In pre-pandemic Burbank, residents would have to make their way over to Los Angeles’ Griffith Park to visit a zoo. And going to an aquarium would have entailed a trek to Long Beach.
Today, things are different. Now, thanks to Wendy and London Ruff, Burbank has its own community zoo and aquarium, located right smack in the middle of the city’s Rancho neighborhood. Gathering inhabitants from the plains of the Serengeti to the world’s great oceans and tropical reefs the Ruffs have rivaled Noah in bringing together a magnificent menagerie of critters — or rather, fanciful images of them.
Though the goal of the creature collector of Genesis was to fill an ark, the Ruffs’ has been to fill their front yard with art that represents all manner of animal and aquatic life.
“This all started after my daughter London returned home from Washington, D.C.,” said Wendy Ruff. “She had been doing a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, and when they closed she came back to Burbank.”
Back home, London hoped to make a few visits to one of her favorite places, the Aquarium of the Pacific. Upon learning that, just like the Smithsonian, the aquarium was also closed, she and her mother had an idea: to use the front lawn of their home at South Orchard Drive and Parkside Avenue as a canvas to create their own aquarium.
“It really began because I was starting to get a bit depressed,” said Wendy. “Neither of us were working, and so, because we are both believers that creativity can bring joy, we started out with no real plan or expectations. We just began to make little sea creatures out of recycled material like milk jugs, cardboard boxes, juice boxes, coffee pods, filters and paper towel rolls, and then displayed them on our lawn.
“Then, soon after, we decided to invite the community to get involved. We put out boxes filled with cardboard cutouts of starfish and seahorses and asked people to decorate them and then drop them off for us to display. That was when it really took off. Every morning we would check our drop-off box and find it filled with all these great creations.”
Not only did people return the adorned cutouts, they also began making their own creations of not just aquatic life but of all sorts of animals.
“That’s when we decided to add a zoo,” laughed Wendy.
London, who became fascinated with scientific illustrations when she was a geology major, has become a self-taught artist who, along with creating lawn art, is now offering online art classes via Zoom.
“Doing this display has given us the opportunity to meet so many people in our neighborhood we didn’t know,” she said. “They stop by with their kids, who are so proud to see the pieces they have created on display.”
Among those whose creativity has been sparked by the Ruffs is Theo, a 3-year old neighborhood boy who has made multiple artistic contributions to both the aquarium and zoo.
“His mother left us a little note saying how this inspired him to start working on his art skills,” said Wendy. “At first he was just scribbling on the cutouts, but after seeing what other people had done, he began making patterns and designs. That has been one of the greatest joys of having done this.”
An added joy has been the benefits the Ruffs’ display has provided to kids who will probably never even see their aquarium and zoo.
“Along with collecting art pieces from people, we have also been accepting donations of art supplies for a 3rd-grade class in South Central Los Angeles,” said Wendy, daughter of John Loutensock, who was a popular teacher and basketball coach with the Burbank Unified School District for 32 years. “People have really made wonderful donations, and London and I made up 30 art buckets for the kids. Because of the generosity of those people, we have been able to give those kids sketch pads, art pencils and all sorts of supplies they would not be able to afford.”
While the Ruffs’ lawn attraction came about without any real planning, London said she has now actually started to make plans for its future.
“We have some fun projects planned for October that will include the 31 days of Halloween,” she revealed. “That will entail the addition of some supernatural creatures. We are already the only aquarium on earth with a Loch Ness Monster and pretty soon we will be the only zoo with a yeti.”
It is impossible to spend any time at the Ruffs’ aquarium and zoo without noticing cars coming to a screeching halt, their occupants backing up, and taking a better look at what they just passed. Many also park, get out of their cars and take a closer look.
“That happens all day long,” Wendy said with a laugh. “This whole thing has been so uplifting. It’s really brought a lot of joy and happiness to our community and to us.”
David Laurell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (818) 563-1007.