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Bahooka Love Story

He looks after 105 aquariums, but a fish called Rufus has stolen his heart

July 16, 2000|ED LEIBOWITZ

When the crew of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" showed up to shoot a tiki bar scene at Bahooka Ribs and Grog in Rosemead, Bernardo Reyna saved the restaurant's prized pacu from a beta carotene overdose. The crew wanted to send Rufus, a 34-pound South American predatory fish that loves carrots, into gyrations of ecstasy by feeding him stick after stick of the veggie. "If we feed him that much, he's going to explode," warned Reyna, caretaker of Bahooka's Polynesian paradise of 105 built-in aquariums. To fend off calamity, he fastened a string around a carrot, dropped it into the tank and tugged at it off-screen as Rufus pursued. With no undue stomach upset, Rufus thrashed about magnificently as Johnny Depp's character made his frantic call to score drugs on an aquarium-adjacent pay phone.

During their six years together, Reyna, 31, and Rufus, 24, have developed a singular rapport. "When I clean the tank, he nuzzles up to me," Reyna says. As if on cue, Rufus looks through the aquarium glass at his keeper, flexing his strong jaw, enormous girth and tragic, loving eyes of an aging Marlon Brando. "He's like a little cat." It's a tremendous compliment, for, as Reyna explains, Rufus doesn't favor company: "He doesn't like roommates. He eats them."

Reyna arrives at daybreak daily to feed Bahooka's vast aquarium pet population and clean the tanks. There are other pacus, as well as the ornery catfish, oblivious silver dollars, belligerent Jack Dempseys, wise albino oscars, bar-prowling clown knives and immature koi. "Fish are like plants," Reyna says. "You have to train them with love."

While Bahooka's owners have installed an extra pump on the roof to serve as backup should the massive main one fail, there is no backup for Bernardo Reyna. Vacations are scarce. Bahooka's general manager "takes me once a year to Las Vegas so I can go skydiving," he says. "Kayaking and skydiving are a better way to lose your money than gambling."

Reyna brims with health and fitness, though Rufus is showing the frailties of age. The caretaker has considered freeing the pacu, thus sparing his friend an end in captivity: "Sometimes I wish I could put him back in a lake in South America, but I realize he's too old. I think if this guy dies on me, I'm going to cry."

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