A few days before Christmas, dozens of mourners gathered at St. Nicholas Cathedral for the funeral of a 91-year-old man.
He lay in an open coffin, a huge spray of red and white roses at his feet. Shortly before starting the service, Father Athanasios Haros looked in the coffin, then looked at the front row of family members.
«I like his shirt,» Haros said.
Amid a sea of dark suits and black dresses, the deceased was dressed in an old tan T-shirt. On it were the words «Tarpon Zoo» and a cartoon of a monkey on an alligator’s back.
Jungle Mike, his hands clasped for eternity, almost looked like he was smiling.
His real name was Michael James Tsalickis, and his life was so extraordinary that National Geographic once filmed him wrestling an anaconda and actor Robert Duvall starred in a movie based on his adventures. As he built a business selling exotic animals to zoos and monkeys to researchers, he transformed a muddy outpost in the South American jungle into a thriving town with a hospital, hotel and bona fide airport. It was no exaggeration to say Jungle Mike put the Amazon on the map for tourism.
Bringing it all to an infamous end in 1988, Tsalickis was charged in connection with what was then the largest cocaine seizure resulting in an arrest in U.S. history — 7,300 pounds of cocaine hidden in 701 cedar boards unloaded at St. Petersburg’s Bayboro Harbor. Although he denied any involvement, Jungle Mike would spend two decades in federal prison before being released and continuing to awe others.
«I sat with him for hour on hour listening to his stories, and they were so captivating that if you didn’t know Mike, you would not have believed them,» said attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos, a longtime family friend. «He lived the life that people can only dream of, and he lived each day like it was his last.»
The small, wiry son of an immigrant sponge driver, Tsalickis grew up in Tarpon Springs where he earned 102 merit badges as an Eagle Scout and developed an affinity for snakes. (He once claimed to have bagged 2,000 in two nights in the Everglades.) After a stint in the Army, he started the Tarpon Zoo with a friend before heading to South America to become an animal trader.
In the early 1950s, Tsalickis traveled 1,800 miles up the Amazon from Brazil to the tiny village of Leticia, Colombia. He settled there, teaching natives along the river to trap and sell him the ocelots, monkeys and other animals they had been killing for food. They went to Leticia to spend the pesos he paid them.
«It takes a monkey to buy pants in Leticia,» Tsalickis would say. «It takes a monkey to buy a shirt in Leticia.»
He extended a barely used runway, lured Brazilian and Colombian airlines and bought his own plane, once overloading it so much with medical supplies from the states that the crew thought it might crash. Over the next 20 years, the town grew so much that the U.S. ambassador to Colombia came down from Bogota, the capital, to make Tsalickis diplomatic counsel.