A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH CHARLIE MAC GOWAN
I am in Pucallpa, Peru, as a guest of Charlie's so that I can take photos and collect information for his website www.BluePeru.com. This website will cover his new ecotourism business on the Amazon River. Charlie is a living legend in the exotic animal business, with over 40 years of experience collecting live animals in the tropics. There are very few individuals still around in this business with a record like that! And with Charlie's background, sense of humor and personality — anyone that has ever met him would not easily forget him.
Charlie has been coming and going to Peru for the past 9 years. He is now settled down with his native Shipibo wife Adie and their four-month-old daughter. There are 40 indigenous tribes in Peru - but the Shipibos (35,000-40,000 members) dominate the Ucayali River, which is the main tributary of the upper Amazon River. Where the Ucayali and the Maranon rivers converge, several hundred miles north of Pucallpa — that is the river we call the actual 'Amazon'. The area around the Ucayali is still referred to as the Amazon Jungle, but along this stretch of the world's longest and largest river, there are mountainous areas, making it distinct from the flat jungles of the lower Amazon.
The setting for our interview is his large native style home in the little village of San Jose, situated on a large and beautiful lake — Yarinacocha. This is about a half hour from the major jungle city and river port of Pucallpa. To get to Charlie's, you need to take a taxi to the lakeside town of Yarina, and then go by boat (Pecky-Pecky) over the lake to his house. The Pecky-Pecky is a built up dug-out canoe fitted with a small air-cooled motor (mostly Briggs & Stratton motors). The motor is mounted on a gimbaled stand with a long shaft attached to the propeller, enabling the boat driver to lift and lower the propeller to navigate obstacles like sand bars and logs in the waterways.
The temperate in the day can go into the 90s, but it often comes down into the 70s at night — the lush vegetation and the occasional rain shower making the difference. We are outside on the veranda, admiring the starlit sky, and start our conversation — 30 years of friendship creates a special bond.
“Charlie - I have not seen so many stars in the sky since my days of diving in Baja California, Mexico, and Palau, Micronesia. I guess the explanation for the atmospheric clarity here is the absolute lack of air pollution. There really is something to that statement — "the Amazon Jungle is the lungs of the earth". I hope the jungle doesn't get cancer!”
“So why do you want to do an interview with me?”
“Several reasons — I want to use the interview to help promote your website BluePeru.com, maybe get some biographical information for the record. . . . my curiosity has to be satisfied on some things, and this is a chance for you to tell your story to the entire world!”
Charlie gives me a look of skepticism. "Alright - where do you want to start?"
“How about in the beginning — when did you take an interest in exotic animals?”
“In grade school, back in San Francisco, California, I would hang out in pet stores — and I had several aquariums at home. A few friends at school also shared my interests in the exotic fish, and I helped them with their big aquariums. Also, my dad built me an aviary so I could breed and sell Budgies. Later, when I was old enough, I got a job in a pet store and learned a good deal about tropical fish and birds. I would read every book on these subjects that I could get my hands on.”
“I remember you telling me you got your start in exotic animal exports in the Philippines — after your navy discharge in that country.”
“I was advanced a grade in high school, so I graduated at 17. The navy offered a shorter military hitch if you joined before the age of 18, and I figured that was better than waiting for a draft call from the army — so I went into the navy. In 1957, I completed my military hitch and was ready to be discharged. I talked the navy into letting me stay in the Philippines, where I had a job waiting for me with a big time salvage company owned by Chick Parsons. He was scrapping out tons of war machinery left behind by the US military after WWII in the Philippines. In the navy I was a Bosom's Mate operating small boats, so Chick wanted me to run one of his salvage boats. And to make a long story short — I got fired after an unfortunate accident with his salvage boat. Looking around for some other thing to do so I could stay in the islands, I talked with an Aussie who knew about my interest in animals, and he suggested I get into the hot market for the Rhesus monkeys being shipped to California. The people producing the Salk vaccine in L.A. needed thousands of the primates. I must have shipped them 25,000 monkeys.”
