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No flight for couple's pet because most airlines bar guinea pigs

Bessie Ciarcia of New Port Richey wants to take her guinea pig, Scotty, when she and her husband, Jerry, fly north.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Bessie Ciarcia of New Port Richey wants to take her guinea pig, Scotty, when she and her husband, Jerry, fly north.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Scotty can do several tricks: He rattles his toys for attention. He hums contentedly after a good, warm bath. And though he has his run of the Florida room, he knows to go to his cage to relieve himself.

But one thing this guinea pig can't do is fly.

While the airlines allow dogs and cats to fly with their owners — and a few carriers allow rabbits and birds — most don't allow guinea pigs on board. The handful that would wanted Scotty's owners to shell out a couple hundred dollars.

Jerry and Bessie Ciarcia love spoiling Scotty, but say if he can't travel with them for a reasonable cost, they'll have to give him away.

"I know they can't make exceptions," laments Mrs. Ciarcia, 82, a retired teacher who splits her time between Massachusetts and New Port Richey. But "it seems so stupid to be less than 2 pounds, and I can't even take him in my carry-on."

In recent years, the airlines have jacked up pet fees and become more restrictive about which creatures are allowed on board. Mrs. Ciarcia remembers taking a rabbit on board two or three years ago for about $50.

Now the lowest carry-on fares tend to be $100 one-way for small dogs and cats. Continental Airlines allows rabbits for $125.

Guinea pigs? Forget it. Scotty could have flown United Airlines for $175 plus a $25 booking fee — more than the cost of a low-fare ticket booked two months in advance for one of his owners.

In most other cabins, he can't even get a spot.

Why do airlines allow dogs and cats but not guinea pigs, ferrets or other smaller critters?

Airline officials say it's partly for the safety of other passengers: Dogs and cats get vaccines, and owners must show some airlines that the shots are up-to-date before the pets can fly. Other pets aren't required to get such shots, though.

"If we allowed a ferret on board, and it weaseled out of his cage and bit somebody, then we've got an issue," said US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr.

And then there are the logistics of capturing such an animal if it slipped out of its cage. Consider the chaotic scenes in the 2006 movie Snakes on a Plane, in which a gang unleashed venomous snakes in a cargo hold to try to kill a prosecution witness. Airline officials say that scenario was unrealistic: The snakes couldn't have gotten into the cabin from the cargo area.

"But it kind of sums up why we don't want snakes and ferrets on the plane," Mohr said.

Continental Airlines does transport snakes — but only nonvenomous ones and only in the cargo area, spokeswoman Susannah Thurston said. A few airlines offer cargo travel for guinea pigs and other pets, too.

Continental would have charged about $160 for Scotty to fly in the cargo area. With Delta Air Lines, his spot in a temperature-controlled hold would have cost $275 due to extra handling, an agent said. Delta's Web site lists that as the price for all pets checked into the baggage hold.

Finding Scotty a home

As snowbirds who fly a couple of times a year, the Ciarcias decided that's too much. Mrs. Ciarcia also worried Scotty might get too cold in the cargo area.

They bought Scotty about a year ago because they wanted some furry companionship but their mobile home community wouldn't allow dogs or cats on their street. He has been on road trips with them, but has never flown.

Now they have a pet who — unlike dogs and cats — isn't welcome on board most airlines.

Mrs. Ciarcia plans to post notices at her clubhouse next month to find a new home for Scotty. "We're going to have to be very fussy as to who gets him," she said.

The Ciarcias plan to look for another guinea pig pup when they get to their home in Wareham, Mass.

And, perhaps, they'll end up nurturing that one for a few months, then finding him a new home when it's time to return to New Port Richey.

Fast Facts

Why can't guinea pigs fly?

Airline officials give two reasons for this policy:

1. Safety. Guinea pigs aren't required to get vaccinations.

2. Logistics. A guinea pig or similar animal would be difficult to catch if it slipped out of its cage.

No flight for couple's pet because most airlines bar guinea pigs 02/26/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2009 11:08am]
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