After building his New York City hospitality empire, Eric Goode turned to the pursuit he is most passionate about: traveling the globe to protect endangered chelonians.

By Lila Battis
November 14, 2016
Courtesy of Turtle Conservancy

At the Bowery and the Jane, two of the Manhattan hotels co-owned by Eric Goode, guests sleep on 400-thread-count Egyptian-cotton sheets and bathe in rainfall showers. Meanwhile, the man himself might be thousands of miles away, setting camera traps in the Sinaloan backcountry, bushwhacking through scrub in Madagascar, or meeting with wildlife biologists in Myanmar as part of his mission to save the world’s turtles.

When Goode was growing up in California, his mother cultivated his interest in nature. “She encouraged me to like snakes and spiders and lizards and all things creepy-crawly,” he says. At six, he was given a pet Greek tortoise, a land dweller that subsists on a diet of weeds and wildflowers, thus clinching his love for chelonians.

For years, Goode kept his passion a secret. He moved to New York in 1977, cofounding the legendary Manhattan nightclub Area six years later. It didn’t take him long to realize that his herpetology habit was an awkward fit with his job as a nightlife impresario. “You’d talk about art and fashion and what kind of high heels someone was wearing,” Goode says. “Turtles weren’t even on the menu of conversation topics.”

Courtesy of Turtle Conservancy

Over the next two decades, Goode focused on hospitality ventures, often with his partner, Sean Macpherson. But on the side he was getting to know New York’s community of reptile aficionados. One was John Behler, the curator of herpetology at the Bronx Zoo. When the zoo closed its 150-acre wildlife-research center in Georgia, Behler needed someone with the resources and knowledge to care for 250 rare tortoises. “His call led to me coming out of the closet,” Goode says. “The responsibility made it a lot more serious.”

On a property he owns in Ojai, a mountain town northwest of Los Angeles, Goode founded the Turtle Conservancy, a nonprofit that protects turtles in the wild while maintaining a captive breeding program on its grounds. Since it launched in 2005, the Turtle Conservancy has purchased thousands of acres of wilderness across the globe to prevent habitat loss. Its Ojai headquarters are now home to an accredited breeding facility, the Behler Chelonian Center, named for the herpetologist, who died in 2006.

Tortoises at the Ojai Turtle Conservancy;
Courtesy of Turtle Conservancy

Goode’s two worlds have merged surprisingly well. His hospitality career has given him clout with celebrities and entrepreneurs who help promote the cause. Ted Turner was on the cover of The Tortoise magazine, which Goode coedits. Richard Branson offered up Necker Island, his private estate in the Virgin Islands, as a home for critically endangered tortoises. The conservancy’s annual Turtle Ball in New York has attracted boldfaced names like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jenna Lyons, Graydon Carter, and Robert Kennedy Jr.

Conservation work means lots of time on the road, camping far from civilization, putting up with extreme conditions, and surviving run-ins with poachers. “Traveling in this way is often much more interesting,” Goode says. “You see parts of a country you’d never experience otherwise.” He flies every two weeks: to New Orleans for a turtle conference, to Southeast Asia to film a documentary about the wildlife trade, to South Africa to visit some recently acquired acreage.

One of his most recent trips was to Mexico, where the conservancy had purchased a parcel of land in Sonora to protect a newly identified species, Gopherus evgoodei, now commonly known as Goode’s thornscrub tortoise. The journey had involved massive thunderstorms, a flooded tent, chigger bites, stomach trouble, and baking in the sun, but Goode had no complaints. “It’s incredibly exciting and rewarding to travel with a mission and be able to do something positive for these countries. I feel very privileged.”