“So you had been a big help in saving America from polio!”
“What I did was make a lot of money in a short time. Then I turned around and bought a bar near the navy base. It was an enormous success, and later, I took some profits and bought a second bar. It would take all night to describe the adventures of bar ownership in the Philippines.”
“What was the next step in your exotic animal career?”
“Eventually the bar biz got boring, and I wanted to do stuff with animals again. I needed more outdoor adventure. The serious interest in the reptile pet trade had not really taken off yet, but I could have fun catching King Cobras to sell to the venom center in Manila. Good money and easy to catch — sometimes as many as 10 in a day. I just used a burlap sack to drop over them. Most of the natives were too frightened of snakes to try catching anything, so very little competition. Then I got in touch with Ray Folsom at Hermosa Reptiles in California, and things began to roll. He bought a lot of different exotic birds and animals. I sold cobras and other exotics to several American zoos as well.”
“Blue Nape parrots, Giant Hornbills, pythons — including a 20' Reticulated python to Ray, elephants, cassowaries . . .”
“Wait a minute! You are naming some animals not found in the Philippines.”
“The American zoos and some importers wanted me to get stuff from other Asian countries too — so I went to Thailand for the elephants, and to New Guinea for the cassowaries. On one of those trips returning to the States by steamship I met Orson Welles at the captain's table, and I asked him if he wanted to go into the ship's hold to see the elephants I was bring from Thailand. After admiring the animals, he gave me his card and invited me to visit him in Hollywood. I never got around to looking him up.”
“So you passed up your chance on a Hollywood career. What about the other exotic animals? And when was this all happening?”
“I took my most productive trips to Borneo and New Guinea in 1959. Gene Gobels, in Thousand Oaks, California, was buying most of that stuff. It was fun to take boats from one island to the next, just poking around in Southeast Asia. I can tell you there were no tourists around, no special facilities, not much air transportation or any fancy hotels. You caught a freight boat here, a fishing boat there — adventure at every turn!”
“Something I have been wondering about for a while — in these many decades of handling hot snakes, did you ever get hit?”
“In Asia I had a Wagner's Viper strike from a shrub and one fang passed right through my lip. The venom released on to my chin, so I was alright. I have been lucky with hot stuff. Once, during one of our reptile shows in Central America, we had a cobra get loose and run around in the attending crowd. It was a miracle no one got bit that time. We also had a spitting cobra in that show, and it hit me in the face by squirting the venom through the screened top of the cage. None got in my eyes and I quickly washed up.”
“Remember, I took part in some of those shows with you in Honduras. I have a lot of great personal stories from that period. And that spitting cobra — the first time I saw that snake, it was in an aquarium set on the floor at the Calpules compound, and he shot a venom stream at my face when I approached. I had my eyeglasses on, and that saved my eyes! And have you forgotten the story about the venom lab guy that wanted us to sell him Fer-De-Lance venom?”
“Yeah — remind me — how did that go?”
(For the sake of clarity, I am coming out of the transcript of the interview and just writing the entire story as I remember it.) We had the zoo and exotic animal export compound in Honduras back then, (1975), and this guy arrives in a cab and walks into our office with this fancy small aluminum suitcase. He told us he had a venom lab in California and will pay us $60.00 a gram for Bothrops atrox venom — as much as we can get. We were excited about the prospect of easy money and asked how to extract the venom, so he opened the suitcase and showed us the special venom extraction equipment. I then requested a demonstration and took him and the suitcase into the room with the hot snakes. The big Barba Amarillas (local name) were in a wooden box and I hook out a fat six footer to lie on the cool tile floor, and passed the snake hook to our visitor. He looks at the snake and says he will need help with one this big, so he instructs us to grab the snake as soon as he pins the head with the hook and grabs the snake by the neck. But first he puts the specimen milk bottle with the rubber membrane covering the bottle's top onto the table — that is the extraction bottle we are going to use. So we go into action and swoop-up the snake and head for the table. But the guy stops before we get to the table and I can see the sweat running off his face like a river. Of course, the enormous snake is twisting and squirming the whole time we are gripping her — this species has a nasty reputation, and deserves it. The guy yells, "The snake is tearing away its own skin trying to bite me!" He had a good grip on the neck, but the snake was trying so hard to get a fang into his hand that it was ripping away its own neck skin as it twisted the head back to strike at what was gripping her. "On the count of three, everyone drop the snake!" So we dropped the snake — then he quickly gathered up his equipment and went out the door to catch another cab back to the airport. We gave up on the idea of getting rich with snake venom sales. The following year, I sent hundreds of venomous snakes to the Miami Serpentarium for the same purpose. Let Bill Haast do the milking!
