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The Goode Earth

An Ojai ranch serves as a sanctuary for New York hotelier Eric Goode and the endangered turtles he shelters.

With his lanky good looks and ample wit, Eric Goode would strike anyone who sees him in action at one of his buzzing New York hotels or restaurants as a consummate urban tastemaker. Yet for one week a month, Goode ventures to his lush Ojai retreat with his girlfriend, Miye McCullough, and transforms into a rustic caretaker—a lesser-known but equally prominent element of his resume.

Goode, who grew up in California, spent most of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s setting trends in New York with nightclubs Area (the subject of a forthcoming book by Goode) and M.K.; restaurants such as BBar and Grill, The Park and The Waverly Inn; and hotels, including The Maritime, The Bowery Hotel and Lafayette House. In 1989, he bought this sprawling three-acre ranch, which was built in 1928. With the John L. Behler Chelonian Conservation Center, he gradually established the residence as a sanctuary for 21 endangered species of turtles and tortoises—300 of which now roam the property’s grounds, ponds and green-houses. C spoke with Goode in Ojai about his passion for preservation and the rewards of bicoastal life.

C This must be quite a respite from life in Manhattan.

EG That’s why I got this house. When I was running nightclubs and restaurants and living a semi-nocturnal existence, I thought about moving to California. I wanted the diametrical opposite of New York nightlife. Ojai was that. I moved here because there is so much wilderness. I told the realtor I wanted a place no one had touched or done alterations to, and this place was so forgotten and in such disrepair that it was perfect. I didn’t want someone’s signature all over something. It was just this little, quiet, funky oasis.

C Do you think you will always be bicoastal?

EG Yes, I think to some degree, because I’m so entrenched in New York. I never thought I was going to be. I always thought that it was going to be just one more year, one more year. I’ve always had one toe in the urban world and one in the natural world.

C What’s your favorite part of the house?

EG Without question, just being outside here in the garden. I’m constantly going places to get succulents. I actually got obsessed with it. I go to Lotusland and The Huntington Gardens. That’s the thing about tortoises—there is a symbiotic relationship between the garden and these guys. And I didn’t get a country house on the East Coast because I like this Mediterranean feeling.

C When you bought the property, did you have turtles?

EG I have always had turtles. In New York, I have a rooftop—there are always a few lurking there. When they got too big and too much for me to handle in New York, they were shipped out to my family. My mother lives in Sono-ma and has kept them for years.

C Did you grow up in Sonoma?

EG We summered there. We grew up in different places in California and New York because my father was a schoolteacher. Mostly California—Marin County and Ojai. He taught at Thatcher in the late ’60s. When I was a teenager, I was in Marin.

C When did you first fall in love with turtles?

EG My parents gave me a tortoise for my birthday when I was six years old—Ajax, a Greek tortoise. That’s when the addiction started. I loved hiking in these mountains as a kid and finding horned lizards and snakes. It was just a love for animals and the natural world. But I think I gravitated toward tortoises, ultimately, because snakes had to eat live animals, and tortoises were vegetarians. They’re also very threatened. So I was just inter–ested in protecting them. You can see they’re very easy for one to just pick up and walk away with. They were typically more endangered.

C Tell me about your not-for-profit organization.

EG The Bronx Zoo used to keep all of its most endangered animals on a beautiful spot called Saint Catherines Island, off  Sav-annah, Georgia—lemurs, zebras, antelopes and all kinds of birds and tortoises. It’s a 10-mile island—about the size of Manhattan—that was com-pletely preserved. But after 30 years of being there, they eventually lost their lease and dismantled their breeding program. When that occurred three years ago, my friend, John Behler, who was the curator of herp-etology at the Zoo, called me up and came out here and we set this place up. Sadly thereafter he died, so he never saw the animals here. Co-director Maurice Rodrigues and I named the center after him. Lately, we’ve been doing work in central Mexico, where we’re trying to buy 17,000 acres of land—a series of empty homesteaded ranches, called an ejido. It’s to protect one of the last populations of the endangered Bolson Tortoise, a species that was only discovered in 1959.

C Where else is the center doing work?

EG One of the problems we have is that we’re bree-d-ing these very endan-gered animals, and the question is what do you do with them. We went to the Galapagos [Islands] to look at what they’re doing there. We went to Madagascar and Mauritius and looked into reintroducing tortoises back into the wild.

C How many species are in trouble?

EG So many. Especially in Madagascar, Burma and South-east Asia, because the Chinese are eating everything. The turtles in Southeast Asia are particularly vulnerable.

C Do you reintroduce them to the wild?

EG We are working toward that objective, though it’s been difficult. It’s very hard to re-release anything back into the wild. California’s Congress has spent millions of dollars trying to do just that with the California Condor, and it turned out to be so complicated. There are so many problems associated with successful repatriation, such as disease and suitable habitat.

C What would be the best thing that could happen for tortoises and turtles?

EG That people would stop eating them! We’re trying to send money back to the countries of origins to protect them in their natural habitat. They have areas where they’re preserved, but there’s no enforcement. People go in and just wipe them out. It takes 30 years for an animal to reach sexual maturity. So the regeneration of a population is incredibly slow.

C How would you encourage people to participate in turtle conservation?

EG What we’re doing is captive husbandry of endangered species. The best thing you can do is what they call “in situ,” saving or working on conservation in locations where these animals come from. We encourage people to lobby to protect habitats locally. There’s a fine line between captive breeding and doing it in a conscientious and intelligent way. That line is drifting and blurring, and people are just collecting animals like stamps or coin collections; they are not doing anything for conservation. We’re looking forward to doing something meaningful on that front. But I don’t like to sound heavy handed. People gravitate to protecting warm cuddly panda and koala bears. We want to focus attention on the animals people don’t get emotionally attached to but need just as much attention—the smaller, forgotten, left-behind creatures that need protecting. Tortoises fall into that category. They’re so vulnerable and lovely. chelonianconservation.com 

Written by Kendall Conrad.
PHOTO: Gregory Goode.

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