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In Memoriam – Captain Bob Cowlishaw (12/12/41-5/5/21)

My friend, former boss and owner of Everglades Day Safari, Captain Bob Cowlishaw passed away unexpectedly yesterday. It would be an understatement to say he had a huge impact on my life. He not only changed the direction of my life but he had a huge influence on so many of the staff, colleagues and guests of Everglades Day Safari over the 23 years I knew him.

Captain Bob with a gator

Captain Bob explains the natural history of alligators

In 1998 I answered a classified ad in the Fort Myers News-Press for a guide – driving guests from Fort Myers to the Everglades. I was four years out of college and still terrified of public speaking but I made a good enough impression in my interview that Bob had faith in me and offered me the job. Bob had the voice and demeanor of the Bull Mastiffs he owned, imposing but gentle on the inside. For whatever reason, I was hesitant to accept the position and when he called my dad’s house where I was temporarily staying he asked “What’s wrong with your son? Why hasn’t he accepted my offer?” Probably because I was terrified of him. But I did and for the next three years I would spend half the year in Florida as a tour guide and half the year in Vermont as a State Park Naturalist. (In 1999, a boy from Florida was visiting Jamaica State Park in Vermont where I was working and recognized me as his Everglades tour guide. “Hey! You’re Jungle Pete”. And the name stuck.)

By 2000 I missed my family up North and was fed up with traffic in Southwest Florida. I decided to stay in Vermont and work as a Park Ranger. In January of 2007, Bob offered me the Director of Operations role. I missed Florida and the tours. I missed my post-tour conversations with Bob about wildlife on tour and Michigan Football & Michigan Basketball. I attended Penn State and graduated from the University of Vermont but I probably know as much about Michigan athletics as my teams. He loved his Wolverines.

It had been a cold, wet, dreary January and I said yes. I packed all of my belongings, my two cats and told MaLe to meet me in Florida. It’s one thing to have faith in me as a tour guide but now Bob had faith that I could do marketing, take reservations. Over the next few years, Bob and his wife Leslie, fellow guide Manfred, MaLe and I would go to the local sports bar and have dinner every Monday night. They were my Everglades family.

a group of people posing for the camera

Manfred, Leslie, Bob and Pete

Bob and I would have casual business meetings. I always thought he was Harrison Ford’s doppelgänger in flip-flops. He certainly had the voice of Harrison. We’d meet in his home office and I’d listen to him field reservation calls from guests. Those “calls” started long before I was fielding them and while he took care of business his Bull Mastiff was drooling and climbing all over me.

Bob was a herpetologist. He had been playing and working with reptiles all of his life. When he purchased the Sanibel-based, 5-year old ecotour company Everglades Day Safari in 1996 it was a natural fit for someone who felt strongly about conservation and the environment. During my interview, I remember sitting in his office that was filled with multiple shelves of natural history books and wildlife identification guides. Most of the information about reptiles was stored in his brain.

When he developed a Half-day tour for kids in 2000, he asked me to come up with a name for it. Bob was a captain in the Air Force in Vietnam and I figured it was important to pay respect to his service and have some fun with the name. I half-jokingly suggested Captain Bob’s Excellent Adventure – a blatant reference to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Whether he knew that or not, he went with it and it remains a popular tour with the kids. Excellent!

I grew up on a sanctuary for primates and while I love most wildlife, snakes were not my forte. For years Bob did most of the Captain Bob tours but when it was time to pass the torch, I stepped up with mild hesitation to take on the role of conducting the reptile shows. He showed me the ropes and I became comfortable in a short time handling the snakes and alligators. Now I do the same for others many times a week and I’d like to think that his appreciation for reptiles has been extended to each person that takes the tour.

Captain Bob feeds a snake

Captain Bob feeds a chicken protein shake to an Indigo Snake.

In 2016 Bob announced he planned to retire. He offered me the opportunity to buy the business. The alternative option of working for anyone else was not appealing so I jumped at the chance and in September of 2016, I bought a company I began working for 18 years earlier. Once again Bob had faith that I could do this, which was a great motivator. He stayed on to care for the reptiles on display at Lake Trafford Marina that are part of the Captain Bob’s Reptile Den.

A few weeks ago he told me he was officially retiring on April 30th, 2021. Last Thursday was his last day and when we spoke he lamented that leaving would mean seeing less of his friends including me. He told me I was one of his best friends and that meant a great deal for someone who has been a father figure and a friend for all of these years. He told me to call if I had any questions and he knew I would because I often did.

I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. That’s life I suppose but I hope he was proud of what he accomplished and his legacy. He built a renowned ecotour company. He staffed educated guides and helped encourage everyone connected to this company to be better. He offered fun and educational tours for thousands of guests every year and I’d love to think that that’s had a positive impact when people get back home.

If you’ve read this far you’ve probably had some association with Captain Bob. Maybe you took his tour, you’re planning on taking a tour, you were a friend, a colleague or you simply know me. That’s all part of his legacy and it’s well worth being proud of. I’m sure he knew that.

The Everglades Day Safari

The Everglades Day Safari staff from years gone by

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