The Fish That Threatened National Security
I wasn’t prepared to have my pet be treated like Osama ‘fin’ Laden.
(Originally published by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on December 28, 2003)
Like many college students who fly home for the holidays, I submit to endure the latest airport safeguards in the name of homeland security. A lot of us have stories to tell, but only mine is a fish tale, a contemporary melodrama of the absurd to prepare you for future travels.
My boyfriend Trey and I arrived by taxi at the US Airways terminal of La Guardia airport, heading home for the holidays. We had four bags apiece and one more precious piece of cargo — MJ, my pet fish. MJ is a gorgeous Betta fish, his palate a perfect pastel rainbow. He had become quite a solace to me in New York, a city that can make you feel so small and alone.
I missed my cats while away at college, and it really helped to have this tiny, exuberant creature to look after. Betta fish, research has shown, are the only aquatic animals that can recognize their owner. MJ was no exception. I’d walk into my cold dorm room after a long day and his body would light up, swimming excited circles around his little bowl.
Unfortunately, residence hall rules required that I take him home with me for winter break. This was just as well, since there would be no one there to care for him in my dorm.
Once at La Guardia we proceeded to security, the X-ray inspection point run by the Transportation Security Administration. I have learned by now that, post-9/11, a traveler is better off safe than sorry when proceeding through security. Surrender your phone, your laptop, your peanut butter, and hope for the best.
I wasn’t prepared, however, for a TSA agent to stop me right at the entrance, proclaiming that no small pets, including fish, were permitted through security. I had, however, just received the blessing of the ticket agents at US Airways and pre-assured MJ’s travels with Pittsburgh International Airport security weeks before our travel date.
I tried to explain this to the screener who stood between me and the gates, but she would have none of it. I asked why we couldn’t proceed, and she said the fish could potentially be swimming in nitroglycerin or some other explosive liquid. I queried how my fish could still be ALIVE if he was swimming in such a substance, which was clearly the wrong move.
I was led back to the US Airways ticket counter, stocking-footed and alone, where the agents reasserted that they didn’t see a problem for me to have a fish onboard the flight, properly packaged as he was in a vet-issued fish bag and secured with a rubber band. The TSA supervisor was called over, and he berated me profusely. He exclaimed that in no way, under no circumstances, was a small fish allowed to pass through security, regardless of what the ticket agents said.
Mr. Supervisor was causing a grand scene, marshaling the full authority of the TSA to refuse me. It struck me that with all the commotion my little security threat was causing, by now engaging the full attention of the TSA at LaGuardia, someone who posed a real threat to passenger safety might be conveniently slipping by.
By this time, I was in tears. I asked the supervisor what my options were should I not be allowed through security with my fish. He said I could leave it behind the counter with the US Airways employees to pick up upon my return (6 weeks later), or I could dispose of the fish. He wanted me to flush my fish.
He saw the horror in my eyes and told me I could go outside and give him to whomever I came to the airport with. When I explained that I was a college student, alone in New York City (save for boyfriend Trey), he brushed me off and said that was not his problem.
I cried some more. With no other option that we could see, Trey and I headed toward a restroom.
Inside the ladies’ room I looked at MJ, swimming happily in his bag, and then the looming porcelain toilet bowl in front of me. I broke down. There was absolutely no way I could do it.
I went back outside and told Trey I couldn’t flush MJ. It was then, in this hopeless predicament, that ever ingenuous Trey had an idea. He explained his plan and with a simple nod, we sprung into action.
Trey disappeared into the men’s room with the fish and my backpack. I’m a notoriously messy and haphazard packer, and my backpack only contained pants. Yes, pants. When he got into the stall, he let out a bit of the water in MJ’s bag and packed the fish into my backpack. Wedged between some corduroys and khakis, we prayed he wouldn’t suffocate or get squished, not to mention fried by the security X-rays that can be fatal to small creatures such as fish.