“Alright, to pick up where we left off - when did you return to the States, and why?”
I went back to California in '67 so I could get a college degree. I had some college credit already from the University of the Philippines. I considered enrolling in courses at the University of Berkeley while securing a job related to animals to sustain myself and my family. When I applied at the Oakland Zoo for a job, they were impressed that I had gone to college in Asia, but what cinched the position was the interview. They asked if I would be okay with a Filipino boss, testing my racial tolerance, and I said yes, since my boss at home was Filipino. (Charlie had met his wife Josephine, a native of San Francisco, on one of his return trips to the States by ship. She was returning from an Asian tour with her Filipino parents).
“So what was your position - what were you doing?”
“My studies and primary interest and background were in herpetology - so I became the Curator of Reptiles at the zoo. But I had broader responsibilities and even did a lot of show and tell with various animals on the local TV network — and in some school classrooms. Again, there was so much in the way of interesting events during those years that a book could be written on just that zoo and college experience. But in the long run, I grew impatient with the progress at the university and the politics at the zoo. The pay was low at every job level at the Oakland Zoo, and checking around the country for zoo jobs, I could see it was not much better anywhere else. I came to realize that I could make better money working for myself again, and that became a priority after the third kid was born.”
“That is when you got back into exotic animal exports. And what year was that?”
“1969. We spent time in Mexico and Guatemala trying to get some animal exports going, but nothing clicked until we got to Honduras. Most of the money was in parrots in those days. I handled and shipped every kind of exotic of course - birds of all sorts, mammals, reptiles, arachnids. The interest by the pet trade in reptiles was just picking up at that time. I had a friend in the San Francisco Bay Area who started taking good sized reptile shipments from me, and we introduced some new species into the pet trade that way.”
“Who was that?”
“Ron Cauble at East Bay Vivarium — a great guy. I remember having trouble getting sales for the 'Helmeted Iguana', the common name for one of the lizards I was shipping , so I did what most practical sales people do — I changed the name! Calling the lizard a 'Forest Chameleon', it became an instant hit in the pet trade.”
“I know Ron. Like me — he is now out of the live animal business. He sold the Vivarium and opened a store in Berkeley, The Bone Room, a fascinating and unique business. Who else did you do business with?”
“In Miami it was Wild Cargo — that was Ralph Curtis, who now sells books, importer Charlie Chase, the import company Safari, and Doc Levine at the country’s biggest exotic import company — Pet Farm, who now owns Parrot Jungle. In Japan, the major buyer was Sakai Pet Center. There were a couple of buyers in Europe too. Notably — Walter Sensen.”
“I remember meeting some of those people at the wild animal compound in Calpules after I went to work with you in '74. Bern Levine came down to see the operation. He was buying some big loads of parrots and other stuff for his Miami operation. Ray Van Nostrum was in charge of the reptile department at Pet Farm. And I remember Doc sending down Carson Burrows to work with us for a while. I really admired Carson's knowledge of all living things — plants, animals and fish. In that respect, he was a role model for me. Melvin Hooker from Nicaragua was a Central American exporter that frequently came by the compound. Joe Faucci from Tampa told me when he came down there that he collected the first Hog Island boas for the pet trade. Kevin Smith, the 'boy wonder ' in the bird business, came calling. And you had a 17-year-old Belizean working for you by the name of Henry Quin, who later became your greatest competitor! And let us not forget JR McDonald, an old friend of mine from Texas who got involved in all this. After your departure to Europe in '76, several reptile enthusiasts showed up at the animal compound, including Louie Porras, Doc Wilson, and Bruce Kruase.”
