His fish was not allowed to fly. An airline employee took care of it for 4 months.

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At the end of her freshman year at the University of Tampa in May, Kira Rumfola packed her bags and headed to the airport with her favorite roommate: a colorful betta fish named Theo.

Rumfola, 19, was returning home to Long Island for the summer and was happy to bring home the little fish she had bonded with during the months she had him. She figured it would be no problem getting Theo on the plane in a small, portable fish carrier.

“I had done it before while on vacation with another airline, so I filled the container with water and put Theo in it,” she said.

While checking her bags for her flight on Southwest Airlines, customer service agent Ismael Lazo noticed the dark blue and purple fish and explained to Rumfola that the airline’s pet policy does not allowed only small dogs and cats on board the carriers. No other pets are allowed on planes.

“All my roommates had already gone home for the summer and I had no one to leave Theo with,” said Rumfola, who is majoring in early childhood education at university.

“I was really sad and wondering what I was going to do,” she said. “It’s my pet.”

Lazo, 35, said he understood Rumfola’s concern for Theo.

“I have two dogs – I wouldn’t want to leave them anywhere,” he said. “And I also know how hard it is to leave them when I’m out of town.”

So he decided in a split second to offer his house and his fish-sitting services.

“How about I bring your fish home to live with me and my fiancée until you come back to college in the fall?” he said he told her. “You can text me during the summer to see how he’s doing whenever you want.”

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Rumfola’s face lit up, Lazo said. Right away, he felt good about his unusual offer.

There was a catch: Lazo told Rumfola he didn’t know anything about caring for a pet fish, but he was willing to try.

“She gave me her fish kit – food and water conditioner – then told me how often to clean the water,” he recalls. “I told him I would do my best to keep Theo happy.”

Rumfola said she was delighted with Lazo’s offer and promised that she would show up often over the summer to see how Theo was doing in his temporary home.

“It was so nice that he took on the responsibility of looking after my fish,” she said. “I knew I would miss Theo over the summer, but I was grateful to know he would be taken care of.”

Rumfola said he bought Theo from a Tampa pet store last year to keep him and his new roommates company in their on-campus apartment during their freshman year away from home.

“We’re allowed to have fish as pets, so I really wanted to have one,” she said, noting that she was immediately drawn to the shimmering blue and purple fish with a flowing tail.

“He was such a pretty color and when I brought him home I saw he had a fun little personality,” Rumfola said. “He liked to do tricks around his fishbowl.”

“I put his bowl on the kitchen island and noticed Theo really enjoyed watching me do the dishes,” Rumfola added. “He was always excited when I did that.”

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It didn’t take long before she was looking forward to seeing him after class each day.

To abandon him at the airport would have been cruel, Rumfola said. Sending her to spend a few months with Lazo was the best option available and she said she was happy to take it. He seemed like a reliable person.

As soon as she got home to New York, she texted Lazo:

“Hi Ismael, it’s the girl from the airport with the fish!” I was just wondering how he was doing. If you have any questions about Theo, feel free to text me, thank you!

Lazo quickly replied, “Hey! We head to the store to buy him a bigger tank.

“We enjoyed Theo’s presence and also noticed that he was excited when my fiancee was doing the dishes,” Lazo said.

He said he didn’t feel sad, however, when Rumfola returned to class in Tampa in late August. and it was time to reunite her with Theo.

“To be honest, I was worried something happened to him on our watch,” he said. “So I was happy that Kira got it back.”

When Rumfola went to Lazo’s apartment to pick up the fish, she gave him and his fiancée, Jamee Golub, a gift card from the store and some candy as a thank you.

Lazo didn’t realize at the time that he wasn’t the first airport employee to volunteer as a fish-sitter.

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In 2018, a customer service team at Denver International Airport cared for a woman’s pink betta fish for several days while she was vacationing in California. She abandoned the fish and it ended up in the airport lost and found when she was not allowed to take it on a Southwest Airlines flight. Airport workers eventually reunited the couple.

As for Rumfola, she is back on campus, relieved to find her aquatic boyfriend. Theo does laps around the bowl, like he did at Lazo’s apartment.

“I’m really grateful to him for agreeing to help out,” she said of Lazo. “Four months is a long time, but Theo seems quite happy.”

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