The Exotic World of ‘El Gringo’

Many people will recall the terrifying ‘snake pit’ scene from Spielberg’s first Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, with its thousands of live, writhing reptiles creating a scene from their worst nightmares.

Graham Ruthven remembers it too – but for him it was a dream of a job, since he supplied many of the snakes that were used on the set at Elstree Studios.  After a lifetime of breeding and working with exotic creatures – most recently a 22-year spell living in the jungles of Peru – Graham is now back on the Island and running a specialist pet store in Ryde.

Jackie McCarrick has been finding out what led him into such an offbeat career.

Ask Graham about his first job and you’ll be met with a snort of wry laughter.

“Jobs? There haven’t been any jobs” he says, “unless you want to count the one I had as a Saturday boy at Woolworths while I was still at school!”

The fact is that Graham managed to turn a childhood fascination with reptiles into a somewhat offbeat but lucrative way of earning his living – and the seeds were sown right here on the Island when he was just seven years old.

The only child of Londoner parents, he was regularly brought to Warners holiday camps over here in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.

“When I was seven we were at the Puckpool camp and I found a slow worm” he recalls.  “I was so fascinated by it that I kept it in an Oxo tin for the whole of our two week holiday, and only released it when we went home”.

Once back home in London’s inner city area of Elephant and Castle, the young Graham continued to keep small reptiles and amphibians as pets, until when he was 13, his ever-supportive parents gave in to his pleas and bought him a Boa Constrictor.

What he didn’t know at that stage was that the shop in Tooting where he bought the giant snake would, before long, become one of his customers.

In fact Graham was aged just 15, and still at school, when he did his first trade in live animals.

He had been given a price list for Kenyan reptile exporter Jonathan Leakey and resolved to save up £60 so he could buy a small shipment of creatures.

The shipment of two boxes of snakes and lizards duly arrived, and within two days, the enterprising schoolboy had sold the lot.

“I doubled my money at a stroke” says Graham, “and, as they say, the rest is history!”

Dangerman

It almost wasn’t history though – because at the age of 16 he was bitten so severely by a venomous Long-Nosed Viper from Europe that a priest had to be called in to deliver the Last Rites.

“I nearly died, my grandmother had an asthma attack with the shock – but no, it didn’t put me off” he says.

Having pulled through that near-miss, he was bitten again three years later at the age of 19, this time by a Hump Nosed Viper from Ceylon, which resulted in him losing part of a finger to gangrene, and certainly ended his guitar-playing days.

Whilst he carried on and did A-levels at school, he’d already decided that University was not going to be for him.  He simply finished school and went full-time, straight into his own, already-successful business.

Graham steadily built up a bank of contacts around the world, bringing in shipments from Europe,  Africa, Asia and South America, in the days when there were very few restrictions on animal imports.

He was also building contacts with the businesses he supplied, and ended up going into partnership with one pet shop in Lewisham.

This gave his reptile business a more visible profile, and led to him attracting some celebrity pet-buyers during the 1970s, when rock stars would often enhance their stage image by owning exotic animals.

For Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band it was turtles, while The Who’s bass guitarist John Entwistle went for tarantula spiders.

By that time, Graham was also importing birds, and supplied celebrity photographer David Bailey with Pionus parrots.  Another customer was controversial London politician Ken Livingstone, whose chosen pets were newts!

In the later 1970s, he went into another partnership, this time called the London Herpetological Agency, which supplied reptiles and other creatures to the booming media, advertising and movie industries.

It was this agency that supplied thousands of snakes for the first Indiana Jones movie – as well as a King Cobra for Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov and Bette Davis, and iconic creatures such as the Toucan used in ad campaigns for Guinness, and python used by Smirnoff vodka.

There was also plenty of magazine and newspaper photography work, such as supplying another python for a Page-3 nude model shoot for one of the red-top papers.

Island retreat

During those crazy days, Graham found the Island a peaceful holiday retreat, and in 1978 bought an idyllic thatched cottage at St Lawrence, where he began spending weekends and commuting to a flat in London for work.

“I loved the Island but business-wise it was a bad move and was a silly thing to do” he reflects.  “It meant I wasn’t quite so readily available for the film people in London, and so gradually, that work began to dry up”.

In the end – discouraged and fed up of all the commuting – Graham made his choice, closed the London business and moved full-time to the Island in the early 80s, going into another shop in Ryde.

It was from here that he supplied exotic birds to famous Island attractions including Robin Hill, the Flamingo Park and St Lawrence Bird Garden, all still in their heyday.

