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A beloved pet hamster that was flushed down a toilet has become the latest controversial case in airlines versus people seeking to travel with emotional support animals.
Belen Aldecosea, 21, on Thursday accused Spirit Airlines of causing her to tearfully flush Pebbles the hamster down a toilet in an airport bathroom after the company refused to let her bring the pet on a flight as an emotional support animal, according to lawyer Adam Goodman.
Aldecosea made the choice after Spirit staffers allegedly told her before her trip that she could bring her pet and later refused to let the animal on her flight at Baltimore–Washington International Airport on Nov. 21, Goodman said.
“This is a horrible situation. We hope that no one ever has to go through a situation like this,” he told NBC News Thursday. “This is a really tiny, small innocuous animal that doesn’t cause problems. Really, the airlines and TSA shouldn’t have given her any problems about it if she had the appropriate medical documentation.”
Goodman said that Aldecosea was told by phone by an airline employee that she could fly with Pebbles as an emotional support animal, but then would not let her on the flight with her hamster.
Aldecosea is alleging that an airline representative then suggested she flush the animal down a toilet, according to Goodman. The college student had some ongoing medical issues and needed to catch a flight home to Florida, he said. Aldecosea had a benign, but painful growth on her neck and was traveling to Florida because she was withdrawing from school and having the growth looked at by a doctor, he said.
She was a student at Wilson College in Pennsylvania at the time and is now a student in Texas, he said.
She tried to find alternate modes of travel, but Aldecosea is too young to rent a car on her own and there was a lack of other options because of the Thanksgiving holiday, Goodman said, leaving the young woman with a “horrendous” decision to make.
“Spirit told her what to do. She thought she was following the rules,” he said. “Ultimately, the airline didn’t provide what they said they were going to provide for her.”
Spirit Airlines strongly denied the allegation that an employee suggested she flush the hamster.
“After researching this incident, we can say confidently that at no point did any of our agents suggest this Guest (or any other for that matter) should flush or otherwise injure an animal,” airline spokesman Derek Dombrowski said in a statement to NBC News.
“It is incredibly disheartening to hear this Guest reportedly decided to end her own pet’s life,” the statement added.
Spirit's spokesman said that a reservation representative “unfortunately, did misinform the Guest that a hamster was permitted to fly as an emotional support animal on Spirit Airlines.”
The airline said when Aldecosea showed up to the airport with the hamster agents gave her the opportunity to take a later flight “so she had time to find other accommodations for the animal.”
Spirit Airlines says on its website that it "does not accept snakes, other reptiles, rodents, ferrets, and spiders."
Dombrowski said Aldecosea was originally scheduled to take a 10:39 a.m. flight on Nov. 21 but ended up taking a flight at 7:42 p.m. instead.
Aldecosea took the later flight without further incident, he said. Dombrowski added that the airline offered Aldecosea a voucher, but never heard back from her.
Goodman said he and Aldecosea were “going to look into all legal remedies and make a decision.”
Aldecosea told the Miami Herald that the whole ordeal was "horrifying."
“I was emotional. I was crying. I sat there for a good 10 minutes crying in the stall," she said.
The hamster incident came after a separate airline turned away an emotional support peacock at a New Jersey airport last month. United Airlines said the bird did not meet its guidelines.
Also in January, Delta Airlines issued new requirements when it comes to emotional support animals.
The Department of Transportation's guidelines for air travel with service animals states "unusual animals are evaluated on a case by case basis" and that airlines may exclude animals that are too large or heavy to accommodate in the flight cabin, pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others, could cause a significant disruption of service or are prohibited from entering a foreign country.
Airlines are also never required to accept snakes, reptiles, rodents, ferrets, or spiders.