TUCKED DISCREETLY in the hills on the eastern edge of Ojai lies an unmarked, unmapped seven-acre sanctuary for one of the world’s most ancient – and most endangered – creatures. But this isn’t some government funded project. This is the private home of a New York City nightclub baron with celebrity friends and a star studded life, who has dedicated his latter career to protecting all types of turtles, terrapins, and tortoises.
BY AMELIA FLEETWOOD
The four Ploughshare tortoises that slowly wend their way around their rock-wall-lined enclosure – grazing on special grasses and blinking up at the sun – remind me of little roaming military helmets. It’s precisely their distinctive high-domed black and gold shells that these species, native to Madagascar, are known for – and also why they’re endangered. With fewer than 100 of the animals now in existence, poaching levels have reached their highest to date.
“For a person in Madagascar, living in extreme poverty, to find one of these – it’s the same as finding a bar of gold,” says Eric Goode, swinging up one of his long legs to lean on one of the enclosure’s rocks, as if to better study the species that he’s singlehandedly trying to bring back from the brink of extinction. People are willing to pay $60,000 or more for one of the rare animals – usually in Asian countries, where people keep them as luxury pets. To prove the point, he goes on to tell me that the four we’re watching were confiscated from the black market in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Moving on to another enclosure, this one complete with small ponds of water, Goode introduces me to his newest arrivals – squat six-inch-round creatures with flat, jet-black shells peppered in bright yellow spots. “These cute little guys were just intercepted on their way to China by Fish and Wildlife at LAX,” he says. They are North American spotted turtles, and most often found in South Carolina and along the East Coast’s marshlands. “The turtles were packed tightly, stuffed into socks, and squished into boxes to be sold as pets when they were discovered.”
Dressed casually in sneakers, jeans, and a plaid shirt, Goode, in his late 50s, reminds one of a professor. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes regularly, while his phone signals every few moments that he is, indeed, a very busy man. “We always think illegal animal trafficking happens outside of the US, but, much like the illegal drug trade, there is a robust wildlife trade in our own country, largely taking the animals to markets in China or Southeast Asia,” Goode explains. “Confiscations are up. Fish and Wildlife brings us their confiscated turtles, but, much as it is for finding illegal drugs, they sadly intercept only about 5 or 10 percent. The majority of turtles don’t get saved.” In addition to the exotic pet trade, habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change have also had a devastating impact on their numbers. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority of this field, of the 207 species of turtle and tortoise alive today, 129 of them are listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered – that’s 62 percent of the species.
It’s a sad fact that Goode is working tirelessly to correct. So much so, in 2003, he transformed his own seven-acre private residence, tucked discreetly in Ojai’s East End, into a refuge known as the Ojai Turtle Conservancy. He has lived here, on and off, for the past 30 years, and today shares his home with about 200 endangered turtles and tortoises across 25 species. With paths flanked by orange trees, open and airy rock enclosures, terrarium-like greenhouses, ponds, and Mediterranean-style buildings, the sprawling property feels like a Club Med, just for reptiles. Call it Club Chelonian.
Conservation wasn’t Goode’s first career. The epitome of down-to-earth in his Ojai garb, Goode is actually a high-profile New York hotelier and restaurateur, who spent most of the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s starting up trendsetting social spots in New York, like nightclubs Area and B Bar, and most recently, downtown hotels like the Bowery and the Waverly Inn. Google his name and photos of him beside celebs like Naomi Watts, Sarah Silverman, and Mark Ruffalo dominate the search results. Yet, his passion for turtles predates his career as a nightclub baron.
“I guess I’ve always been a closet herpetologist,” laughs Goode as we lunch on tacos in the rustic kitchen – complete with a vintage sink, beautiful tiles, and a huge farmhouse kitchen table – inside one of the smaller, Spanish-style houses on the property. “When I was 6 or 7,” Goode tells me, “I used to catch rattlesnakes, put them in my lunch box, and take them home to my mom. Everything that was creepy crawly interested me.” Born in Rhode Island and raised in New York until he was 8, Goode and his family moved to Ojai, where his father, now retired, taught at Thatcher School.
“As an adult, I discovered that turtles are one of the most threatened groups of vertebrates (along with primates) on the planet. I wanted to do something about it,” he says. Luckily for the turtles, Goode found time to follow his passion during his first career. In fact, his hospitality empire granted him the ability to travel the world, informally studying and learning everything he could about the species.
In 2002, Goode took a trip to Myanmar, along with the Wildlife Conservation Society and members of the Bronx Zoo, in search of a very rare turtle that had been spotted for the first time in over half a century. While they did not have the
good fortune to view the turtle for themselves, it fostered a relationship: A year later, the curator of the Bronx Zoo called to ask if Goode could help find a permanent home for 200 rare and endangered turtles as the zoo was closing its large animal preserve, known as the Wildlife Survival Center, on St. Catherine’s Island just off Savannah.
