110 million animals send their birthday wishes

The Animal Lounge celebrates its fifth anniversary

It is the world’s most modern airport animal facility. At Frankfurt Airport, eagles and zebras, dogs and cats as well as tropical ornamental fish enjoy Business Class treatment. There are large animal stalls for horses and aviaries for birds, partitioned rest areas for cats and even a special black-light area for light-sensitive ornamental fish.

Wednesday morning, 6:30 a.m. The pallets of brown and beige cardboard boxes are stacked in front of the flat-roofed building at Gate 26. Their contents – thousands of colourful ornamental fish from Colombia. Sabine Grebe precisely monitors how long the freight is left outside in the yard, when the driver brings it into the hall, how quickly the pallets are pried open and how the next load is getting on outside. Grebe is Head of Operations and thus responsible for procedures at the Animal Lounge. “We are always trying to optimise the processes”, said the graduate economist.

Customs clearance of fish is the order of the day for Sabine Grebe this Wednesday morning. Wednesday is fish day at the Animal Lounge. There is no other day of the week when the aircraft from Singapore, Thailand, Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela bring more tropical ornamental fish to Frankfurt. Later, the hall will contain a total of 18 pallets with thousands of cardboard boxes, all bearing the words “Live Tropical Fish” and enclosed in polystyrene. The fish themselves are flown across the pond in tear-proof plastic bags.

In the late morning, Marco Klapper, Product Manager Live/td, has calculated that around 600,000 fish have again been moved into the Animal Lounge this Wednesday going on the freight papers. Most just for a few hours.

Markus Gabriel knows it is time to move things up a gear. The 43-year-old is an animal coordinator and “makes sure that the animals get from the planes to us and then on to the right plane for the connecting flight.” In the meantime, he’s on the move, upstairs and downstairs. The freight papers, including import permits and health documents, have to be brought to customs and the veterinarians. The vets not only check the papers but also take a look at the animals themselves. Are horses, dogs and birds in good health and do the physical features specified in the papers match the colour, size, breed and coat of the animals before them? This is how the animals have their identities checked.

In his office one level above the animal facility, Axel Heitmann is delighted about the record year in 2012. Even Stefan Schulte would be envious of him on this one. The CEO of Frankfurt Airport was responsible for 57.5 million passengers passing through two terminals last year. Heitmann (46), Director of the Animal Lounge, dealt with more than 110 million.

Certainly, Heitmann’s customers often weigh just a few grammes. Over 80 million are tropical ornamental fish from South America, Asia and Africa. However, sometimes there are also a few proper heavyweights – rhinos and hippos, lions and bears, entire herds of cattle for Saudi Arabia or even extremely valuable show-jumping horses and precious race horses.

Of course, there are also lots of cats and dogs on the passenger lists. German dogs are in big demand overseas, whether for use as drug sniffer dogs by the police in South America or for border patrol duties in Texas, USA.

“There’s practically nothing we can’t transport”, said Heitmann. Although a business economist, he is almost like the zoo director at Frankfurt Airport. “But there are some things we won’t do at Lufthansa Cargo”, emphasised Heitmann. For example, the carrier has decided not to transport dolphins, sharks or animals trapped in the wild. The Lufthansa subsidiary actually supports projects for the reintegration of endangered species into the wild. For example, the transport of the two black rhinoceroses Tsororo and Kalusho from Frankfurt Zoo to Swaziland has been in preparation for months. The animals are to be reintegrated into the wild in the Mkhaya Game Reserve in Africa in May and will hopefully breed.

The Animal Lounge is designed like a passenger terminal. There is a transit area, which is separated from the rest as a precaution against epidemics, a terminal for imports and an export area. The “main customers” for export are usually cats and dogs. There were some 15,000 of these last year. It is mostly diplomats or members of the US army returning to North America who pay the average transport fees of EUR 800.

14 animal keepers provide round-the-clock care for guests at the Lounge, feeding the dogs, providing fresh hay to the horses and water to the cats, creating a relaxed atmosphere and also offering, where needed, some comfort or at least soothing words. “We wouldn’t be able to deliver the premium product we offer our customers day in, day out without the great commitment of the employees and the input of the entire Lufthansa Cargo and handling counts team”, said Sabine Grebe.

Ten of the animal keepers are women. “Caring for animals is typically a female profession”, said Ann-Katrin Werner (23), who has been part of the team at the Animal Lounge since 2010 and trained at a veterinary clinic. She likes it when animal owners not only give their four-legged friends their favourite toy for the long journey but also put their names on the transport crate. “When we can address an unsettled or anxious dog by its name, that’s often half the battle”, said Ann-Katrin Werner, who “especially loves cats”. It’s no wonder that she has two cats of her own at home.

The biggest compliment for the team at the Animal Lounge has come from a customer. Willi Heidbrink, Chairman of the Ornamental Fish Functional Group of the German Pet Trade and Industry Association and himself an importer, said about the Lufthansa Cargo animal facility: “If it didn’t already exist, it would have to be invented.”