“When I got back from Europe, the international trade in exotic reptiles took off big time. But the real money was still parrots. For several years I made money in Texas and Florida selling parrots until my Honduran wife deprived me of everything and threw me out!”
“When did this take place, and what did you do then?”
“1987. I started traveling around Latin America, getting exports out of Nicaragua, Suriname, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Financially, it was a roller- coaster ride. I could see the future in this business and I decided the way to go in Peru was 'captive breeding'. It was the right idea, but unfortunately the wrong country. After years of effort here, and lots of money invested — nada. That ‘captive breeding’ project turned out to be the biggest waste of time and money in my life.”
“Well - that brings us up to the present, but before I ask about the ecotourism projects, let me hit you with a couple more questions about the 'old days’.
“Like who do you see as the 'good guys', and who do you see as the 'bad guys' in the exotic animal business?”
“Do we have enough time for this too?”
“Our readers will love it!”
“The best guy ever was John Shanahan at Emerald Coral & Reptile. John always paid his bills and was easy to work with. Of course, you had to know when to do business with him — when he was not too strung out on drugs. Don Kaiser from Texas was a successful partner to work with too. He died of 'Pigeon Fancier's Disease' (cryptococcosis). And I never had a problem with Ray Van Nostrum. He was a pretty good guy to do business with. But his son Michael . . .”
“I know, some call Michael a big loudmouth born with a silver lizard in his mouth, but I consider him an alright guy to deal with — very focused on making money.”
“I guess I should put L.A. Reptile at the top of the list. Those people treated me very well. I thought for a long time that Mario Tabraue at Zoological Imports had stiffed me badly on some parrots — but now I am fairly certain that my wife got the money and then lied to me about not getting it. This was around the time of my divorce from her.”
“Now the bad guys?”
“The worst? That is easy — Robert Sands. He got to me before he established his reputation in the reptile business as Mr. Rip-off. And his dad was an authentic piece of work too.”
“Charlie - let us keep to the dealers.”
“Well, Sands Sr. was involved in the animal biz too. Anyway, there have always been problems with a few flaky European dealers, like the Dutchman Van Dyke. The Belgium Frank Vercoman was good. The Japanese were always good with their payments. The worst animal dealers always drop out of the business — one way or another.”
“I remember the Dutchman Van Dyke. First thing he did when he came to Honduras was make a false report that his camera and other things were stolen so he could collect on his travel insurance. When I was in the tropical foliage business, I got ripped off by a Dutchman in that business! Are business people in Holland natural scammers? Not to say anything bad about the Dutch in general — I have a Dutch son-in- law and a Dutch sister-in-law who might read this. So of all the countries where you lived and worked, what country did you like best and which was the worst?”
“Honduras was definitely the best. Nicaragua, after the fall of Somoza, was the worst.”
“I remember the Somoza days when it was really nice in Nicaragua. In fact, I was in the Corn Islands when the Sandinistas started up in '79. I spent several days walking through the bush from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, to Puerto Limpera, Honduras, with my suitcase on my head to get out of there! What about Africa?”
“I have been to Africa, but just as a visitor. I went to Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon with the big time German animal dealer Walter Sensen. He was shipping out pigmy elephants, goliath frogs, mandrills, and gorillas. Of course, with the things he was doing, he suffered the same fate as the guy we tried to buy the baby Burmese pythons from several years ago — Anson Wong.”
