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Carley Helm, 10, was all smiles after being reunited with her turtle, Neytiri — but it was a different story when the pet wound up in a trash can after being ordered off a plane.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 6/25/2010 9:44:57 AM ET 2010-06-25T13:44:57

An adorable, half-dollar-sized turtle is lucky to be in the loving home of its 10-year-old owner rather than the city of Atlanta’s waste management system after a series of confounding events consigned the creature to a trash can at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Ten-year-old Carley Helm thought it was OK to bring her new friend Neytiri back with her on a flight from Atlanta to her home in Milwaukee. And so did AirTran Airways personnel — at first, that is.

But just as the plane was making its way out of the gate, flight attendants pulled an about-face and ordered Neytiri off the plane, citing company policy.

Carley’s 22-year-old sister Rebecca looked on as her little sibling wept, and faced an agonizing choice: What to do with Neytiri? She eventually placed the turtle, tank and all, in a trash can, hoping her father could come back to the airport and retrieve it.

That didn’t happen, but in a series of fortunate events, Neytiri finally made the 670-mile journey home to her grateful owner Carley.

TODAY
Carley Helm (in front) spoke to TODAY from Racine, Wisc., along with (from left) her sister Rebecca, mother Tamara, and other sister Annie.

Reptile reunion
“I was happy — I was excited,” Carley told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira about the reunion with her pet via satellite from Milwaukee on Friday.

The events began to unfold Tuesday, when Carley, Rebecca and 13-year-old sis Annie were ready to head home after a visit in Atlanta with their father, William Helm. The family had made a side trip to South Carolina, where Carley eyed the little reptile at a souvenir shop. Dad bought it for her, and she named it Neytiri, after actress Zoe Saldana’s character in “Avatar.”

The gals waltzed through the airport metal detector with Neytiri in tow, drawing nary a word from security personnel. “We went past security and they OK’d it, and [we] got on the plane,” Rebecca recounted. “All the flight attendants thought it was OK, and they told us to put it under the seat.

“Then all of a sudden, after we taxied, they found those rules and we had to go back.”

Reptile regulations
AirTran, like other airlines, has a no-reptile rule. Small reptiles have the potential to be carriers of salmonella and other bacteria, making them a no-go.

What transpired when the plane got back to the gate is a matter of dispute. Rebecca Helm insists airline staff told her to throw Neytiri away, although AirTran spokesmen deny it.

TODAY
Neytiri the turtle will stick to her tank from now on.

“They told us to throw it away or get off [the flight],” Rebecca told Vieira. She had called her father in the meantime, and William Helm was heading back to the airport to retrieve Neytiri. Rebecca says she asked airline staff to contact her dad to make arrangements for the transfer, but they refused.

So she eventually set Neytiri, tank and all, down in a trash bin.

“I thought if I just left it there, [Dad] was already on his way, he could come and get it for us,” Rebecca said.

William Helm arrived back at the airport and couldn’t turn up Neytiri, even with employees joining him in digging around. Later they learned that another AirTran employee had already fished the turtle out of the trash and handed it off to a co-worker, who then took it home as a pet for their son.

Heroine on the half shell
The turtle tale was soon sorted out. Neytiri was retrieved, and a young boy who thought he had a new Yellow-Eared Slider for a pet was given two replacement turtles as a consolation prize. AirTran gave Neytiri a free ride back to Milwaukee Thursday to be reunited with Carley Helm — but this time in the cargo hold.

Appearing with her daughters on TODAY Friday, mom Tamara Helm was clearly dissatisfied with the chain of events that nearly led to Neytiri becoming trash. She said the no-reptile policy is only as good as the employees charged with enforcing it.

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“We didn’t know there was a policy; they brought the turtle to the gate and the attendants commented how cute it was,” she told Vieira. “Policies are great, but the employees should know the policies and stop something like this from happening.”

Tamara added the turtle-girl reunion would have never happened if Jennifer Forbes, a cruelty caseworker for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, hadn’t learned of the case and run interference for the family.

“[Carley’s] dad was at the airport asking for help; he got no help from anybody there, and it wasn’t until Jennifer stepped in that action was taken immediately,” Tamara told Vieira.

Still, the hard-luck, hard-shell story had a happy ending. And Carley Helm plans on keeping Neytiri right at her new home from now on.

“She’s going to stay in her tank,” Carley said.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Girl reunited with turtle tossed in airline flap

  1. Transcript of: Girl reunited with turtle tossed in airline flap

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Back at 8:11 with the tiny turtle behind a big commotion on a commercial flight . We're going to meet her and talk to her 10-year-old owner in just a moment. But first, Natalie has their story. Hey, Nat.

