The London airport monkey run.

The London Airport monkey run involved the suffering and death of thousands of monkeys. So many that the media dubbed it the massacre of the monkeys.

Hundreds of thousands of research monkeys and baboons passed through Heathrow Airport between the Second World War and the 1980’s for the pet trade and biomedical research. The airline route was colloquially known as the London airport monkey run by the airlines. There were so many fatalities involved that at one point the media dubbed it the massacre of the monkeys.

The shipments were mostly from India and Africa but also South East Asia and South America. Most were heading for North America and Europe although many were imported into the U.K. In the fifties and sixties there were also specially chartered flights arriving at airports across the country full of monkey shipments. Some of them managed to escape causing media headlines.

London airport monkey run.
Rhesus monkeys at London airport c1960 destined for research. T E Patterson was one of the largest primate traders in the U.K.

The London airport monkey run caused horrific suffering and deaths .

On New Year’s day 1955, 457 Rhesus monkeys were left in an unventilated British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C) van for three hours on the tarmac at London (Heathrow) Airport awaiting loading. When the back door was opened 394 had suffocated to death. Some cynics suggested that the monkeys met a better death by suffocation than they would have done had they reached their destination. Another 1,000 sitting in two ventilated vans survived.

Although a deplorable incident, it was unfortunately a regular occurrence over the decades. Tens of thousands suffered and died from dehydration, pneumonia, starvation, asphyxiation, disease and shock. This was caused by unsuitable crating, overcrowding, extreme temperature and air pressure changes, shock and a total lack of understanding of their needs.

Thousands also suffered or died before reaching the aircraft during capture and holding and journeys to the departure airport. And of course few survived the research done on them.

London Airport monkey run.
60 monkeys in 9 open cages packed seven per cage in cages only suitable for three arrived ‘terrified’ and in a state of shock’ destined for medical research and imported by Shamrock Farms one of the largest primate dealers. Daily Mirror February 1970

RSPCA open a hostel to deal with the carnage.

The situation was so awful that the airlines were forced to seek advice and guidance and turned to the RSPCA. In 1948 the RSPCA had protracted negotiations and discussions  with the airline companies and the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Society agreed to act as a clearing house for scientific and practical knowledge on the transport of animals by air.

They also agreed in principle to lease land on the airport to construct a reception centre to care for animals delayed on their journeys or transiting where they could be given food, lodging, exercise, first-aid or veterinary attention. This 24 hour facility opened in 1953 as the RSPCA Airport Hostel for animals.

RSPCA Airport Hostel, Heathrow airport oppened in 1953.
The hostel opened in 1953 to deal with the carnage .

Horror sea voyages.

But it was not just by air that there were problems. The fifties were a cross over time when animal dealers were moving from sea transport to aircraft, but monkey shipments were still suffering on board ships. In September 1959, 300 monkeys left Singapore on what was called a “horror voyage” to London onboard a Ben Line Steamer, and 120 were found dead when they arrived at the docks.

Large adults, youngsters and pregnant females had all been crammed together in crates and fought over food killing each other. They were taken to the RSPCA airport hostel for care, the only place that existed to deal with such an emergency. One the RSPCA staff stated to the media that “it was a terrible sight. I shall forget it for as long as I live”. The monkeys then had to face another voyage to Rotterdam and their destination.

The RSPCA and the media campaigned throughout the 1960’s and into the 1980’s to end the carnage but incidents continued.

Over the next few decades, the staff were to witness regular weekly horror shows and helped and comforted these frightened, stressed and pitiful monkeys. Pulling out the dead and dying and new-born babies or aborted fetuses would often reduce them to tears.

Investigations always promised and guidelines introduced but little changed.

But the horror continued into the 1960’s even though the Government introduced the British Standards for the Carriage of Live Animals by Air in 1961. And in 1970 the International Air Transport Association published mandatory minimum guidelines for transporting animals to those airlines that were members. But few were members and those that were, often ignored them. The guidelines were also badly flawed because of lack of understanding.

Massacre of the monkeys.
Dead squirrel monkeys which were the most commonly used South American primate for biomedical research and pets as they were small and easy to handle. The trade and deforestation decimated wild populations and some species are still vulnerable.[Photo: John Brookland 1979].

It was never going to change because shippers were only interested in keeping shipping costs to the minimum and the carriers did not want to lose money by refusing trade. The airports realised that if they intervened the shippers would avoid Heathrow and route them elsewhere.

Massacre of the monkeys.
Dejected and confused young baboons just released from their cramped crates receiving rest and comfort at Heathrow’s quarantine station before their onward flight to America destined for research. It was always upsetting to see them. [Photo: 1981 John Brookland]

I unfortunately experienced these tragedies in the 70’s and 80’s as an animal inspector and manager of the then Animal Quarantine Station that took over from the RSPCA. What upset me most was the look of despair, hopelessness and fear on their little faces and their dejected demeanour.

Even more sadly they would often put their hands through the wire for reassurance which was heart-breaking. The shame of it allis that the U.K Ministry of Agriculture could have stopped the trade through the airport but decided to ignore it.

Massacre of the monkeys.
Staff care for a shipment at Heathrow’s quarantine station in 1982 before their onward flight. It was heart-breaking when they put their hands out for food and reassurance.[Photo: John Brookland]

Monkeys are still shipped round the world for research.

Deaths continued well into the 1990’s and even today more than 80 years after it all started, primates are still being airlifted in some parts of the world. The numbers may be much smaller and the conditions more controlled but there are still instances where they suffer and die. Welfare organisations still plead with airlines to stop carrying them. They have had some success with many having placed a ban on their carriage.