This was the beginning of Goode’s Turtle Conservancy. In fact, Ojai’s Mediterranean climate makes for an ideal environment for most of the animals, while greenhouses are scattered throughout the seven acres to house tropical species that require special hot and humid conditions, like the radiated turtles from Madagascar and the spiny hill turtles from Borneo. One brick and glass building was outfitted with floor heaters, humidifiers, and automatic sunshades. It reminded me of a climate-controlled cloud forest. Outdoor pens simulate micro-environments – some dry and arid, others lush with greenery and misting devices – suited to Galapagos giant tortoises, Burmese stars, Chacos, Mexican spotted wood turtles, and more. Goode himself takes credit for the careful landscaping, with the help of a few locals: “I took some inspiration from Lotus Land in Santa Barbara and also the Huntington Gardens in San Marino.”
The conservancy is also the only AZA-accredited captive breeding facility dedicated solely to turtles and tortoises worldwide to help in the fight against their extinction. (AZA stands for Association of Zoos & Aquariums and accreditation from them only comes when a strict measure of standards is met.) Inside the nursery, which is a nondescript outbuilding, incubators crowd the space like rows of large fridges, housing hatchlings and juveniles. Notes hang on the wall with stats and dates. A vet tech hovers like a helicopter parent. Here, Goode picks up a very small and rare example of a type of gold coin turtle, a brightly colored species with three distinct black stripes down its shell. It fits in the palm of his hand – like a coin. “People in China like to keep these little guys as pets because they are status symbols now, being that they are so rare,” he says, holding it with childlike exuberance. “We breed turtles here, like these guys, and send them on to
protected parts of the world – sometimes back to where they
While the housing and breeding of the turtles happens in Ojai, it’s actually a small fraction of the conservancy’s efforts. A few visitors, mainly other conservationists and friends, are welcomed, and an occasional tour takes place, but for the most part it is very private – which is why, if you ask Ojai locals about the turtle sanctuary, you might be surprised by the number of blank stares. Other concerns – most importantly, the raising of money for the acquisition and preservation of land to protect the habitats – takes place in the Turtle Conservancy offices in New York City.
Believing that the best way to protect a species is to protect their intact habitat, each year, the Turtle Conservancy puts on the Turtle Ball in New York City to raise much-needed funds for land acquisition: This is where Goode’s celebrity connections come in handy. During April 2017’s event, Drew Barrymore, Rashida Jones, and Edward Norton attended in support, and helped raise more than $500,000. Recently, the Turtle Conservancy partnered with Leonardo Di Caprio’s foundation to purchase 43,000 acres in Northern Mexico. “By buying that land we protect everything on it,” Goode explains. “Mountain lions, 150 species of birds, reptiles – all animals.” The Turtle Conservancy is hoping to buy more land in South Africa, the Philippines, and Madagascar, to create more wildlife safe havens.
“We are trying to make turtles cool,” Goode says. “I am using all my cool friends to help me spread the word.” Regular
public service announcements posted to the Turtle Conservancy webpage depict celebs like Christopher Walken, Ted Danson, Christy Turlington, Russell Simmons, and even Slash, holding a turtle of their choice, interacting with it, and commenting on their plight. “I never thought that these two worlds would have collided 20 years ago,” Goode confides. “But in today’s political climate, more and more people are coming out to champion our environment.”
When asked how his past life in hospitality has prepared him for his life in conservation, Goode laughs in his good-natured way. “Well, these animals are much more demanding than my hotel guests. They are more complicated and much fussier about their room service, too.”
It Has Mysterious Origins
As citrus folklore goes, the Pixie was devel- oped by University of California Riverside’s Citrus Research Center, where breeding experiments were conducted in the 1920s. According to the Ojai Pixie Growers Association, the seed parent of the Pixie is a type of tangerine called a kincy (half king tangerine and half dancy tangerine), but the second parent was an unidentified pollen (as they left it open for cross-pollination). To this day, no one really knows what made the other half of what resulted in this delicious, easy-to-peel, and seedless creation.
There’s No Pixie Like an Ojai Pixie
They simply taste better when they are from Ojai. “We don’t really know why,” explains Jim Churchill of Ojai’s Churchill Orchard (and something of the founding father of the Pixie – see #3), “but we think that the cooler nights slow down the maturation of the fruit compared with, say, Pixies grown in the Central Valley. Ours come out much sweeter.”
It Knows How To Be in the Right Place at the Right Time
Today, roughly 58 Ojai family farms grow the citrus – 2015 seeing the highest-yielding harvest in history with four million pounds. But, the Ojai Pixie movement wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for these moments of fate.
Back in 1978, while chatting with friend Tony Thacher (of Friend’s Ranch) about the struggles of keeping his family farm afloat, Ojai native Jim Churchill absentmindedly reached into one of Thacher’s bins, peeled some sort of citrus, and popped it into his mouth. “When I tasted it, it was literally love at first bite,” says Churchill. Thacher told him it was just some obscure fruit that his kids liked to eat off the tree, but Churchill saw something that could draw a following. So, he and Thacher began to grow and market the fruit.
