Looking Back, 2003: Caring for 1,200 Turtles in a Hudson Street Loft

Richard Ogust in 2003 with one of the 1,200 turtles he cared for in his Tribeca loft. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Feb. 08, 2017

Editor’s note: In 2003, the Trib visited Richard Ogust in his loft at 161 Hudson Street, where he was caring for 1,200 turtles. At that time, he hoped to soon find them a home in a yet-to-be created turtle preserve in New Jersey. The story, which appeared in the October 2003 print edition of The Tribeca Trib, is one of an ongoing series from the archives of the Trib.

Richard Ogust’s house guests are running him ragged. Since they are turtles, they don’t expect the usual Broadway show and Nobu sushi-fest. But well over 1,000 of these reptiles happen to be crashing at Ogust’s Hudson Street loft in Tribeca, and their collective demands are a bit much for one host. Plus, they tend to be rather particular about their diet (different species have different tastes), and every one must have his tank arranged just so. Ogust, 51, is tired. “It’s a huge responsibility every day, waking up and knowing you have to keep a thousand animals alive, in less than optimal conditions,” he says. “It’s a burden.”

No wonder Ogust is calling it quits. Next spring, New York City’s largest turtle collection will be trucked out to a turtle preserve currently under construction in Tewksbury, NJ. But in the meantime, they will not be ignored.

Ogust, who navigates barefoot through the tall maze of turtle-filled tanks and tubs stacked three high, dresses in shorts and a torn white undershirt, better to brave the inevitable encounters with turtle vomit and droppings. The former writer spends $4,000 a month feeding his guests (120 pounds of live minnows; 2,400 pounds of dandelion, chicory and escarole greens; crates of fresh fruit from China; and 40,000 worms).

Three full-time assistants join him in the 12-hour daily feeding, cleaning and nursing marathons. The monthly electric bill for maintaining turtle-friendly temperatures runs another $1,000. Then there’s the custom-built filtration system which has 18,000 gallons of fresh water gurgling through the tanks via an elaborate pipe-and-hose system. He gets some donations; the rest comes out of his pocket.

But if it weren’t for Ogust and collectors like him, some of the 120-plus species housed in his loft would likely disappear from the planet, he says. A few, like the pastel-toned Cuora McCordi, are already extinct in the wild.

Most of Ogust’s pets were destined for soup pots in China, where Ogust says 20 million of the creatures are eaten each year. Endangered turtles, it seems, are just as delicious as their more common brethren, and the hunters, who earn just pennies per turtle, don’t discriminate. On their way to the markets, the reptiles are starved to make them easier to ship, then choked full of sand to beef up their selling weight. Most arrive at the market plagued with parasites, fungus and infections. The lucky ones are confiscated by Asian government inspectors in foodmarket raids or by customs officials at JFK airport. And then Ogust gets the call. A state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Ogust quarantines them for months and nurses them back to health in consultation with a team of veterinary specialists.

Ogust’s first turtle was a diamondback terrapin awaiting execution at a Chinatown dinner spot. Ogust paid $20, whisked her home and named her “The Empress.” That was 10 years ago. “Look at her,” he says, picking her out from a tank full of fellow diamondbacks.

“If you saw her in a restaurant with a bunch of eels, you’d say, ‘Get her out of here.’ She’s an amazing creature.”

One turtle led to another, and the charming but reclusive Ogust discovered a whole turtle-centric lifestyle. There were turtle clubs and turtle shows (his pets have garnered several ribbons) and by 1998, Ogust had more than 200 turtles on his hands.

Then he got interested in conservation, and the turtles started arriving by the dozens. “I started innocently with one animal. I remember when I had 11, wondering how I could manage. You have no idea, as you go along, how big it can get,” says Ogust.

Ogust, who asked that his address not be disclosed, has joined nine other turtle collectors across the nation to create the nonprofit Tewksbury Institute of Herpetology on what is now a 50-acre piece of farmland. If all goes as planned, Ogust’s turtles will soon make their home in giant tanks and outdoor ponds, paying for their keep by fertilizing crops of lotus, lilies and orchids destined for metroarea pond-supply shops. He hopes the turtles will find life in the Garden State more palatable. “No one has enough room here, no one has enough sunlight,” he says.

For now, the collection is an amazing urban display of turtle diversity. Three-foot Burmese mountain tortoises with tall, mounded shells clank around in their tub while overhead, graceful Roti Island Snakenecks crawl about in their watery home. Ashy, dove-gray Indonesian soft-shell flattens herself into her sandy bed, and the fire-eyed box turtle glares from his perch with macho menace.

Ogust says he will continue rehabilitating turtles that come in from the airport until they are ready for life on the farm. But he has no intention of maintaining a residential collection on the same scale—he plans to turn the 3,500 square-foot space into a studio and resume his writing.

“We’re over capacity,” he says with characteristic understatement. “They’re going to have such a better life. It’d be incredibly selfish of me to do otherwise.”

Ogust was later reportedly forced out of his apartment, which in 2005 was sold to comedian Jon Stewart and wife Tracey. A 2007 PBS film on Ogust, “The Chance of the World Changing,” traces Ogusts vain struggle to realize his dream of an institute for turtle conservation. (He is forced to find fellow preservations around the country to care for the turtles in his collection.) Ogust still lives in New York City. Attempts by the Trib to reach him were unsuccessful.