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If you build it: Peter Ott created a Canyon Acres sanctuary, and everything came


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Peter Ott’s reputation precedes him. He’s been called Laguna’s Tarzan, Crocodile Dundee, Davey Crockett, Pan of Canyonland, and – for those old enough to remember the reference – our town’s young Frank Buck. You get the picture. 

Peter himself settles on titles like naturalist and biologist. When pressed, he admits to artist and occasionally writer. He was also a remarkable athlete in his day, playing pro circuit volleyball and once holding records in discus and javelin without much training. He even turned down several full-ride college basketball scholarships. Peter’s never been one for structure.

If you hand

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Peter Ott gives informal lectures and showcases rare animals at his Canyon Acres home

Some stories are so larger than life that, to wrangle them down to something manageable, it’s best to begin with the smaller bits that are suggestive of the whole. Like the fact that Peter has two weasels in his freezer. 

Once you hear that, it’s hardly surprising to learn there’s a tortoise hibernating under his bed. Or a blind python showcased in his living room, alongside a boa. The 55-year-old Amazon parrot that sits behind Peter’s chair is a hand-me-down he inherited after the death of a friend. 

Now you can almost intuit the two blind parrots in the backyard. The endangered iguanas. The yellow lizard without eyelids that must be protected from the sun. The demanding cockatoos that can’t find homes. Maybe it doesn’t surprise you that – despite the dozens of lizards, birds, and snakes roaming the property – this menagerie is only a small fraction of his former collection. Peter gave most animals away, or outsourced their winter care, because space inside the house is limited. Plus, running a wildlife sanctuary takes energy, and Peter turned 80 last week. 

Still, there’s room for dozens of whitewashed skulls preserved in glass cases, tiny teeth intact. The skins and bones of countless creatures. The illustrated cover of a Scientific American Magazine that Peter painted in 1985. The bronze whale replica he cast to scale that hangs above his couch. 

If you whale

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Bronze sculpture of a grey whale perfectly scaled (1 inch to 1 foot) prepared after multiple measurements taken from beached whales. The barnacle casts are also authentic and cast to scale.

But this part of Peter’s life is largely known. That’s how it is with Laguna’s legends. Their larger-than-life stories are passed around town like cold bottles of beer.

Articles chronicling Peter’s talents and documenting his adventures began appearing in 1947, when Peter was only in first grade. There’s been a steady stream of them since.

To me, though, the more interesting story lies in the details. Those memories, tossed in the corner like crumbs, illuminate the whole man. 

Growing up Laguna: our land before time

The Ott family settled in Laguna in 1940, when Peter was less than a year old. His father, Peterpaul Ott, was a famed Czechoslovakian sculptor. He trained with the most prestigious European artists, graduated from Northwestern, and garnered countless awards. He taught Peter his trade. 

But the art business was bleak, and the Otts had five children to feed. Peter’s parents spent summers running a hamburger stand on the boardwalk. Those days, hotdogs sold for 15 cents, root beer floats for ten.

By the time Peter turned five, the family had moved into the Canyon Acres compound where Peter still resides. Theirs was the newest house on the street, acquired for a steep $7,000. Back then Canyon Acres was county land, still outside Laguna’s city limits. The hillsides were pristine, the canyons untouched. This was 20 years before Timothy Leary moved in next door. Fifty years before the devastating fire. Laguna’s population hovered around 4,000.

If you bones

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Peter’s Canyon Acres property functions as home, wildlife sanctuary, workshop, artist studio, and educational center

Peter spent his boyhood hunting the hills for food – bullfrogs, crayfish, rabbits, and quail. He shot one deer each year, which fed his family through the winter months. His mother cooked everything he brought home. Peter never had a hunting or fishing license, so it helped to be friends with the landowners whenever they caught him trespassing. Mrs. Moulton, owner of Moulton Ranch (a cattle farm back then), was his father’s student. Joan Irvine once rented a room in their home (Peter points to the bedroom where the tortoise now hibernates). The locals let Peter roam and the authorities cut him loose. “It was all wide-open spaces,” Peter says. “There was nothing out here. I’d walk to Saddleback Mountain. It was just a phenomenal place to grow up. I didn’t appreciate it enough.”

By age 17, Peter had nine rattlesnake skins in his collection, some over six-feet long. He designed his own sophisticated slingshots and manufactured metal ammunition on his mother’s stove. He lassoed boas and iguanas and brought them back up from Mexico. His name started popping up in the papers, remarking on his hunting prowess and his extensive knowledge of local wildlife, flora, and fauna.

Then, in his senior year at Laguna Beach High, Peter met biology teacher Dorothy White and everything clicked into place. 

Biology 101

Peter remembers Mrs. White as the woman who further ignited his passion for science. “She was a big influence on me,” he says. “She was an old schoolmarm. You didn’t fool around or she’d kick you out.” 

Mrs. White tasked the class with creating an insect collection – something that should have been up Peter’s alley. But as the deadline drew near, Peter recognized his efforts were subpar. His beetles were broken and his ants uninspired. 

As he glanced down, he saw a watermelon seed lodged in the crack of his desk. It triggered his imagination and Peter set to work. “I glued a bee’s thorax onto the seed. I stuck on a beetle’s head. I attached some antennae. I got legs going and some wings. I laid down glue and sprinkled the whole thing with dust to make it look furry.” 

Peter pinned his Frankenstein creation to the corkboard and approached Mrs. White’s desk. “‘That’s interesting,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t look like a fly. Doesn’t look coleopteran or hymenoptera. Huh.’” She seemed stumped. “‘Look at those antennae.’ 

“She starts going through her books. She said, ‘We’ll at least find the order.’ I told her, ‘You won’t find it.’ She said, ‘Let me try.’ Now I was sure I was going to get kicked out. I’m nervous but I finally said, ‘Mrs. White, I made that insect.’ She stared at me and said, ‘Well, then that’s a humbug!’” 

