Discover more from The Mill
The secret flights: How Manchester Airport became a gateway for animal testing
Staff are scared to talk about their role in the import of live animals. So is the airport
By Mollie Simpson, Shikhar Talwar, Joshi Herrmann and Sophie Atkinson
The flights normally come in late at night. At that time, Manchester Airport is deathly quiet and there are few passengers around to look out onto the runway and wonder what’s going on. When the small 19-seat turboprop plane lands, a team of ten staff are ready on the tarmac. They have their instructions. Unload it, and do it quickly. “The whole movement is choreographed so that it can be done as fast as possible,” one worker says.
The first task requires staff to block anyone’s view of the plane using a large black screen that is otherwise only used during the arrival of a dead body. Once the mouth of the plane has been covered, out comes a box measuring around 5 ft by 5 ft, covered in a black sheet. “We have to immediately take the box out and push it down the slide where two or three people load it onto a carrier truck,” says a member of ground staff.
Secrecy is paramount. Airport workers are instructed not to communicate about the flights with anyone. They are specifically told not to speak to journalists or activists. “It’s just uncomfortable,” one of them told us. “It seems like we are doing something illegal.”
The cargo they unload isn’t gold or drugs or ancient artefacts, but monkeys. Long-tailed macaques, to be specific: highly intelligent and endangered creatures that originate in Asia but can be found in safari parks across the country. The monkeys that arrive at Manchester Airport, however, are destined not for safaris or nature reserves. Instead, they are sent to commercial laboratories where they will be used for animal testing.
The 5-foot boxes are covered, so the ground staff unloading them from the tiny aircraft cannot see what is inside. “We are just told that there are animals in those cages and that we should handle them with care,” one worker says. There are also no noises coming from inside. “They are always extremely quiet, like no sound at all,” says another worker, surmising that the animals are heavily sedated. “No movement either.”
Manchester is the leading gateway for these monkey flights into the UK — in fact, there is good reason to believe it is the only one. In 2022, government trade records show that a total of 2,245 long-tailed macaques were flown into the airport. All week, we have been trying to get an on-the-record statement from the airport about these flights. Off the record, a spokesperson acknowledges that the flights take place but says the airport is “not complicit” in what happens to the animals, a phrase that seems telling in itself.
Eventually, they send us a short statement that avoids mentioning monkeys or animal testing entirely. “There are clear laws — set by government — that clearly define what can and cannot be brought into the UK as cargo. It is the responsibility of any airline flying into a UK airport to ensure the [sic] operate in accordance with these laws.”
The dead monkeys
Hannah Bell, not her real name, describes herself as a “bit of a plane geek” and someone who enjoys “solving mysteries”. She asks us not to reveal her identity because it would undermine her work for Cheshire Animal Rights Campaigns.
A few years ago, Bell met someone who said they knew a cleaner at Manchester Airport. The cleaner had told them that late one night they had unloaded crates of dead monkeys from a flight. Hannah asked for the cleaner’s number, but when she called it, the cleaner’s wife answered and said her husband was too nervous to talk about the incident on the phone. She could hear him nearby the phone, telling his wife what to say — she thought he sounded angry.
The cleaner was working a late shift at the airport and had been asked to put on protective clothing. He noted the airline the monkeys had flown in on: Flightline, a small carrier based in Barcelona. “It was the dead of night,” Bell recalls being told by the cleaner, via the wife. “And he peeked under the cover of one of the crates and saw it was monkeys.”
The story encouraged Bell to start digging. The dead monkeys flight was a story that affected her personally, but it pointed to a larger mystery. Was Manchester being used to bring animals into the country for testing via small chartered planes? Could she prove it?
For a while, she struggled to get anywhere. Working with other activists, she set up tip-off telephone lines to find more sources but got nothing but spam texts. Then, in early 2021, Bell started emailing airlines pretending to be the secretary of a client who was looking for “reliable discreet transportation of monkeys into the UK”. Many didn’t reply, but a few companies said they could transport the monkeys, and to prove their credentials, mentioned that they were already doing such flights.
That gave her search a focus. She started looking at FlightRadar, an online plane tracking app, and when she saw a flight coming in from one of the airlines that had confirmed they transported monkeys, like FlightLine or the tiny German carrier BinAir, she made a note of it.
By this point, Bell was in touch with Jane Smith, 52, an animal rights activist who previously served as a councillor in Cheshire. Smith eventually defected from the Green Party to become Britain's first elected representative for the Animal Welfare Party. Unlike the cautious, understated Bell, Smith is outwardly passionate about animal suffering. She organises protests, creates petitions and has repeatedly tried to interest the Manchester Evening News in the story of animal flights into the airport, always in vain. Together with other local activists, Bell and Smith went to work trying to prove that Manchester had become a thriving hub for animal testing imports.
