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.
“I’d done it before over the holidays with another airline, so I filled the container with water and put Theo in it,” she said.
But there was a problem.
While she was checking her bags for her flight on Southwest Airlines, customer service agent Ismael Lazo noticed the deep blue and purple fish and explained to Rumfola that the airline’s pet policy allowed only small dogs and cats onboard in carriers. No other pets are permitted on planes.
“All of my roommates had already gone home for the summer and I had nobody to leave Theo with,” said Rumfola, who is majoring in early-childhood education at the university.
“I was really sad and wondered what I was going to do," she said. “He’s my pet.”
Lazo, 35, said he understood Rumfola’s concern for Theo.
“I have two dogs — I wouldn’t want to abandon them somewhere,” he said. “And I also know how hard it is to leave them when I go out of town.”
So he made a split-second decision to offer his home and his fish-sitting services.
“How about if I take your fish home to live with me and my fiancee until you come back for college in the fall?” he said he told her. “You can text me over the summer to see how he’s doing whenever you like.”
Rumfola’s face lit up, Lazo said. Right away, he felt good about his unusual offer.
There was one catch: Lazo told Rumfola that he didn’t know the first thing about caring for a pet fish, but he was willing to try.
“She gave me her fish kit — some food and some water conditioner — then told me how often to clean the water,” he recalled. “I told her I would do my very best to keep Theo happy.”
Rumfola said she was ecstatic about Lazo’s offer and promised she would check in often over the summer to see how Theo was faring in his temporary home.
“It was so nice that he would take on the responsibility of watching my fish,” she said. “I knew I’d miss Theo over the summer, but I was thankful to know he’d be cared for.”
Rumfola said she bought Theo at a Tampa pet store last year to keep her and her new roommates company in their on-campus apartment during their first year away from home.
“We’re allowed to have fish as pets, so I really wanted to get 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 got him home, I saw he had a fun little personality,” Rumfola said. “He liked to do laps around his fishbowl.”
Especially after meals.
“I put his bowl on the kitchen island and I noticed that Theo really liked to watch me do dishes,” Rumfola added. “He’d always get excited when I did that.”
It didn’t take long before she looked forward to seeing him after her classes each day.
To abandon him at the airport would have been cruel, Rumfola said. Sending him off 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 dependable person.
As soon as she arrived home in New York, she texted Lazo:
“Hi Ismael, it’s the girl from the airport with the fish! I was just wondering how he is doing. If you have any questions about Theo please feel free to text me, thank you!”
Lazo quickly responded: “Hey! We are heading to the store to buy him a bigger tank.”
“We enjoyed having Theo around and we also noticed he got excited when my fiancee was doing the dishes,” Lazo said.
He said he didn’t feel sad, though, when Rumfola returned to classes in Tampa in late August and it was time to reunite her with Theo.
“To be honest, I was worried about something happening to him on our watch,” he said. “So I was happy for Kira to have him back.”
When Rumfola went to Lazo’s apartment to pick up the fish, she gave him and his fiancee, Jamee Golub, a store gift card and some candy as a gesture of thanks.
Lazo didn’t realize at the time that he wasn’t the first airport worker to volunteer as a fish-sitter.
In 2018, a customer service team at the Denver International Airport looked after a woman’s pink betta fish for several days while she took a vacation to California. She abandoned the fish and it ended up in the airport’s lost and found when she wasn’t allowed to take it on a Southwest Airlines flight. Airport employees eventually reunited the pair.
As for Rumfola, she is back on campus, relieved to be reunited with her small aquatic buddy. Theo is swimming laps around the bowl, just as he did at Lazo’s apartment.
“I’m really grateful that he stepped up to help,” she said about Lazo. “Four months is a long time, but Theo seems pretty happy.”