College volleyball player Belen Aldecosea bought her pet dwarf hamster, Pebbles, to cope with a cancer scare last year. After transferring to a new university, the 21-year-old knew the calm little ball of fur was exactly what she needed.
“She was so loving. It was like she knew I needed somebody,” she said. Pebbles lived in her dorm room with her.
In November, she was relieved to learn that the golf-ball-sized growth was not cancerous, but it was still painful. Aldecosea decided to withdraw from school and return home to Florida for a procedure to have the growth removed.
Days before her flight, she also called Spirit Airlines to ensure that Pebbles would be able to make the journey with her as her emotional support animal.
After two phone calls, reservation representatives assured that she could. When she arrived at the airport for her flight, the first Spirit agent checked in Pebbles with no issues.
But as Aldecosea made her way to security, a second agent chased her down, yelling to her that rodents were not allowed on board.
Even though Aldecosea had a note from her doctor certifying the animal as her emotional support, the airline refused to let Pebbles on the plane.
“They gave me the wrong information more than once,” she said. But she decided to accept the airline’s offer of a flight later that day so that she could make plans for Pebbles.
With her friends hours away and no family nearby, Aldecosea began to grow desperate. A bus was out of the question, as it would have taken days to get home.
Rental car companies were also out of cars during the busy travel season, and she needed to get home for her medical procedure as soon as possible.
Desperate for a solution, the student approached a Spirit Airlines agent once again. Aldecosea claims that it was then that the agent suggested that she could let the hamster go free outside — or flush it down the toilet.
As her flight departure time approached, she said she began to think about letting him go outside alone in the cold.
But rather than leave her hamster to fend for himself and potentially get hit by a car, Aldecosea resorted to the unthinkable. She flushed him down the toilet.
“She was scared. I was scared. It was horrifying trying to put her in the toilet,” the student said. “I was emotional. I was crying. I sat there for a good 10 minutes crying in the stall.”
But she told the media that flushing Pebbles seemed like her only option, and the most humane one she had left.
— David Ovalle (@DavidOvalle305) February 8, 2018
Now, Aldecosea has hired a lawyer and is considering taking legal action against Spirit Air for pressuring the student into making “an anguished decision” with an animal cleared as an emotional support animal.
Spirit representatives have responded in a statement, admitting that their reservations representative did give false information in saying that the hamster was allowed.
However, they have denied allegations that an agent told the student to flush the hamster down the toilet. “To be clear, at no point did any of our agents suggest this guest (or any other for that matter) should flush or otherwise injure an animal,” spokesman Derek Dombrowski said.
Meanwhile, TSA had no issue with carry-on hamsters, but it is up to individual airlines to determine if they will allow them. “Hamsters are welcome in our checkpoint,” a spokesperson said. “Their container would typically go through the X-ray while the owner would hold the hamster as the passenger walks through the metal detector so the creature is not subjected to radiation.”
Recently, however, a spike in emotional support animals in airports — the latest including sheep and peacocks — has caused many to question the legitimacy of their roles.
“This wasn’t a giant peacock that could pose a danger to other passengers,” Aldecosea’s lawyer said. “This was a tiny cute harmless hamster that could fit in the palm of her hand.”
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