“You mean they are both in jail? During my time in Vietnam in '95, I discovered Anson had been bypassing the twenty year US embargo by buying reptiles from Vietnam and shipping them to the US from Malaysia. I was concerned about cutting into his business by setting up a direct export operation with our company in Vietnam, Green Nature. But the Vietnamese are not as ruthless as the dealers in Paraguay, where they chased out JR McDonald with their death threats. Who was the strangest person you ever dealt with?”
“Well, you remember Judd Biggs, the burned-out Canadian, and Donald Moffett, the crook of all trades. Moffett was the most dangerous American I have ever met in Latin America. Some say JR MacDonald murdered him, but you are probably right about him getting killed running guns during the Contra War in Nicaragua. That was how he made money in McAllen, Texas — running guns, drugs, and whatever between Mexico and Texas. But the strangest? That would have to be Billy Dew, the bird dealer from Florida. On his first trip to Honduras, I asked on the phone how I would recognize him when he arrived at the La Mesa airport. He said he would be the one getting off the plane in the red dress.”
“Is it with some affection you remember him?”
(ignoring my question)
“Funny how so many of those bird guys are so . . . 'effeminate'. And so many of the reptile people are druggies, like Sands, Carson, and fat boy Shane — I heard he was dead now too.”
“It must have been an enormous box when they laid him to rest. For sure I had more trouble in the exotics business with reptile customers than with any other type of client for exotic livestock. The marine tropical fish importers were the best people to deal with.”
“But not the fresh-water importers — those guys are the worst! The exporters of aquarium fish in Colombia were taken advantage of by Miami importers, particularly Adolf at International Fisheries. And whatever happened to Brian Blackwood?”
“He disappeared into the woodwork. Probably went looking for a job with a steady paycheck. As you know, people looking for a steady income never stay in the exotic animal business. No health plans or 401K programs — the only benefit to working in this business is the absence of boredom. Of course, the independence and thrills can come at a high price. Any regrets on this strange journey you call your life?”
“I would like to be closer to some of my kids. Hell - I would like to know where all of them are! I have lost touch with some of them and do not know where to look. They have moved on with their mothers --- and the communication stopped. But even the ones that I have communication with, most of them show little interest in what is happening in my life. Also, I deeply regret losing my extensive wildlife library with many first additions and very old books. They were destroyed during Hurricane Mitch in Central America. Like many people, there were times I took bad advice and made bad decisions, and times I ignored good advice and made good decisions, but no — I have few regrets about the life I have lived — it is still an adventure to me, and will be to the end.”
“I always admired that about you — your survival ability. No one or no institution to fall back on if all goes wrong. In the States, almost everyone seems to have some safety net with their family, friends, unemployment, welfare system, etc. Despite that, they still have a hard time deciding to take even the smallest risks! I have seen you take every kind of risk and ride the financial rollercoaster — sometimes coming close to starving, and then you always come up with a way to pull through without the backing of some support group or government program. You are living proof that a real adventurer is self-reliant and resourceful. I know you have not seen it, but there is a popular TV show called 'Survivor', that is really all about personalities and not survival abilities. Boy, are they sending out the wrong message on what it takes to be a survivor! If they want to portray the real thing about being a survivor, they should make a documentary on your life. Well --- that is Hollywood for you. So are we going to talk about how many wives and kids and in what countries?”
“That can wait for the autobiography. I'm only 65 and the record has not been closed. (We laugh). I intend for this to be my last wife and Peru to be my last home — this is where I want to spend the rest of my life. The animal business is too stressful and iffy to spend any more effort on. And I agree with what you have been saying about bringing tourists to the wilderness as a good career change for a couple of people with our background. Who better to do the ecotourism business than a couple of jungle rats with a lifetime of experience dealing with tropical animals, plants, fish, and all the rest?”
“This is a excellent opportunity for us to continue enjoying trips into the bush. You live in the Amazon jungle now and this means we get to do some deep exploration of the region, and help preserve the environment of the Amazon and the culture of the Shipibo Tribe. Have you got something sketched out yet, or a plan, or something to offer right now?”
