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Naples couple builds $65M animal handling facility at JFK airport

The ARK at John F. Kennedy International Ai has handled all kinds of animals, from horses to snakes. Its success — including more than $7 million in annual revenue — stems from a dogged Naples couple.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 a.m. June 27, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
The ARK at JFK is open 24 hours a day.
The ARK at JFK is open 24 hours a day.
Photo by Anthony Collins
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Naples husband and wife John Cuticelli and Elizabeth Schuette, each with long and successful careers in big-money finance, investment and real estate, didn’t consider themselves big animal people for most of their lives. They did have a beloved dog, a Cockapoo named Tucker, who died last year. 

Yet the couple could be the most unheralded animal lovers in Florida. That’s because for nearly the past decade, they have helped thousands of animals, from dogs and cats to birds and bees to lots of horses get to their home or another destination. They do that through The ARK at JFK, an animal cargo terminal that provides pre- and post-travel animal care and veterinary services at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. The ARK, according to its website, “provides an efficient, safe and low-stress environment for both our human and animal clients.”

Elizabeth Schuette, left, had a career in real estate and finance before The ARK at JFK.
Photo by Anthony Collins

At 178,000 square feet spread over 14.4 acres and a cost of $65 million to build and develop, The ARK at JFK is also billed as the only animal cargo airport terminal in North America. The climate-controlled facility has 60 employees, and did $7.4 million in revenue in 2023 — up from $600,000 in its first year, 2017. Its passengers come from more than 25 countries and four continents, with Germany being one of the largest sources. 

The ARK’s high-volume animal is horses: It handled 4,500 imported and 1,000 exported equines in 2022. It also handled 2,000 companion animal exports and imports and 85 specialty shipments in 2022. 

“Regardless of the duration of their stay, all animals are looked after by accredited veterinary staff and highly-trained and caring handlers,” The ARK at JFK website states. 

Animals come to the ARK art JFK from more than 20 countries.
Photo by Anthony Collins

Cuticelli and Schuette have overseen The ARK at JFK at every stage, from conception to development to operations. The facility is a unit of Cuticelli’s Racebrook Capital, which is run, in large part, out of an office on Fifth Avenue in Naples. The couple has lived in Florida on and off for a decade; one of their sons attended Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, another went to Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. 

In a recent interview, Cuticelli and Schuette shared some of the experiences with The ARK at JFK; how they put it all together and some lessons they’ve learned from the complicated — and rewarding — project.

Time to upgrade

Cuticelli, who made his mark in business lending money to companies coming out of bankruptcy, initially responded to a Request for Information for the project in 2011. He heard about it from a friend, and while the previous facility at JFK wasn’t bankrupt, it wasn’t in good shape. The old place, which was built by American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and opened in 1951, was some 2,000 square feet. It took care of dogs and birds and some minimal horses in transit, Cuticelli says, and was mostly in decay. “My position was if we're going to do this, we're really going to do a world class facility, because to replicate what was there before and hope for a different result is truly a definition of insanity,” he says. “And what was there before just wasn't unique enough to meet the demands of animals and insects and all kinds of veterinarian shipments that were coming” into the airport. 

Guests at the ARK at JFK come in all sizes.
Courtesy image
Slow roll

While bankruptcy work isn’t without complications, working with the Port Authority was a long haul, filled Cuticelli says, with “many years of negotiation and many millions of dollars spent.” Racebrook built the facility and is now a tenant there, paying a fee per animal or shipment. The lease was signed in 2014 and the facility took three years to build.

Do it better

Cuticelli visited animal cargo facilities worldwide to create the plan for The ARK at JFK, and was surprised at what he discovered. One, he says, there wasn’t a true best-in-class facility, a top of the field place. Next, he says, when “you started really doing a deep dive into how many animals are actually transported? It's astronomical.” Finally, he says, the way the animals were treated was deplorable. “They were put on a cargo bay floor or left out under the airplane, under the guise of getting some shade, or left in a van, until the next flight. So we became passionate about putting an end to that.”

The ARK at JFK opened in 2017.
Courtesy image
Knowledge base

Schuette, president and CEO of The ARK at JFK, had worked in real estate and with some of Cuticelli’s entities. Her interest in overseeing the animal terminal came gradually. “As we developed The ARK we discovered there was not another organization or facility like it, at least in the United States,” she says. “And so the research that we put into creating it gave us the knowledge base to run it.” 

Surprise time

Schuette says a fun aspect of the job is a refined ‘expect the unexpected’ mantra. The operation has grown both in stature and size over the past seven years, which has led to some unusual shipments, from sloths to goats to once handling two million bees. And with airlines landing and going to places all over the world, the next day’s cargo isn’t always known in advance. “Every morning,” Schuette says, “we have no idea what might show up.”



Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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