Despite the prank, Peter developed a deep respect for Mrs. White. Her passion for science and obsession with classification systems made its mark.

While recounting the story, Peter lapses into several mini-lectures on insects, getting caught up in facts and statistics about how they’re identified. Almost every anecdote Peter tells is accompanied by a sidebar of scientific information. This is a biologist’s brain at work.

If you skins

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Peter’s workshop showcases perfectly preserved remains from a wide variety of birds, reptiles, mammals, and marine life. Shown above: a bobcat pelt and a barn owl.

“I’m a naturalist by trade, not by education,” he says. “Life was my education. I was just living it.” Of course Peter pored over books and lectures, facts and stats soaking into his neurons. He studied the experts every chance he got. 

The same could be said of his art, another endeavor that’s brought Peter great success. 

Rendering nature to canvas

If Peter has the mind of a scientist, he has the hands of an artist. That watermelon seed foreshadowed how he came to unite the two. 

Peter won his first art contest at age seven. His painting – of a four-man horserace – even appeared in the paper. His father’s guidance didn’t hurt. “He was an art teacher by osmosis,” Peter says. “If I wanted to learn something, I’d follow him.”

When Peter and his wife Holly (who died in 1979) got their first apartment in the 1960s, they needed some art on the walls. “When I started painting, it was a total struggle,” he says. “I had no idea what I was doing.” Peter called his pal Mogens Abel. Mogens – from Laguna’s renowned architectural and artistic Abel tribe – was doing some interesting work at the intersection of sculpting and painting. He taught Peter what he knew. Peter’s pieces caught his own father’s attention and he began showing in a gallery. “I’d sell work to my friends when rent was due,” Peter says. 

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A few of Peter’s whale pieces shown in his office

His subject matter reflected his passion, primarily whales and other wildlife. A friend and professor at Long Beach State took notice and encouraged Peter to submit it to magazines and other mainstream publications. One day, months later, Scientific American called. His whale illustration showcased on their cover in 1985. His writings, photography, and other artwork have since appeared in numerous wildlife and scientific publications.

The running of the whales

For much of his midlife, the Baja Peninsula became Peter’s second home. He lived on the beach, feasting on free lobster and abalone. The closest he came to having a steady day job was serving as a naturalist on whale watching junkets. 

“I was the leading whale expert in town,” says Peter. One lucky break led to the next and Peter found himself living on a trawler in Scammon’s Lagoon, a birthing ground for grey whales. He gave tours and lectures through some of his favorite stretches of sea. His deep knowledge and charismatic sense of humor made him a favored guide. “Most trips I’d pretend it was my birthday,” Peter says. “If the energy on the boat waned, the crew decided it was party time.” 

The creative problem-solver

The unpredictability of the natural world requires adaptability and practicality. Peter possesses both. He might be the first man in town to navigate an open canoe down 200 miles of Mexican terrain. Surviving on less than a few hundred dollars over the course of six weeks, he took nothing more than a super slingshot of his own design, some freeze-dried food, fresh water, and a cute – and very amenable – girlfriend. 

They floated, camped, and hunted their way down the Peninsula. His companion narrowly escaped a near-fatal encounter with a rattlesnake. She unwittingly exhausted their emergency food supply. But she didn’t complain as a two-week trip stretched into six.

Then there was the time, coming home from the tropics, Peter smuggled a pygmy anteater across the border. “I hid it under a newspaper in the center console of my truck,” Peter says. “As we’re crossing the border, I look down and she’s giving birth under the paper.” 

With every outlandish story – always accompanied by vast amounts of ecological information – Peter claims he doesn’t know how these crazy things happen to him. They just do.

Former neighbor and friend Don Bonsey shares another one.

“I walked out my front door one day and noticed a huge lizard peeking out from under my porch,” says Don. “I realized it could only belong to one man, so I carried the five-foot iguana down to Peter’s. Apparently, she was looking for a place to nest because she was pregnant. 

“A few days later, the same lizard was walking up the street with Peter’s phone number written on her back. Since no other neighbor would go near her, it was up to me to return her home. 

“Days pass and now Peter’s walking around with some kind of antenna looking thing, moving it left and right. The iguana had escaped again, but this time Peter had attached a radio transmitter to her.

“He made sure the street was never dull,” Don says.

If you iguana

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One of many bearded dragons in Peter’s collection

Playing by his own rules 

Peter might be the most honest man never to make an honest living. Money made no difference. Consumerism was an encumbrance. For a time, Peter owned only one pair of closed-toed shoes, and they remained in their box – tags attached – for two years. Food came either from land or sea and is now delivered semi-weekly from stores set on throwing it away. Education came from simply living life. Happiness, however, was always abundant and those dividends keep paying.

These days, you can spot Peter most any morning down at Heisler Park. He walks the shore while his longtime partner, Libby Shackford, makes her daily constitutional swim far out into the Pacific. Peter favors catching the eyes of strangers and taking the time to say hello. “Something as simple as making people feel seen,” Peter says. “You can tell it turns their day around.” 

If you beach

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Peter with his longtime partner, Libby Shackford, after her daily swim in the Pacific

The steady stream of visitors to his Canyon Acres home, sometimes a dozen a day, suggests Peter may also have inherited the title of unintentional therapist.

One of Peter’s favorite quotes comes, unsurprisingly, from naturalist John Muir. “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” 

And so it is with Peter’s remarkable life. One invisible cord leads to the next until those thousands of strands weave the whole – the naturalist, the artist, the athlete, the healer. But mostly the man who welcomes you to stop by, have a beer, and hear just how remarkable our natural world has always been – and the hidden mysteries that make it so special.