The Fish that Threatened National Security

College student Lara Hayhurst was not prepared to let officials treat her little pet like Osama ‘fin’ Laden

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Like many college students who flew home for the holidays, I had 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. We had four bags apiece, and one more precious piece of cargo — MJ, my pet fish. MJ is a gorgeous fighting 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 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 just light up, and he would swim excited circles around his little bowl. Unfortunately, residence hall rules required that I take him home with me for winter break. That was just as well, since there would be no one there to care for him.

At La Guardia we proceeded to security and 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.

I wasn’t prepared, however, for the TSA 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 was led back to the US Airways ticket counter, stocking-footed and alone, where the agents reasserted that they did not see a problem for me to have a fish on board, properly packaged in plastic fish bag and secured with a rubber band as MJ was. But 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. Now, I know my fish is a terrorist (Osama Fin Laden we used to call him back at school), but doesn’t it strike you as funny that, with all the commotion my little security threat was causing, by now engaging the full attention of the TSA at LaGuardia, that someone who posed a real threat to passenger safety might be conveniently slipping by?

By this time, I was in tears. The supervisor furiously told me to dispose of the fish. Dispose of my fish?! What did he want me to do, throw him away? He told me to go outside and give him to whomever I came to the airport with. When I explained 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 rest room.

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. I couldn’t do it.

I went back outside and told Trey I couldn’t flush MJ. It was then, in this hopeless predicament, that Trey, ever brilliant and supportive, had an idea. He explained his plan to me.

Trey disappeared into the men’s room with the fish and my backpack. 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, which only contained pants. 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. Every Web site I visited, every vet that I contacted said that air travel was no problem for Bettas, as long as I did not, under any circumstances, allow it to go through the X-ray machine.

In my research, I had learned that running a fish through an X-ray would be like a human getting radiation without wearing the protective lead cloak. At this point, though, we had no choice. 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.

“One, they will see his bag or skeleton in the X-ray and catch us, we’ll get in huge trouble for crossing security and we’ll have to flush the fish. Two, he may die instantly in a blaze of glory from the X-rays. Or, 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 and walked through. Once past the scanner, Trey and I grabbed our things and ran for the gates, eager to find the first bathroom to see if MJ was intact. On the way, we passed by the original security checkpoint we had tried to go through.

The agents were huddled together, and recognized us. “What did you do with the fish?” they asked, “What did you do with the fish!?”

Sensing a chance for comeuppance, Trey put on his “stone-cold-supportive-protector” face and said with great dramatics, “You know what … we flushed him. We flushed him because you made us [pause for effect]. You killed my girlfriend’s fish. No, you made her kill her fish … Happy holidays.”

I started sobbing again. Trey gave the TSA agents one last cold, steely gaze.

We turned and walked away. I smelled an Oscar.

Now in the rest room, 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 then 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 the 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 it was gone.

The flight was full. I sat between two fat 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 one final time to the bathroom to see if MJ was OK, and he was.

Absolutely amazing. Two terminals, baggage claim and a car ride later, I was at home.

As I write this I sit with a cat in my lap and my fish, which I have aptly renamed X-ray, swimming contentedly in his glass-beaded bowl. And even though my actions may send Tom Ridge reeling and upset the karma of the Department of Homeland Security, I really don’t care.

Honestly, they have bigger fish to fry.

Lara Hayhurst, a graduate of North Allegheny Senior High School, is studying musical theater at Pace University in New York City (

The Fish that Threatened National Security

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