When pigs fly: Unlikely companions more common on flights

Emotional support animals come in a wide variety of species

BOSTON — You don’t expect to be there when pigs fly.

But after arriving at the gate at Logan Airport on Christmas night, I realized I would experience that idiomatic impossibility firsthand. A miniature potbellied pig with a salt-and-pepper coat was waiting nonchalantly to board a red-eye flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

His name was Hamlet.

Hamlet, 1½, was on his way back to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, where he lives with his human mother, Megan Peabody, 28. The pair had spent the holidays with Ms. Peabody’s family in New Hampshire.

I would learn all that later. For now, I was unapologetically taking photos of Hamlet awaiting a flight to Puerto Rico.

“You guys,” I wrote to my family. “Someone has a pet pig at my gate.”

My family had lots of questions.

“Do you think she ordered the kosher meal?” my brother-in-law said.


“Dare I ask if it’s potty-trained?” my brother wondered.

We all wondered.

His corkscrew tail wiggling with anticipation, Hamlet boarded the plane before the rest of us, receiving privileges reserved for active military, members of JetBlue’s loyalty program and people traveling with lap babies, as well as lap pigs, apparently.

“I think it’s an emotional support pig,” my brother in-law, a doctor, said. An ESP, as it were.

Due to federal regulations mandating that airlines accommodate service animals and emotional support animals, it has become increasingly common to find yourself flying high with creatures you might associate with a barn.

Airlines are not required to admit animals that could pose safety or health risks or be disruptive, so you won’t necessarily find snakes on a plane or rodents scurrying through the cabin. ESAs are certified to help handlers with mental health issues; the broader category of service animals applies to dogs and other animals that are trained to help handlers with blindness, hearing impairments or mobility issues, among other disabilities.

But the system for verifying ESAs has holes. If you’re willing to pay, it is easy to receive a certification letter by phone or online. And some pet owners who don’t need assistance abuse the exemptions to skirt airline fees and bring their pets, cage-free, onto flights, even if the animals are not properly trained.

In June, a Wisconsin city banned the use of kangaroos as service animals after a woman brought a baby ’roo into a McDonald’s franchise. Miniature horses and dogs were still OK.

Florida has implemented a law against pretending ineligible pets are service animals, which is punishable by jail time. Last week, the photograph of a turkey on a Delta flight went viral on the website Reddit. The most common ESAs are dogs, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation said in an email.

“DOT shares the concerns of airlines, disability rights organizations, and individuals with disabilities, including those who use emotional support animals, about abuse of the access rights afforded to emotional support animals,” she wrote.

The DOT may conduct a negotiated rule-making process that would address the definition of a service animal and the loopholes in the accommodations for air travelers with disabilities.

Una sorpresa

In a 2014 article for The New Yorker, Patricia Marx attempted to show the loopholes in the system by borrowing five animals of increasing absurdity. Armed with an ESA letter, she took them to increasingly absurd locations. Part of the issue, she noted, is that employees who encounter such animals are worried about asking one too many questions and violating The Americans with Disabilities Act and similar laws.

“I wanted to expose the racket by being part of the racket,” Ms. Marx said in an interview. “I felt like Beyonce. Everybody wanted to take my picture.”

As a few examples: She escorted a turkey onto a luxury bus and into a delicatessen. She brought a Mexican milk snake to a Chanel boutique, where she browsed snakeskin bags.

And, perhaps most remarkable, she accompanied an alpaca named Sorpresa to the historic home of the Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church. It should come as no sorpresa that Sorpresa was able to enter the 19th-century building.

“Most people don’t have any idea what the law is, and they don’t want to break the law,” she said. “Of course, the only person breaking the law was me.”

Swine flew

“Omg,” I texted my family. “It’s in my row.”

Lo and behold, Hamlet and Ms. Peabody were in the plane’s third row, on the opposite side of the aisle. Wearing a leash and a green handkerchief, he moved carrier-free between her lap and the foot area. Ms. Peabody wrapped her pig in a blanket.

“Tell the flight attendant to reseat you,” my mother said.

“Why?” I said. “It’s cute.”

The man who was assigned to sit next to the pair seemed less enthused. He had paid an additional fee for a seat with extra space, and he refused to have a pig encroach on some of it.

Given how many people wanted to take photographs of Hamlet on her route to the gate, Ms. Peabody found it ironic to have crossed paths with this man.

“I was conveniently seated next to the one person in the entire airport, Logan Airport, who is afraid of pigs,” she said in an interview.

A flight attendant asked me and the man sitting to my right whether either of us would swap seats with him. We would receive free snack boxes, or something.

Without missing a beat, the gentleman next to me volunteered. It just so happened that he and his wife, who also offered to sit in Hamlet’s row, were interested in getting a pet pig.

Grateful for their positive attitudes, JetBlue gave them each $50 vouchers. The first man, the one who had refused to sit next to Hamlet, stewed in his new seat.

‘Hamlet the Beach Hog’

Ms. Peabody took Hamlet home from a breeder in September 2014, when he was just 3 pounds. Having lost her dog, she wasn’t ready to get another canine. It turns out her pig has many of the same qualities as dogs: He spends time outside, has a long life expectancy and can be trained.

When he was a piglet, Ms. Peabody, a bartender, trained Hamlet to be a therapy animal. She wanted to give him a role distinctive from her dog’s. “I wanted to make him different and do something different with him,” she said. “I didn’t think we were going to fly when we first did it.” Hamlet, who was certified as an ESA last summer, has spent time at walk-in clinics and senior homes in New Hampshire, where Ms. Peabody lived before moving to St. Thomas a few months ago.

Perhaps the experience has rubbed off onto his travel skills. Hamlet, who is on Instagram (@hamlet_the_beach_hog), has been trained not to relieve himself on a plane.

“So far, so good. He hasn’t done it yet,” she said. “At this point, to be honest, I trust him. I definitely do. He’s a good pig.”

He has that self-control despite drinking half a beer before flights. It helps him relax, and he prefers Budweiser.

“He sleeps really well on planes. He’s extremely well behaved,” Ms. Peabody said.

But not all ESAs are well-trained, and that’s where the friction arises. In November 2014, a disruptive pig and handler were removed from a U.S. Airways flight after the animal defecated in the aisle.

“I don’t think it’s fair, but I know that it happens. And I guess you can tell the difference in the ones that should be doing it and the ones that shouldn’t be,” Ms. Peabody said.

Looking back now on the text messages I sent to my family, I observe my own growing empathy toward Hamlet. Of watching him eat Cheerios off the ground: “Probably cleaning it better than they usually do.” Of an unfortunate, last-minute addition to my row: “Now there’s a woman with a cough next to me,” I said.

“I’d prefer the pig,” I wrote. “Too bad their row is full.”

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.