Associated Book:

A book chronicling the cruelty and suffering caused to animals passing through Heathrow Airport in 1970/80s with graphic images and Foreword by Sir Peter Scott.

Injury damage to health and Cruel treatment book cover
ISBN: 9781519300164 56 pages with b/w photos. RRP £4.99 + £1.50 p&p. UK Orders Only Non UK please contact for price.

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Bimbo’s Great Escape at London Airport.

In 1966 a rhesus monkey destined for research performed a great escape at London Airport gaining her worldwide fame during her 204 days of freedom.

On August 9th. 1966 a female rhesus monkey made a great escape at London Airport and in the process became the darling of the worldwide press and public who were enthralled by her talent for outwitting her human chasers. She spent six months and 21 days evading capture in a British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C) cargo warehouse on Heathrow Airport and had a whale of a time. She was christened Bimbo by the media and became a star.

It all began when she arrived at Heathrow on a Quantas flight, along with 99 others, in transit from Delhi to the USA destined for vivisection. While she sat in the cargo shed contemplating what her future might bring she decided she did not fancy the onward flight. Being an extremely intelligent lady, as this story illustrates, she carefully unpicked the wire of her cage and quietly said goodbye to her poor comrades and left them to their fate.

It was several hours before she was reported missing.

Then she found a hiding place up in the roof and surveyed her surroundings. It was a perfect environment, heated and air-conditioned and a metal jungle of girders, conduits and pipes to climb and swing on. There were also crates of tasty fruit and vegetables every day to break into and eat when no one was about. It was several hours before her absence was discovered and a search all over the airport commenced while she watched from 6o feet up in the roof.

Bimbo escaped macaque at Heathrow Sunday Mirror 19 feb 1967
Bimbo was quite at home in the cargo warehouse which was the size of a football pitch and 60 feet high with heating and air-conditioning. [Photo: Sunday Mirror 9 February 1967]

It was not long before she was spotted, and the chase was on. Her first would be capturers were the RSPCA who had a presence on the airport, and they set traps baited with tasty food every morning and evening, but Bimbo had already fallen for that trick back home which had got her into this predicament.

Bimbo outsmarts the experts.

There then followed weeks of futile attempts to capture her but at every turn she outsmarted everyone. While this went on the nation and the world eagerly followed her antics through hundreds of regular newspaper and media reports. She had thousands of supporters and well wishers and many confederates amongst the staff of the warehouse, except for the cleaners. At one point they refused to clear up after her and the airline had to employ a specialist firm which they were not happy about.

Every method was tried including drugging food, trying to shoot her with a drugged dart, setting up nets and barricades and even playing the sounds of a male of her species to attract her. Everyone wanted to have a go at catching her including scientists, zoo-keepers, pet owners, safari operators and even an American trapeze woman who wanted to live in the roof with Bimbo for two weeks to befriend her. It became literally a circus. None of it worked.

Four months later……

Four months later in December, BOAC were getting fed up and declared her a health hazard and a danger to staff and threatened to have her shot, but she was left in peace over the Christmas and New year period. The local authority stepped in and forced the airline not to store food in the warehouse under health and hygiene regulations which involved the airline having to make other costly arrangements.

This was the final straw for them, but they had a public relations problem because Bimbo was now so popular it was difficult for them to contemplate the final solution of killing her for fear of attracting adverse publicity.

Bimbo’s luck runs out….

The standoff continued into February and the local authorities told the airline that it had to end and they made an announcement that they had hired a marksman to shoot Bimbo. His identity was kept secret for fear of reprisals, and he visited the warehouse at 2230 and 0230 every night when she was most active, but for some reason he never fired a shot.

Finally, on the 3rd. March, 1967 to everyone’s disappointment, Bimbo’s 204 days of luck ran out when three pest controllers  trapped her in a ventilation shaft, then smashed holes in it to get a net around her. She was removed to the RSPCA Airport Hostel, who cared for her until she was offered a home by Chessington Zoo.

Bimbo’s bid for freedom comes to an end -or did it…… [Picture: Daily Mirror]

The reluctant captive – Bimbo escapes again.

But it was not the end of Bimbo’s notoriety. In true Steve McQueen great escape fashion she spent a few weeks contemplating escape plans and decided to try the wire route again not a tunnel. On the 13th. June she carefully unpicked the wire of her cage and bolted along with four of her inmates, but not far.

For two days she put on an extra show for the zoo visitors by eluding all attempts by her keepers to recapture her just as she had at Heathrow and she hit the headlines again. The newspapers dubbed her the “artful dodger”, causing embarrassment for the zoo professionals. But eventually it was game over for Bimbo when she was corralled again and an escape proof cage was constructed. But was it?

And again….

Two days later while being transferred into this new cage she made what was her final bid for freedom and slipped out of the keepers grasp and was on the run again. It was short lived though and she was soon caught again and remained at the zoo for the rest of her life, probably still planning yet another escapade. Bimbo still holds the record for the longest fugitive at Heathrow. Another female rhesus which the media named Jennifer managed six weeks in 1961 rampaging round the village of West Drayton beside the airport before being caught.

Escaped monkeys at the airport were a regular occurrence in the 1950’s and into the 1970’s. During this period an average 120,000 monkeys a year passed through the airport for research and pets in a sickening trade which caused terrible suffering and thousands of deaths during capture and transport even before what they had to endure at their destination. Monkeys are still transported around the globe but thankfully not in such large numbers.