One of the first places to put the Ojai Pixie in the spotlight was Chez Panisse, Alice Water’s legendary Berkeley restaurant, after Head Pastry Chef Lindsey Shere came across Churchill’s fruit in the 1980s at a local market. First, she used it on the menu as part of a fruit bowl dessert; after that became a hit, she started incorporating it in juice and candying the peels for other dishes.
The rise of the Pixie coincided perfectly with the artisanal food movement, which first started in the 1980s. In fact, as a way to promote the fruit, Churchill joined the Slow Food International organization and was invited to their first congress in Italy in 1990, Pixies in tow.
It’s Not Just For Ingesting
During Pixie season, the Ojai Valley Inn’s spa offers a special Ojai Pixie Tangerine Body Polish treatment, as well as a Pixie Tangerine Manicure and Pedicure.The body polish treatment features jojoba bead cream scrub, but it’s smoothed over your body with the use of two Pixie halves – the fruit acid also helping to shed dead skin cells. Plus, you’ll smell mighty sweet after. (855-697- 8780, ojairesort.com/spa-ojai)
It Makes a Killer Cocktail
The Ojai Valley Inn & Spa hosts “Pixology” classes at Jimmy’s Pub and the Wallace Neff Heritage Bar during spring’s Pixie season. Here are two to take home.
A refreshing take on a whiskey sour.
An earthy, sweet twist on good old gin and juice.
Cloud Climber Jeep Tours scrambles over the hills of Ojai and through various Pixie farms. (805-646-3200, ccjeeps.com)
For the kids, Pixie- themed pool parties at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa feature large orange beach balls and Pixie popsicles. (855-697- 8780, ojairesort.com)
There’s a Pixie Beer, and It’s Awesome
Using dried Pixie zest, Azu restaurant owners Elizabeth and Jeremy Haffner brew a white Pixie ale, starting in April that’s only available in the restaurant until its tap runs dry (usually after summer, early fall). “It is a Belgian white-style ale that tastes like a wheat-based beer but with a really light and subtly sweet Pixie profile,” says Elizabeth. (805-640-7987, azuojai.com)
The Farmer and the Cook, an organic market and café, sells Pixie-marmalade scones (get there early; they sell out by 9 a.m.). (805-640-9608, farmerandcook.com)
You Can Eat It For All Three Meals and Not Get Sick of It
Feast Bistro, located right in the historic Arcade, does a light and fresh Pixie Shrimp Salad: baby mixed greens, Pixies, spicy chilled shrimp, and topped with feta cheese and their Pixie vinaigrette. (805-640-9260, feastofojai.com)
Four times during April, Ojai Valley Inn Chef de Cuisine Dana Francisco leads a cooking-with-Pixies demonstration, followed by a five-course dinner that highlights the fruit in every dish.
The historic and rustic Deer Lodge serves a steamed Pixie pudding with raspberry-Pixie gelato; the Italian Osteria Monte Grappa does a delicate Pixie-infused panna cotta. (805-646-4256, deerlodgeojai.com; 805-640-6767, omgojai.com)
It’s Fashion Forward
Trendy Bohemian lifestyle boutique In the Field features a piece of the Pixie, too. Run by actor and interior designer Channon Roe and wife and former Ford supermodel, Bianca, the store is like walking into the pages of Kinfolk magazine with hand- picked goods of home furnishings, decor, kitchenware, and apparel. Their ode to the fruit is featured in a custom-made organic hemp and cotton tee with a playful design of a rolling orchard and Pixie in the fore- front by acclaimed New York illustrator James Gulliver Hancock (whose work has been in Wired, New York Times, and Reader’s Digest). (805-633-0021)
It Makes for a Delicious Souvenir
As a way to summon memories of your Ojai vacation, you can always ship a box or two back home. Order online from Churchill Orchards and Friend’s Ranch – the leading Pixie growers in the valley – and they’ll start shipping early April until the season closes (usually by early July). (tangerineman.com; 805-646-2871, friendsranches.com)
It Inspires Art
The Porch Gallery hosts a yearly Pixie art contest, entitled “Ojai Pixies: What do they mean to you?” Last year’s winner was an abstract piece by Katie Van Horne, what she described as “personifying the yearly magic of Pixies dancing in April.” The runner-up, a piece by Christine Brennan – who specializes in fantastical oil paintings that feature exaggerated people and animals as if out of a Tim Burton animation – depicted a young child juggling the fruit in an orchard. (805-620-7589, porchgalleryojai.com)
It Can Help You Get Active
The month of April is Ojai’s dedicated Pixie Tangerine month, when the town celebrates all things Pixie. Here are a few ways you can get out and about with the citrus.
Tour the 11-acre Pixie orchard at Friend’s Ranch, and visit their packinghouse to enjoy juice and purchase bags of the citrus straight off the tree. (805-646- 2871, friendsranches.com)
The Mob Shop provides the bikes and guide to escort you on a two- hour, nine-mile bike ride that pedals through the historic east end of Ojai while passing Pixie orchards in bloom. (805-272-8102, themob shop.com)