On 7th October, 1947 - a mere two years after the formal end of the bloodiest and perhaps most transformative conflict ever to have occurred on European soil - Chief Veterinary Officer Major Reginald C.G. Hancock of Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals met with a group of airline executives. The industry leaders all had something in common: their aircraft used what was then called London Airport (now known as Heathrow) as a transport hub. In a sign of the re-emergence of peacetime concerns, discussion centered on a group of airline passengers that had attracted only passing attention during the previous decade. These were defined not by their direct participation in violent struggle, nor their support of such struggle from 'home' territory, but rather their status as owned beings.

       The use of civilian aircraft to rapidly relocate pets, livestock and other animals had rapidly increased following the end of hostilities. But Britain's still-battered infrastructure had failed to keep up. As the traffic in animals by air had grown, so had the strain on the airlines' ground support staff. A growing pile of letters from the latter had begun to accumulate at RSPCA HQ, asking for intervention in what seems to have been quite a chaotic set of circumstances. As Hancock would later recall, 'care of the animal passenger' at London Airport was at that time 'left largely to a pet shop proprietor, and the animals were being held in huts of the Nissen type.' More seriously, he suggested, quarantine at the aerodrome 'was more honoured in the breach.' It seemed clear to all meeting participants that something needed to be done. Yet what, exactly, remained at this point unclear.

       Knowledge concerning the effects of plane travel on animals was scant in 1947. Individual pets and small farm animals had been carried skywards by even the earliest pilots (often as a means of attracting media attention), and the first successful large livestock airlift (a bull named Nico V) had been completed by Dutch airline KLM in 1924. But it was not until the proliferation of larger planes with cargo holds during the 1940s that routine use of this mode of transportation for non-human life became economically viable. Though carrier pigeons and apparently even mules were transferred by air during the war, any interest in attending to their welfare had been secondary to military concerns. Consequently, almost no information existed as to the effects of flight on animals.

       The meeting agreed that Hancock should be informally appointed to rectify this situation. Over the next few years, he would gather all the information he could on the issue, and report back to the airlines. The largest UK carrier, the state-owned British Overseas Airways Corporation, used his information as a basis for short guides to their staff outlining good practice regarding the loading and unloading of animals from aircraft, as well as correct cage sizes and feeding and watering procedures. At the same time, participants agreed to approach the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries with a view to allowing the RSPCA to take over the care of animals in transit through the airport. This latter decision became the kernel out of which a much grander vision was born, embodied by the establishment of a dedicated RSPCA-run 'Animal Hostel' at Heathrow.

       In the half decade after 1947, Hancock's vision for London Airport grew from a request that the RSPCA be allowed to take over existing quarantine and temporary accommodation arrangements, to the construction of a specially designed building able to accommodate almost any animal that might pass through the transport hub. By 1949, following an inconclusive set of negotiations between the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries and the Ministry of Civil Aviation, the RSPCA concluded that they would need to construct and run their own building to adequately cater for their prospective charges. They consequently called a second meeting, involving Ministry representatives, veterinary organizations, and even one of the largest pet transport brokers - Spratt's - alongside airline executives. Having brought this wider range of interested parties on board, the wheels of power moved a little quicker. By 1950, Hancock had been given free rein to draw up plans for a significant building with dedicated facilities for animal accommodation and care. His final plan, modelled on the typical 'hangar'-like terminal buildings of the inter-war period, included a surgery, a pharmacy, food stores, extensive kennel arrangements, offices, a dog run, and a large, reinforced-door equipped room able to house large animals such as elephants, giraffes or wild cats. The projected Hostel's large entrance doors would allow ground transportation vehicles to drive directly into the building and drop off animals without risking their escape.

       The building, completed according to Hancock's design, was opened in January 1953. Hancock himself appears to have been very satisfied as to its suitability. He reported in 1955 that it had 'so far been adequate for the greatest demands.' He saw 'no need for some years to contemplate enlargement.' Nor, he commented, had its staff 'requested any major alterations for the greater comfort of their charges or the more expeditious handling of the cargoes that arrive.' The RSPCA were also proud. Promotional literature from the time described how the hostel created a new set of priorities for animal care during air travel:

from whatever part of the world they come, animals can be unloaded, given fresh and clean quarters, under quarantine conditions when necessary, can be fed and watered, and kept warm and happy until the time for resuming the journey arrives. Here air-sickness, wounds and broken bones can be given attention with all the aids of modern veterinary science.

It's staff, the RSPCA claimed, were 'pioneering a new and wonderful service for animals' at their new London site.

       The foundation of the RSPCA's London Hostel is a somewhat hidden chapter in the history of the organization (though see this RSPCA blog post). Yet this new site played a significant role in the way the Society approached animal care advocacy in the post-war period. As the next post in this series will show, in the decade following its foundation the building became the fulcrum of a global set of animal care interests. The early focus of these, however, would be quite different from the domestic and farm animal-focused concerns motivating Hancock and the airport ground staff's initial campaign. As will be seen in the second part of this series, it was instead a rapid increase in the importation of undomesticated animals - in particular the Rhesus macaque - to Europe and North America that would be of greatest concern to those tasked with running the new facility.