TODAY

TODAY   |  June 25, 2010

Girl reunited with turtle tossed in airline flap

The Helm family talks to TODAY’s Meredith Vieira about an ordeal they experienced when Carley, 10, tried to take a coin-sized turtle aboard an AirTran flight from Atlanta.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

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 .