Jungle Mike wrestled snakes, built a hospital in Colombia — and served 20 years for a record St. Pete cocaine seizure

Michael Tsalickis of Tarpon Springs had such an extraordinary life that National Geographic once filmed him wrestling an anaconda and actor Robert Duvall starred in a movie based on his adventures.
Published December 26 2018
Updated December 26 2018

TARPON SPRINGS — 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 wearing 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, 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.

"His story shows vividly how a courageous individual with faith in himself and in the challenge of free enterprise can lift the standard of living in an entire region,'' wrote the authors of "One-Man Revolution on the Amazon,'' a magazine article reprinted in Reader's Digest in 1966.

As the ’60s gave way to the '70s, visitors to Leticia noticed speedboats racing up and down the river from the coca fields of Peru. People who used to live in shacks were now walking down the street with fistfuls of money. About the same time, Tsalickis began losing his most valuable river guides to jobs that paid 10 times what he could.

"I knew what was going on,'' he said for a 1993 story in the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). "I was not dumb.''

There was talk about Tsalickis himself, including that he had been approached about smuggling cocaine on one of his planes. Friends didn't believe it.

"He refused. He was disgusted,'' Bob Bailey, an anthropologist who often visited Tsalickis, said in the story. "Mike is essentially a Florida redneck. He hated hippies. He hated drugs. He was disgusted by people who smoked cigarettes.'' Tsalickis wouldn't even take a drink, saying it required total concentration to hold a snake.

In the mid ’70s, Colombia banned wild animal exports, killing Tsalickis' primary livelihood. Tourism sagged. His lawyers advised filing for bankruptcy, but he worked off his debts until 1979 when he moved his Latin American second wife and his six kids back to Tarpon Springs.

Tsalickis went into what he later claimed was a legitimate business, filling ships with beer and motorbikes, champagne and perfume. But the rumors persisted.

"Drugs were so overrunning Colombia that it might have been impossible for the Pope himself to remain above suspicion, never mind a gringo operating an import-export business between coastal Florida and a region of Colombia reporters were now being warned to visit at their peril,'' the Times said.

It didn't help when Tsalickis' name turned up in the address book of the reputed head of the notorious Cali Cartel. "Tsalickis replied, with some logic, that given his prominence it would have been news only if his name was not in an address book,'' the story said.

In 1988, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Bogota received an unsigned letter postmarked "Cali.'' It detailed what agents recognized as a classic Cali smuggling operation.

The ship Amazon Sky had docked in St. Petersburg. In the hold, a customs agent drilled into one of the thousands of boards and found cocaine. For two weeks, agents and local police watched from hiding as some of the boards were hauled to a warehouse in St. Petersburg, others to a warehouse Tsalickis owned on the site of the old Tarpon Zoo.

Most incriminating, authorities said, they saw Tsalickis direct forklifts to position the lumber. When agents finally executed a search warrant, all 701 boards that contained cocaine were in the same place — an expert on statistics testified that there was a better chance of hitting the Lotto jackpot than of boards ending up that way by chance.

• • •

At trial, Tsalickis was found guilty of several felony charges. Sentenced in 1989 to 27 years in prison, he continued to profess his innocence as a parade of federal agents came to see him. "He told me they were offering him the world and even to be released if he would give them information and the problem is he had no information,'' said Theophilopoulos, the attorney and friend. "He wasn't going to make up lies in order to obtain a benefit that really wasn't a benefit.''

Tsalickis was released to a Goodwill halfway house in 2009 and then, under supervision, to a tiny house near the Shrine of St. Michael Taxiarchis in Tarpon Springs. His mother erected it around 1939 after her son Steve recovered from a brain tumor by praying to the saint. He died in 2007, but Tsalickis' surviving sibling, Goldie, still maintains the shrine.

Even in his final years, Tsalickis was "sharp as whip,'' Theophilopoulos said. As soon as he was freed from supervision six years ago at age 85, he said he wanted to go back to Colombia to see his many relatives on his late wife's side. Judge Steven Merryday approved several visits, some for as long as two months.

Tsalickis is survived by six children, 21 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Many were at the funeral, alongside old friends and new acquaintances.

"If you lived in Tarpon Springs,'' Theophilopoulos said, "You knew Mike Tsalickis.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.