    NATALIE MORALES, anchor: Well, Meredith , you know you can't bring snakes on a plane , right? Well, Carley Helm brought her caged pet, a turtle , on an AirTran Airways flight. The plane was taxiing to the runway when the crew spotted it. So they turned around, went back to the gate and they gave Carley a very difficult choice. Meet Neytiri , the tiny turtle at the center of a big controversy. The traumatic experience when her owners say they were forced to abandon her in an airport trash can.

    Miss REBECCA HELM (Abandoned Turtle at Airport): They said you can throw it in the garbage and get back on.

    MORALES: The Helm sisters and little Neytiri were on an AirTran flight from Atlanta to Milwaukee ; when the turtle was discovered just before takeoff, the plane returned to the gate and the girls were told the turtle had to go.

    Miss R. HELM: We were, like, holding up the plane with a bunch of people on it and we were under pressure, so they told us to throw the whole cage away. And then we got back on.

    MORALES: The sisters called their dad who had dropped them at the airport, but by the time he got back, Neytiri was nowhere to be found.

    Mr. WILLIAM HELM (Father): Just discarding a little creature like that is really inhumane. Not allowing me to come back and retrieve the animal is the wrong decision.

    MORALES: AirTran confirmed their no-reptile policy but vigorously denies telling the girls to toss the turtle .

    Mr. CHRISTOPHER WHITE (AirTran Airways): We thought for a period of time that the turtle was lost. We have found out later that an AirTran crew member actually retrieved the turtle from the trash can.

    MORALES: Giving this turtle tale a happy ending . Two days later, Neytiri finally got a ticket home. Ten-year-old Carley was all smiles at the reunion. As for Neytiri , she did not seem any worse for the wear .

    VIEIRA: Oh, God.

    MORALES: Meanwhile, the animal rights group PETA got wind of the story and they sent a letter to AirTran demanding an investigation, Meredith .

    VIEIRA: OK. Thank you, Natalie . Carley Helm and her pet turtle are with us now along with Carley 's sisters Rebecca and Annie and their mom Tammy . Good morning to you all.

    TAMMY: Good morning.

    ANNIE: Morning.

    VIEIRA: Carley , first of all, how does it feel to have Neytiri back?

    Miss CARLEY HELM: I was happy and I was excited.

    VIEIRA: Yeah. Well, she has been through a lot in the past few days. Does she seem any different to you?

    Miss C. HELM: Kind of.

    VIEIRA: Yeah? In what way?

    Miss C. HELM: Having my turtle back.

    VIEIRA: Well, I'm sure for you it's great news. Rebecca , take me back to Tuesday. You're getting on that flight in Atlanta , you visit your dad and you were going back home. You had to go through security, obviously; at any point did somebody notice the turtle , say anything to you about it and the fact you can't bring turtles on planes?

    Miss R. HELM: No. We went past security and they OK'd it and we got on the plane. All the flight attendants thought it was OK and they told us to put it under the seat. And then all of a sudden after we taxi, then they find the rules and we have to go back.

    VIEIRA: Now you said that they told you you would have to throw the turtle away. AirTran is saying they never said that, but you were -- you were faced with a tough decision because in order to get back on that plane you did have to leave your turtle in Atlanta . Why did you decide to put Neytiri in that trash bin?

    Miss R. HELM: They told us either throw it away or get off. And I asked if I could talk to my dad on the phone and he was already on his way back to the airport, and they said no, we can't talk to him. So I thought that if I just left it there, then he was already on his way, he could come get it for us.

    VIEIRA: Well, Tammy , I know that you've said for your girls this was really a roller coaster of a ride for them, first they have the turtle , then they don't, but do you understand in any way why AirTran made the decision it did? I mean, they say that this policy for all commercial planes that you can't bring reptiles into the passenger area because they could carry diseases like salmonella.

    TAMMY: Right. And I understand that. But we didn't know that there was a policy. They brought the turtle to the gate and the attendants commented how cute it was and the attendants also put -- told them to put the turtle under the seat. So at that point my children didn't know that there was a policy against this because nobody had told them otherwise. So, you know, policies are great, but the employees should know the policies and put a stop to something like this from happening before it taxis away.

    VIEIRA: AirTran did make good and bring Neytiri back to your daughter, so in a way are you at least happy with that outcome?

    TAMMY: Yes.

    VIEIRA: Yeah.

    TAMMY: Yes, we are very happy with that outcome. And Jennifer Forbes , who is from PETA , was pretty much responsible for retrieving our turtle back. Like Rebecca said, her dad was at the airport asking for help, he got no help from anybody there. And it wasn't until Jennifer Forbes from PETA stepped in and action was taken immediately.

    VIEIRA: All right. And Carley ...

    TAMMY: So we're very grateful. We're very appreciative to the employee at AirTran who actually took the turtle out of the garbage can.

    VIEIRA: And we're glad to...

    TAMMY: We wanted to thank him.

    VIEIRA: OK. And, Carley , we're glad you got Neytiri back. And I have a feeling that turtle is going to stay put from this point on. Thank you to the Helm family and Neytiri .

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