He also began importing tropical fish and when the business partnership broke up, he went back to what he knew best – reptile supply.

He operated from a smallholding, where he had space to breed from some of the animals he imported.

However, the 90s weren’t a particulary happy time for Graham, with a relationship breakdown, increasing red tape and paperwork – and finally a raid by Customs and Excise.  Ultimately the case went to court and Graham won – but it all left him feeling disillusioned and ready for a big change.

El Gringo

This presented itself in 1995 when he was visiting an animal dealer in Miami, Florida, who had just come from Peru with a shipment.

“He said ‘why not come back to Peru with me?’ “ recalls Graham, “and as it was only a 68 dollar flight, I thought I had nothing to lose by having a look”.

Once there he quickly grasped the down-side – it was hardly a safe place for a foreigner to take up residence, what with revolutionaries openly killing people, quite apart from the wild animals that inhabited the jungles of the Amazon Basin.

But as he says, he was ‘seduced’ by the idea of being in a country that was warm, and that wouldn’t impose many restrictions on him setting up a business.

Ready for the big leap of faith, he returned to the UK, tied up a few loose ends, and effectively ‘burned his bridges’ here for what turned out to be 22 years.

Back in Peru, he bought five acres of land in Pucallpa, about 1,000 miles away from the Capital city of Lima, and built a large English-style house complete with lake.

The whole deal set him back the equivalent of about £60,000 at the time – which might not sound a lot by UK standards, but in that Third-World country it meant Graham was perceived very much as a millionaire foreigner, and thus fair game for robbers.

Over the years, he also became surrounded by shacks, as squatters moved gradually onto his land.

“My comparitive wealth attracted all these people.” he says.

“As the squatters took over more and more of the land, I was forced to buy a 2.2 rifle and Glock pistol, which I had to use a couple of times – although not to kill people”.

Ultimately Graham developed the exaggerated persona of an English eccentric to keep raiders at bay.

He explains:  “One day we saw official-looking people mapping out the bottom of the garden and at that point I shot the rifle into the air to scare them.

“From that point I think I became the crazy, long-haired Gringo with a gun, and after that I got no problems.

“It also helped that I kept four-metre long Caymans in the lake, and the story went round that I’d kill people, chop them up and feed them to the Caymans.  It’s a story I encouraged – and every now and then I’d go outside and shoot into the air a bit just to reinforce the old crazy image!”

Meanwhile, Graham’s assumption that it would be easy to set up an animal export business in Peru proved wrong, as he spent years trying to secure the required permits.

In the meantime, he continued breeding animals to supply other registered dealers, and also found work teaching English.

“The authorities kept changing the goalposts and it was impossible to earn a living” he says.

One of the reasons he settled in Peru, though, was that he had married a local girl, Enith, in 2006, and gradually became part of her family and the wider community.

Homing instinct

While Graham was living in Peru, his parents had moved into his home at St Lawrence.  His mother died in 2010 and his father in 2015 – at which point he had to return to the UK to sort out practical matters.

He found that the old pull to the Island was still there – and after his wife came and visited on a tourist visa, they decided to move back to his old home.

“Enith was pretty shocked at how cold it is in the UK compared to Peru, but she liked the Island and the cottage and we decided we’d like to come back here to live” he says.

However, his seeming life-long battle with red tape seems to have kicked in again, because more than a year on, Enith still hasn’t been granted her visa, effectively keeping the married couple apart.

While he waits, Graham is keeping himself busy at the “mark 2” pet shop he has opened in Ryde.  He’s installed around 100 vivariums and the same number of fish tanks, created an amphibian room and has dedicated sections for birds and small mammals.

Naturally, he is the go-to man for advice on keeping all kinds of pets, and regular customers love hearing colourful anecdotes from the person who in his day was the UK’s most prolific animal importer.

These days he admits he doesn’t have a single pet of his own at home – although he has plenty at his place in Peru.

Since being back on the Island, he’s found other things to spend his money on – including a striking, banana yellow 1993 Lotus Esprit Turbo.

A self-confessed sports car lover who has owned Ferraris and E-Type Jags in his time, he had an almost new Lotus Esprit in 1980, and says he’d always hankered after another one.

However, day-to-day, as he ferries animals and pet supplies around the place, he keeps the Lotus in cotton wool and takes to the wheel of a much more practical and “Gringo”-like Jeep Cherokee as his chosen runabout.

It seems that Fate has yet to decree whether this adventure-loving Animal Whisperer will stay on the Island or return to tropical Peru – but while he’s here, he’s certainly bringing a dash of the exotic to old Vectis.