Trey exited the bathroom and we proceeded to a different security checkpoint on the other side of the terminal. Before we went through, Trey grabbed my hand. “Lara,” he said, “you know there are only a few outcomes here: one, they will see his bag or skeleton in the X-ray and catch us, we’ll get arrested for messing with security and we’ll have to flush the fish. Two, he may die instantly in a blaze of glory from the X-rays. Three, he’ll miraculously survive and we’ll smuggle him onto the plane and pray that he survives the exposure.” I shuddered and nodded.
We took a deep breath and proceeded. We loaded our things onto the belt before the X-ray machine. The second part of Trey’s plan was to cause a diversion. He purposely left his laptop in his backpack and just as my fishpants bag was going through the machine he yelled “Stop! Gosh! I’m sorry- I forgot my laptop. Can you grab my bag?”
Through huffs and sighs, Trey’s bag was removed and mine sailed through. Once we were past the scanner, Trey and I grabbed our things and ran for the gate, eager to find the first bathroom we could to see if MJ was intact. On the way, we passed by the original security checkpoint we had tried to go through earlier.
The agents were huddled together and naturally recognized us. “What did you do with the fish?” they asked, “What did you do with the fish!?”
Sensing a chance for comeuppance, Trey clenched his jaw and assumed a stone-cold gaze. He said, with great dramatics, “You know what … we flushed him. We flushed him because you made us. You killed my girlfriend’s fish. [grand pause]No, you made HER kill her fish … Happy holidays.”
I started sobbing again. Trey gave the TSA agents one last steely gaze. We turned and walked away. I smelled an Oscar.
Now in the restroom, I faced impending doom once again. I picked through my bag and found the familiar plastic. I pulled it out, and miraculously MJ was still alive!
Maybe it was God, maybe it was the corduroy, but someone wanted my fish to live. I ran and bought a doughnut from a coffee kiosk, placing MJ on the bottom of the paper bag I was given and the pastry on top. Trey and I walked to our gate and checked in. A few passengers had witnessed our role in the La Guardia Christmas Security Spectacular and asked us what happened to the fish. We stuck to our story and told them he was gone.
The flight was full. I sat between two men who seemed intrigued by the brown paper bag I gently cradled in my lap the whole flight.
An hour and a half later, we were in Pittsburgh. We departed the people-mover and ran to the bathroom one final time to see if MJ was OK. He was.
Two terminals, baggage claim, and a car ride later, we were home.
As I write this, I sit with a cat in my lap and my fish, whom I have aptly renamed X-ray, swimming contentedly in his glass-beaded bowl. And even though my actions may send Homeland Security reeling, I really don’t care.
Honestly, they have bigger fish to fry.
Postscript, November 2020:
I can’t believe it’s been almost 17 years since MJ the fish made his death-defying trip through security.
This article was published in 2003, when TSA and national security was a hotter button issue than it is now. My story received lots of attention, and I was contacted by many news outlets to comment further on my ordeal. A few days after publication I received a call from a higher-up at a certain security agency, asking me to stop talking to the press about my story.
He asked what it was going to take for me to cease commenting on my tale. After giving it a think, I called him back and simply asked for safe passage for me and my fish when it was time to return to NYC for my spring semester in 6 weeks. He agreed, and I held up my part of the bargain.
The weeks slipped by in a holiday haze, and soon it was time to plan our return to New York. Trey and I fly standby, so we tend to book our flights at the last minute, based on loads and weather. We did just that a day or so before our return. I figured TSA had forgotten all about us by then and fell asleep the night before our flight anxious about our return flight with MJ.
The next day we arrived at the airport, once again 4 bags each and a fish in hand, and proceeded to security. As we stepped into line, a man approached me.
“Ms. Hayhurst?” he said.
I nodded. He took MJ’s bag out of my arms and walked him through security while Trey and I were screened normally. He was waiting for me on the other side of the machine, bag in hand. He handed me the fish and walked away.
And there you have it. We flew back to New York uneventfully and MJ went on to live for another year or so before meeting his aquatic maker on his terms, peacefully in his bowl.
So let this update be a reminder to flap your fins and keep on swimming. But only in water.