Living with a mental health problem of any kind is challenging. Thankfully, there are a lot of ways that those suffering can make their day-to-day lives easier, such as therapy, medication, or the more unusual approach of getting an emotional support animal.
And after a cancer scare, 21-year-old student Belen Aldecosea decided to get an emotional support hamster.
Emotional support animals (ESA) are pets that have been certified by medical professionals as being helpful in alleviating at least one symptom of a person’s disability. Unlike other animals, ESAs do not need any training to do their jobs.
Balen, along with Pebbles the hamster, had been traveling back to her hometown of Maimi from college in November 2017 when the incident took place.
She had a doctor’s letter to prove that her hamster Pebbles was there to support her, and, prior to boarding her Spirit Airlines flight, she had contacted the budget airline twice to make sure that she could bring her ESA onboard.
Despite informing Balen that she was allowed to bring Pebbles on the flight, she was not allowed to board the plane with the hamster or store the animal in the hold, either. A Spirit employee then told her to set Pebbles free or flush her down the toilet.
Not wanting to kill the animal she described as “so loving”, Balen delayed her flight to weigh up her options.
She was unable to contact any of her friends for help as they were hours away at her then-university Wilson College in Pennsylvania.
To begin with, she looked into hiring a car, but there were none available, and a Greyhound bus would have taken her too long to get home, causing her to miss an important doctor’s appointment, so Balen did the unthinkable.
Balen decided against setting Pebbles free because she did not want her beloved pet to get run over or freeze to death. She therefore concluded that flushing Pebbles down the toilet would be the kindest and quickest course of action.
She said of killing the dwarf hamster, “I didn’t have any other options. She was scared. I was scared. It was horrifying trying to put her in the toilet. I was emotional. I was crying. I sat there for a good 10 minutes crying in the stall.”
Balen is now contemplating a lawsuit against Spirit Airline for their actions because of the significant emotional distress which they caused her, and attorney Adam Goodman is fighting her case.
In an interview with the Miami Herald, he said, “This wasn’t a giant peacock that could pose a danger to other passengers. This was a tiny cute harmless hamster that could fit in the palm of her hand.”
After the story broke, Spirit admitted that Balen had been given the wrong information about taking Pebbles onboard the flight, but insists 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.”
The US Transport Safety Administration has said that they accept hamsters through their security lanes.
“Hamsters are welcome in our checkpoint,” their guidance states. “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.”
This is the second time that an emotional support animal has made headlines around the world this year.
At the end of January, a woman tried to bring her emotional support peacock on a United Airlines flight.
The peacock, whose name is Dexter, helps his New York-based photographer and performance artist owner, Ventiko, cope with stress and anxiety.
Knowing that Dexter is too big to comfortably sit in her lap, Ventiko bought him his own seat on the flight, however, she was told that he could not board for health and safety reasons and ended up making the journey from New Jersey to Los Angels with “human friends”.
The animal did not meet the airline’s guidelines for various reasons, including its height and weight.
Spokeswoman Andrea Hiller revealed that Ventiko had been told three times that the peacock would not be allowed on the flight.
In the past year alone, United Airlines has had 75% more requests from people wanting to fly with ESAs.
While there is no denying that emotional support animals can be an invaluable tool for many people living with disabilities, Balen’s story is a testament to the fact that airlines need to make their guidelines on what is and is not allowed on their flights clearer.