Is this ARK better than Noah's?

Story highlights

  • A $48 million luxury animal terminal is under construction at JFK, slated to open next year
  • Alan Beck: "Society has a strong cultural obligation to most animals and their welfare"
  • To ensure success, JFK, transportation authority should not charge too high a price, Beck says

Alan Beck is the director of the Center of the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University's College of Veterinary Medicine, which explores the extensive study of human-animal interaction. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Every year, about 70,000 domestic and wild animals pass through the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey-operated JFK airport, and a $48 million luxury terminal for them is now under construction, slated to open next year.

Artist renderings shows a grassy, well lit, 178,000-square-foot space that includes amenities such as a large pool shaped like a dog bone, a pet resort and a new veterinary hospital system. Officially it's the Comprehensive Aviation Animal Handling Facility, dubbed The ARK, and will replace JFK's Vetport facility, which has been around since the 1950s.
Alan Beck
For many, their first thought might be that the idea is ridiculous -- animals' view of luxury is very different from ours, and no doubt less expensive.
    But others -- perhaps those who move animals or at least appreciate the challenge of doing so -- are likely not surprised at the scale and expense of the project, but relieved. Animal travelers, by air or other means, include many pets, such as cats and dogs, but also livestock, horses and wildlife heading to zoos, aquariums and research centers.
    The terminal will be like much of New York -- big, unique (the first in the world) and fairly expensive.
    As an old New Yorker, I have stopped questioning the costs of New York real estate. Animal-holding facilities are normally expensive because they have to be designed to be sturdy but comfortable, safe for the animals and handlers, and resilient while capable of full cleaning. In addition, they must be varied enough to accommodate the assortment of animals that come through an airport on any given day.
    Proper animal accommodations are important to our society, especially because of our extensive relationship with animals. For example, 62% of U.S. households have pets, according to the 2011-12 APPA National Pet Owners Survey.
    Even beyond pets, society also has a strong cultural obligation to most animals and their welfare, made evident through states' anti-cruelty laws, advertising and economic support. Horses, for example, are given special attention because they serve as workers, warriors (historically), pets and athletes. But because of their size, they pose a holding challenge before and after transport.
    Our society also expresses interest in nondomesticated animals. More than 175 million people visit zoos every year -- more than the annual attendance at all NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB events combined.
    There is widespread concern for these animals' health, especially when it comes to their stress. And one experience that causes excessive stress for animals is being transported from one place to another. Nearly 50 years ago, the primary concern of the Animal Welfare Act was to regulate transportation treatment for all animals.
    By all appearances, the animals arriving at The ARK will be resting in a well-designed holding area, which is humane and good for their general health. Some of the proposed amenities are silly -- for example, dogs and cats do not particularly benefit from access to flat-screen TVs or bone-shaped swimming pools -- but it might make their caretakers happier.
    And beyond Western culture's serious commitment to animals, there is also growing recognition that human-animal interaction has significant health benefits and positive public health implications.
    Recognizing the special needs of animals in transit is socially responsible. We should continue demanding that transportation facilities treat animals traveling in and out of the city well, pay special attention to managing their stress and hygiene, and handle them with their welfare in mind.
    One caveat: Conspicuous luxury -- extra comfort and an appearance that is pleasing -- is nice, but moving forward the developers need to also be wary of not making fees so high that the average pet owner cannot afford to use the facility. The amenities of The ARK will greatly relieve the concerns owners have while transporting their pets -- but only if they can afford to use it.
    Animals will not have to use The ARK -- pets can stay with their owners and go directly to their destinations with no holding needed (with good scheduling) -- and if the fees are too high JFK will risk travelers and professional carriers avoiding the facility. But if successful, The ARK could be a useful service to animals and the community -- and proof that husbandry standards have improved since the time of Noah.