A multimillion-dollar terminal is going up at Kennedy Airport for travelers of a different breed: four-legged passengers and their feathered friends.
The ARK at JFK, a modern animal handling facility, promises to take the stress out of air travel for thousands of animals, from pets to racehorses to exotic birds that fly in and out of the Queens airport each year.
"It's a hotel for animals," said Joseph Santarelli, of Mersant International, a Queens customs broker that makes travel arrangement for animals at Kennedy and other airports.
The ARK Development is an affiliate of Racebrook Capital, a private developer who recently signed a 30-year-lease with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the airport operator. The project will convert Building 78, an empty cargo building, along with 14.4 open acres at Kennedy, into a 178,000-square-foot facility. Half will be dedicated to the animal handling terminal and the other half for cargo.
Construction on the $48 million project is expected to begin in the spring and completed next year, according to a project spokeswoman.
For animal passengers that lay over at Kennedy, whether for several hours or several days, the ARK at JFK will provide sleeping quarters, showers and gourmet meals, and a host of other amenities. There will be a grooming center, an indoor exercise space, a quarantine area and veterinarians on hand around the clock to provide medical care. Webcams will be installed so pet owners can check on Fido.
"We anticipate a very vibrant business," said Aaron S. Perl, corporate counsel and director of corporate investments for Racebrook Capital.
Last year, about 2,800 animals, mostly horses, arrived in the United States via Kennedy Airport, said Lyndsay Cole, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Besides pets and livestock, she said zoo animals that have passed through Kennedy included Thompson gazelle, gaur, okapi, reticulated giraffe and Cape buffalo.
Thousands more beasts and fowl leaving from Kennedy are required by the federal government to have a minimum of five hours of rest before boarding their flights, she said. Some animals travel by cargo plane; others fly on commercial planes designed for half-passengers and half-cargo.
Until the ARK at JFK is up and running, animals will continue to lay over at Vetport Animal Hospital at Kennedy before flying to their destinations. Those animals needing quarantine currently must travel to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's animal import center in upstate Rock Tavern, near Newburgh.
Snowstorm grounds birds
Moving animals from one continent to another can get complicated.
"When you book for humans, you need their passports," Santarelli said. "When you do something like this it's more involved. If there is a hiccup, it creates a domino effect. It could cause anxiety, which we don't need."
Last month, a dozen passengers from the Czech Republic -- six blue-face honeyeaters and six black-throated magpie jays -- bound for the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere in Tennessee were forced to spend the night at Vetport after their flight was canceled due to a snowstorm, said Jim Bartoo, a spokesman for the zoo.
The birds, six in a crate, had boarded a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight from the Czech Republic to Holland in early January, and then hopped onto another KML flight to Kennedy, said Santarelli, whose firm arranged the fowl's travel papers that included permits and health documents.
Before the birds could complete their journey, they had to spend 30 days under quarantine at the Rock Tavern facility, Santarelli said.
The hiccup in the trip, albeit a minor one, came on Feb. 9 when the snowstorm forced the cancellation of the birds' Delta flight to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where zookeepers were scheduled to pick them up and drive them to Nashville.
The birds spent the night at Vetport and flew to Atlanta on a Delta flight the next day.
"They arrived safe and sound," Bartoo said. "I don't believe they were stressed."
Variety at Vetport
Other guests who spent time at Vetport last month included dogs bound for Paris, three Icelandic ponies heading to Liege, Belgium, and 10 bulls going to the Middle East.
The bulls, from a farm in Wisconsin, arrived at Kennedy the morning of Feb. 10 after making a cross-country road trip. Later that day, they boarded a Qatar Airways flight bound for Doha.
Christian Rakshys, 37, a partner of Global Horse Transport in Lindenhurst, shipped 10 horses for 10 different owners last month. Two grooms accompanied the horses on a commercial flight to Amsterdam, where the equines continued on to Italy, Sweden and Finland.
"The grooms feed them, give them water and make sure they're OK," Rakshys said. "Sometimes the grooms get irate passengers and they have to talk them down."
Among the horses traveling on Feb. 2, Rakshys said, were two pregnant mares and a famous colt named Nuncio, a 3-year-old Standardbred that won two out of three races in harness racing's Trotting Triple Crown last year.
Rakshys said he's looking forward to seeing the new facility, after years of speculation that such a facility might be coming.
"It's like when Delta gets a new terminal, it will be a lot more comfortable," Rakshys said.
Once the ARK is opened, Dr. John M. Miller, 66, said he and his partners will close Vetport, which had been run by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals from 1950 to 1991 when they assumed control. Miller thought it would be only for a few years.
"There was nobody else to take it over. We have a commitment to the animals and the custom brokers," Miller said. "There used to be many farms that would accommodate horses. As time progressed, they became shopping malls."
Import shipments processed through Kennedy Airport in 2014
Birds of Prey: 1
Love Birds: 1
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
How much it costs to transport animals by air to and from Kennedy Airport.
$85,000: to fly 20 Zebras to Shanghai, China.
$70,000: to fly a group of penguins to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
$8,500: to fly a rhinoceros to South Africa
$8,000 to $10,000: to fly a horse to Belgium.
$2,500: to fly Kihansi spray toads from Tanzania.
$1,000: to fly a falcon to the Middle East
Source: Customs broker Mersant International