It turns out Ace Ventura wasn’t a film, but a prophecy. If you care about animals these days, you will be required to hone the skills of the average private detective. Documents obtained from the government under Freedom of Information law allowed them to ascertain how many primates were coming into the UK each month destined for animal testing labs. They could then compare those numbers to UK trade data which log the number of live primates coming through Manchester Airport. Did the dates match with any flights from their shortlist of airlines? “Information on this stuff comes in dribs and drabs,” says Smith, who has organised regular demonstrations at the airport to raise awareness of the flights. “People on the ground have to triangulate it all, often working backwards to establish links between airlines, airports, road carriers and labs.”
Then, in April last year, they had a breakthrough. An anonymous source told them about a flight carrying live monkeys from Mauritius destined for a testing facility in Harrogate, Yorkshire, operated by a company called LabCorp. The activists checked FlightRadar and saw that a BinAir flight was due into Manchester. That looked suspicious: BinAir had been reported to have flown beagles into Manchester Airport in 2013.
A primate campaigner they knew was given the airway bill numbers by a contact at Charles de Gaulle, which allowed them to confirm the live monkeys were on the BinAir flight, which was coming in from Albert, a regional airport near Paris. By using the numbers they could locate the publicly available airway bills online, showing that 100 monkeys in 25 crates were coming into Manchester.
Very soon, the activists had confirmed the destination of the monkeys: LabCorp’s testing centre in Yorkshire. They watched the BinAir flight arriving and saw a van enter the cargo area of the airport. Later, the same van was seen entering the LabCorp facility in Harrogate.
Experiments and secrets
The macaque monkeys being flown into Manchester in massive numbers are thought to come from breeding facilities in Mauritius and Vietnam. According to research conducted by Smith, they’re likely the “grandchildren” or very recent descendants of wild-caught monkeys. Some of them spend time in holding facilities in Barcelona and they tend to be flown into Manchester from Barcelona and Paris.
The government says that for security reasons it cannot comment on specific entry points for research animals into the UK. A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that to import primates into the UK, you need a licence from the Animal and Plant Health Agency, and that “the conditions of the import licence require that the animal(s) must be imported to an APHA Approved Establishment and quarantined.” The spokesperson adds that the safety and welfare of the animals “is given prime importance before approval to transport the animals is granted and legislation protects all animals from being transported in a way likely to cause injury or suffering.”
Plenty of scientists and policymakers argue that testing on monkeys is critical to establishing the safety of new drugs. In the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, a group of scientists in Montana exposed a group of monkeys to a high dose of coronavirus. They all became unwell and breathless, but more than 28 days later, after having a dose of Oxford University’s AstraZeneca vaccine, they were all healthy again. “The rhesus macaque is pretty much the closest thing we have to humans,” Vincent Munster, the researcher who conducted the test, told the New York Times.
But that similarity with humans is also why testing on so-called “non-human primates” or NHPs is deeply controversial and is hotly debated among ethicists. Isn’t there something particularly disturbing about intentionally inflicting suffering on a species that is so similar to us, just because the creatures in question lack the ability to speak or resist? “The close phylogenetic similarity of NHPs to humans highlights that they suffer in similar ways to humans,” a Columbia University paper notes. “NHPs respond to pain, and they reflect upon pain as well. Painful memories endure after experimentation, magnifying the suffering of the animal. NHPs also exhibit a level of sentience comparable to humans.”
In the year 2020, around 1.4 million experimental procedures involving animals were carried out in Britain, according to the government, mostly using mice, fish, or rats. The RSPCA argues that all experiments causing animal suffering “should be replaced with humane alternatives,” and lobbies for alternatives to animal experiments like the use of isolated cells and tissues, computer modelling and “using simple organisms, such as bacteria, to study basic bio processes.”
Over the years, research on great apes (like gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees) and testing for cosmetics have been banned following public pressure. Animal activists hope that if people learn more about the suffering of other primates in labs, momentum will build behind banning the use of macaques as well.
Like many of us, Smith first became aware of animal testing as a teenager and she still finds it abhorrent. But she finds testing on primates particularly hard to stomach, describing it as “scientifically unsound and morally unacceptable”. She recalls watching footage from the US showing the transportation of macaques. “It’s heartbreaking,” she says. “They’re reaching their hands out to cargo handlers.”
She feels strongly, as do the other activists we’ve spoken to, that the airport has created a moral stain by becoming a hub for monkey imports. “Like other notorious trades in lives that have gone before it, animal testing relies on the complicity of transportation interests — in this case airlines, airports, haulage firms and insurance companies — to keep the wheels turning,” she says. She notes that most of the large airlines have stopped carrying this kind of cargo, and that there is a UK precedent for refusing to allow transports of primates for live research: EuroTunnel refuses such cargo.
“I think it would be fair to say that Manchester is a gateway now for a very cruel industry,” says Tim Phillips, vice president and co-founder of Animal Defenders International. “Animal experimentation is one of the most secretive industries in the world, and the majority of this research that is supposedly saving our lives never sees the light of day.”
Sarah Kite from Action for Primates, who once got a job in a testing lab to find out how animals were being treated, says the public would find the treatment of the monkeys who come into Manchester Airport extremely distressing. “The main use of the long-tailed macaque is in toxicity testing — or poisoning,” she says. “There’s no other way to describe it — the animals are being poisoned. They are given a varying dose of a particular substance to assess the impact on their bodies.”
