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Woman Flushes Her Emotional Support Animal, Makes It Clear Airlines Need Better Policies

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Elizabeth Cassidy, The Mighty’s reporter, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are making the news again. But this time, instead of a ridiculous photo of a peacock perched on a luggage cart in an airport, the story is about a woman flushing her hamster down a toilet because she was told she couldn’t bring “Pebbles” on a Spirit Airlines flight.

Belen Aldecosea, 21, called the airline twice in advance of her flight from Baltimore to her home in southern Florida to confirm she could fly with her hamster. Both times she was told she could bring Pebbles with her, according to the Miami Herald. She also had a doctor’s letter deeming Pebbles an ESA. It wasn’t until she got to the airport that Pebbles was refused a flight.

According to Aldecosea, an airline representative suggested flushing the hamster down the toilet — an allegation the airline denies. Aldecosea’s friends were hours away and she was not old enough to rent a car to travel to her destination, so she flushed Pebbles.

Let’s, for a second, forget the disgusting fact that this woman killed an animal, especially one that was supposedly for emotional support, and focus on the less outrageous but common issue with airlines — a lack of consistency when it comes to regulating emotional support animals.

While I have a hard time believing an airline attendant told Aldecosea to flush her pet down a toilet, I believe Aldecosea was told one thing over the phone and another at the airport. Airlines are beginning to tighten regulations regarding ESAs because of people playing the system and passing off pets as emotional support. In January, Delta Air Lines tightened its regulations for this reason. United Airlines will do the same starting in March. While a hamster may be an ESA, rodents are not allowed on Spirit flights, which could have confused the original representatives who told Aldecosea she could fly with Pebbles.

As an owner of an ESA, I am in favor of stricter regulations, such as requiring a doctor’s letter, immunization records and confirmation of training, which Delta asks for. People claiming their pets as ESAs cause issues for true ESA owners when a pet behaves badly. We’re made to seem like the issue when it’s really people abusing the system.

“The overall validity of ESAs are at stake,” said Ashley Kristoff, video producer at The Mighty and an ESA owner. “When I’m traveling, I know the experience is going to be somewhat stressful on my dog just as it is for me. I shouldn’t also have to worry about these fake support dogs who may not be well-behaved presenting a risk for my dog’s safety.”

Kristoff has flown with her ESA on American Airlines. She said that the regulations were ambiguous because there were a couple different ways to pre-approve her dog and it was unclear what else she needed to do in order to ensure her travel plans ran smoothly.

“I’m fortunate everyone was extremely helpful through my process but outlining this procedure more clearly would have prevented some unnecessary stress,” she added.

Delta also has a service animal support desk to help ease the process of flying with ESAs that could hopefully eliminate confusion between passengers and airlines. Regulations mean nothing if they aren’t clear or properly enforced. Aldecosea should have never been told she was allowed to fly with Pebbles if the airline doesn’t allow rodents.

While it is up to the airline to enforce the rules, people should also read or listen to the regulations before showing up to the airport. For instance, artist and owner of the peacock denied a United Airlines flight, Ventiko, was told numerous times over the phone that she could not fly with the animal, but she still showed up with it.

While seeing pictures of peacocks and random animals patiently waiting in line at the airport is social media gold, these animals should have never been at the airport. And they definitely shouldn’t be passed off as ESAs when they clearly are not. So please, leave your exotic animals at home and give yourself, and everyone else at the airport, an easier travel experience.

And for obvious reasons, if your real ESA is denied a flight, don’t flush it down the toilet or take other drastic measures. Figure out your travel situation and file a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation and the airline.

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Originally published: February 8, 2018
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