livestock quarantine office at Los Angeles International Airport operated by California-based Jet Pets Inc.

Assuming the elimination of a two-hour post-flight truck ride to Newburgh convinces at least some of those horse owners to reroute their itineraries through Kennedy Airport, and a large percentage of the owners currently arranging rides to Orange County choose the new JFK checkpoint, the Ark figures to be fairly horse-heavy.

“We hope so,” said Kristen McGowan, The Ark’s administration director, who suggested the new facility wouldn’t only reduce headaches for horse owners.

“We think it’s going to make the process a lot more stress-free for the horses,” McGowan said. “Most of the flights (into JFK) are several hours long. Cutting out an additional trailer ride of two hours will be beneficial for the animals.”

McGowan, a former assistant stable manager at Greenvale’s North Shore Equestrian Center who captained her equestrian team while studying business administration at LIU Post, said a “high level of care” will mark The Ark’s equine import/export operations – worthy of the “high-end athletes” whose performances can be greatly affected by a bad trip.

Lindsay Seeger: Animal instincts.

“They land and go right back into training and competition,” she noted. “You really want to make it as easy for them as possible.

“Travel is stressful on anybody,” McGowan added. “We can only imagine how much animals stress during travel, so we want to provide the most compassionate environment we can.”

Of course, that compassion doesn’t only extend to equines. The care of family pets, for instance, is a horse of another color indeed, but every animal passing through The Ark at JFK will be shown as much love as humanly possible, according to Seeger.

“Our job is to make sure the animals receive the best possible care pre- and post-flight,” she told Innovate LI.

There are various options for the transportation of canines and felines, including size limitations – the owners of a Marmaduke-sized Great Dane, for instance, would be compelled to ship their imposing pet on a separate cargo flight, while lap dogs and kitties can travel as “excess baggage” on passenger flights, either caged in the baggage hold or, in some cases, as carry-ons.

Either way, travel has traditionally been a downer for Rover et al, especially since those underbelly baggage holds, while pressurized, are not heated.

That puts a further premium on The Ark’s Pet Oasis, a 24-hour “luxury pet terminal” that caters to kittens, pampers pups and otherwise relaxes family pets before and after their voyage. Seeger – who recommends transporting pets via cargo planes, which tend to be temperature-controlled – said dogs and cats “will be a very large component” of the full-service Ark, and not just in number of pawed passengers.

“We really are prepared for any situation that a pet parent might have when transporting their animal domestically or internationally,” she said. “We feed them, water them, relieve them, play with them … we’ll even groom your pet.

“We’re working closely with all the airlines here to accommodate their customers’ needs.”

Ark of the (pet) covenant: The new terminal’s management is pledged to promote the wellbeing of pawed passengers.

Already, The Ark has welcomed an assortment of animals, including a baby pig whose flight to Alaska was canceled by inclement weather. Netherlands-based KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has exported several horses that came from Belmont Park’s stables, McGowan noted, and “now that the big European competition season is in effect, we’re seeing a lot of horses coming through.”

“Seeing” being the operative word. In addition to 24/7 video monitoring throughout the entire facility, The Ark is stocked with tech and amenities reinforcing animal comfort and safety – everything from bird swimming pools and state-of-the-art biosecurity protocols to climate-controlled stalls with advanced HVAC systems and dust-free timothy-mix hay.

The $65 million Ark was designed by master San Francisco-based architect Gensler and specialty architect Lachlan Oldaker Equine Design of Oklahoma, and built by NYC-based Holt Construction, with input from Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Actual construction was completed last month, according to Seeger, and “full operations are imminent.”

“We feel like we’re offering exceptional animal care,” she said. “That’s part of our mission, to be the leaders in the humane handling of animals traveling by air.

“When people entrust their animals to us, we’re going to do our best to care for them.”