Kite goes on: “They may be forced to consume it or have it intravenously injected into their bloodstream — and they can suffer the usual signs of poisoning, such as vomiting, diarrhoea, seizures, organ failure. Some of them die as a result.” She says some of the testing on primates is for drugs that are meant for humans but plenty involves testing household products and chemicals.
We asked LabCorp what they do with the monkeys that come into Manchester Airport and what proportion of their testing is for drug development versus commercial products, but we did not receive a reply. On its website, the company says: “We are committed to ensuring the welfare of animals we work with in research. Animal research is critical to developing new, safe and effective medicines, devices and products that protect and save the lives of people and animals.”
Speaking off the record, a scientist who works at the Harrogate lab defended the work. “It’s a common misconception that anyone that works in research with animals enjoys causing them pain or suffering,” they told us. “The complete opposite is true — every single animal tech I’ve ever met is a huge animal lover and goes above and beyond to ensure the welfare of the animals is the number one concern at all times.”
‘My hands shook as I took the cage out’
Just after 3pm on Monday this week, a BinAir flight landed at Manchester Airport from Albert, near Paris. In the early hours of the morning, an Air France flight had landed at Charles de Gaulle from Port St Louis in Mauritius. That tallied. Monkeys were likely on their way to Manchester again – this time arriving in the daytime rather than the night.
Reporters from The Mill watch as the tiny plane lands and taxis into the freight terminal, stopping behind a makeshift building made of brown corrugated metal sheets. That building is new — we had observed the terminal on previous visits in recent weeks and have never seen it before.
Once the plane is behind the new structure, it is hidden from view. Three carrier vehicles drive towards the aircraft, all carrying large cages. Two of the cages are covered by a black plastic covering. Then, two more vans enter the tarmac from the main airport road and turn right towards the BinAir flight. Little else moves on the tarmac in the ensuing minutes.
We are looking out for vans. The activists had noted down the registration numbers of three vans that had previously been spotted taking crates of animals to LabCorp. And soon we spot one of them: an unmarked white Volkswagen parked on the side of the road next to a Greggs. The driver says he is on the phone. Later, when we return to have another look, the driver records photos or videos of us on his phone while seeming to speak to someone on a call.
Inside the terminal, staff we approach are reticent about discussing the monkey flights. On two occasions, workers who agree to pass on information about the flights ask if they can write down their answers rather than saying them out loud. Most of the people we speak to – more than a dozen in total, including security, ground handling and flight control workers — express deep disquiet about Manchester’s secret animal cargo.
"It feels fucking awful that this is happening — like, I don’t stand for it,” says one worker who says they have stopped taking night shifts because of the flights. “I do not like the idea of testing on animals and to know that I am contributing to it doesn't feel right.”
Another worker is more pragmatic. “Do I like the idea that I am aiding it? No, absolutely not,” they say. “Or that we are importing them away from their natural habitat? Again no, it makes me wheezy. But as I see it, there are no real options otherwise."
The workers are told about the flights a week in advance and their supervisors are clear that the unloading has to work like clockwork. It needs to happen like the offloading they practise in training, one staff member recalls a manager saying: “They expect that level of efficiency from us”. One of the workers remembers a colleague being sent to the security office and reprimanded after they took a photo of one of the flights, an incident — like everything in this story, including the story about the dead monkeys — that Manchester Airport does not deny. A spokesperson also declined to address the many concerns raised by staff in this article.
“I still do these shifts because I need the money, but if it were up to me I wouldn’t do this anymore,” says one worker. He says he told his manager that he wasn’t comfortable handling the cargo and raised the issue with his union, but says nothing came of it. What did it feel like the last time he handled the cargo from one of the monkey flights? “My hands shook as I took the cage out,” he says. “I was trembling, but I had to do it, I had no other choice.”
It’s unclear from our reporting why Manchester Airport has become the country’s leading gateway for monkey imports, receiving thousands of the creatures in a year. Some think it could have to do with Manchester’s proximity to key testing labs in northern England and Scotland. It could also be that other airports have decided they don’t want to be complicit in a trade that would make regular passengers leaving for their holidays deeply uncomfortable.
And Manchester Airport may have an additional reason to be worried about a public backlash. After all, the airport is majority owned by the public: two-thirds of its stock is in the hands of local authorities, with Manchester City Council owning just over a third and the other Greater Manchester councils holding around 30%. When we asked Manchester City Council if they knew about the monkey imports, they were similarly reticent to talk about the flights or to comment on the troubling experiences of staff employed at the airport. A council spokesperson told us: "As one of a number of shareholders in Manchester Airports Group (MAG), we are not involved in operational and staffing matters at the airport."
“When you think of Manchester Airport you think of holidays and beaches, not endangered monkeys being snuck into the country,” says the activist Bell, who hopes that once people hear about the monkey flights, they might pressure the councils to force a change. From FlightRadar, she knows that some of the flights come right over her house. “I feel very helpless and sad,” she says. “I can’t find the words really.”