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Florida woman says she flushed 'emotional support' hamster after bad advice from Spirit Airlines

Belen Aldecosea, a college student from Miami Beach, says Spirit Airlines pressured her to flush Pebbles, her pet hamster, down an airport toilet. (Handout/Miami Herald/TNS)

LORI ARATANI, THE WASHINGTON POST

A dwarf hamster named Pebbles is the latest victim in the ongoing battle between airlines and passengers who want to travel with their "emotional support" animals.

Pebble's owner, Belen Aldecosea was scheduled to fly from Baltimore to her home in Florida on Spirit Airlines. When she booked her reservation, Aldecosea said she was assured by a Spirit Airlines representative that she could bring the hamster on board with her. But when the 21-year-old arrived at Baltimore-Washington International airport for her Nov. 21 flight, she was told Pebbles was not welcome.

And then, she told the Miami Herald, things took a turn for the worse.

Unable to bring the hamster with her but needing to get home to deal with a medical issue, Aldecosea said an airline representative suggested she either set Pebbles free outdoors or flush her down the toilet.

Aldecosea said she spent hours scrambling to find another way to get home, including trying to rent a car. But given it was the holiday season, there were no cars available. And so an increasingly desperate Aldecosea said she flushed Pebbles down an airport toilet.

"She was scared. I was scared. It was horrifying trying to put her in the toilet," Aldecosea told the Herald. "I was emotional. I was crying. I sat there for a good 10 minutes crying in the stall."

A spokesman for Spirit Airlines, a low-cost carrier based in Miramar, Florida, confirmed that a Spirit employee incorrectly told Aldecosea that she could bring her hamster on the flight, but denied that an employee told Aldecosea to flush the hamster or harm her in any way.

"Our reservation representative, unfortunately, did misinform the Guest that a hamster was permitted to fly as an emotional support animal on Spirit Airlines," Spirit spokesman Derek Dombrowski said via email. "When the Guest appeared with the hamster at the airport, our agents offered and the Guest accepted an opportunity to take a later flight, so she had time to find other accommodations for the animal. Our records indicate the Guest took that later flight with no further incident."

Dombrowski denied that an employee suggested that Aldecosea flush the hamster down the toilet.

"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," he said. "It is incredibly disheartening to hear this Guest reportedly decided to end her own pet's life."

The story of Pebble's tragic demise comes as people are still buzzing about another animal companion story that went viral. Last month, a woman at Newark's Liberty International Airport tried to bring her "emotional support" peacock aboard a United Airlines flight. United denied boarding to the peacock, saying it failed to meet several guidelines, including those on weight and size.

United officials also said that they had warned the woman that the bird would not be allowed to fly.

Aldecosea told the Herald she decided to come forward after hearing the peacock story. She said she emailed Spirit Airlines about the incident and that they offered her a voucher for a free flight to selected cities. She declined the offer and is now considering suing.

Her attorney, Adam Goodman, said he has been inundated with calls since news of Pebble's untimely death broke.

Hamsters are not prohibited by the Transportation Security Administration, but it would have had to be taken out of its holder and carried through the security checkpoint.

"We would be happy to screen a hamster," TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said. "A hamster does not pose a security risk and TSA is focused on security risks."

However, it is up to individual airlines to decide what animals are allowed on on board its planes. Most don't allow rodents due to health and safety concerns.

In recent days, airlines have put strict rules in place regarding "emotional support" animals. Both Delta and United announced new policies slated to go into effect next month that require passengers who want to bring emotional support animals with them to submit a veterinary health form at least 48 hours before travel and to provide a letter from a doctor or mental health professional, plus a signed document saying the animal is trained to behave in public. Delta also recently expanded its list of animals that are barred from flying to include farm poultry, hedgehogs and anything with tusks.

It has not been the best of weeks for Spirit Airlines. On Tuesday's the site's website crashed and customers were unable to book flights.