“There have been meetings with people around here for a couple of years trying to stir up interest in ecotourism development. And I have seen some nice ecolodges in Ecuador, so I have a lot of ideas on what works. Our problem in the past for this region had been the terrorists, so we have fallen behind in tourism development as compared to what is going on down in Iquitos and up around Cusco. The 'Sendero Luminosa' guerrillas had been put out of action a couple years now, so it should not be so hard to do ecotourism. You go down to Iquitos and the most common animal species around are the tourists! There are boatloads of them everywhere you look. That has to spoil the experience of 'wilderness' for some of them. You have been here on the Ucayali almost three weeks - how many tourists have you seen?”
“None on the Amazon or its tributaries. After a dozen trips into town, I ran into a couple of German tourists in Pucallpa. No Americans. I asked about tourists in a souvenir store there and they said that tourists come during the January through April period --- and that most were European. This area is still unspoiled. So what are your plans?”
“We plan to create a cooperative ecotourism program with my wife's tribe. There are government people that have helped with programs like this in other areas of the country and we will get them to help us with our planning, too. In the meantime, I want to start up with 'Safari Outfitting'— providing the material support and guides for scientific exploration and photography. This would be for people already experts in their field of study, but needing help to go into this area of the Amazon region. I have a couple of cabins built for guests in my compound that would be good to use for student groups. I can build more accommodations to facilitate extension studies for university students. And last but not least, we have excellent sports fishing for Peacock Bass and the Wolf Fish --- payara. I will be ready to handle the sports anglers in June.”
“Charlie, all this sounds exciting, and I am looking forward to being a part of putting this together — as well as participating in some of the adventure. Nothing rejuvenates like commuting with Nature in the most primitive of places. And at our age we can use all the rejuvenating we can get! (We both are laughing again). I think what would be important on some of these 'Safari Outfitters' type operations is the opportunity to return home with some specimens. Can these scientists and hobbyists legally carry back some dried plant leaves or seeds? How about some dead bugs? And then there are the hobbyists into freshwater tropicals that might want to return home with some live fish — and the herpers.”
“We are finding out how this can be done. If we can show that our collections don't harm the environment, we can get the permits for export to the client. There is a sustainable level for most species. We are not talking about the collection of threatened or endangered stuff. And there is a need for exploration for new species that we know exist here, as well as our need for more knowledge of known species. If all of this is done in the context of what we are trying to accomplish with the conservation of the Amazon and its indigenous people, we should be able to get the government's cooperation.”
“Ah --- let us not forget about one other type of adventure up the Calleria — the search for gold. Are you going to make it one of the 'safari' offers?”
“It is a possibility — if we are talking about something environmentally low-impact, like panning in the river. There are several legal questions that need answers before we can go forward on that one.”
“The readers of this interview can go to the website 'wwwBluePeru.com' to keep tabs on the progress of your ecotourism business in Peru. So let us wrap up this interview with the promise that if you write any books about all those past, or present adventures, I will post notices on my websites. Any last words?”
“Watch out for those tiny blue ants when you use the outhouse by your cabin — if you sit on one in the dark, it will feel like you got shot in the ass!”
A couple days after we taped this interview, Charlie came to me with another tour concept that seemed rather novel --- but a bit dicy. He wanted to call this one 'The Jolly Roger Tour'.
Some of the wilderness areas of Peru and the upper Amazon river periodically experience waves of lawlessness, with bands of robbers attacking buses and the passenger boats. The Jolly Roger Tour would offer the more adventuresome tourists a chance to turn the tables on these banditos. Charlie said we could buy a normal looking river transport boat and outfit it with guns for the tourists to use for repelling the hijackers, and modify the inside of the boat with internal steel plates for their protection if fired upon by the bandits. Of course there would be a tall mast displaying the Peruvian flag high above the boat — and when the attack started, we could lower the national flag and host the Jolly Roger pirate flag! The tourists would get an experience of a lifetime --- however long that might be.
What could go wrong?