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Get To Know BodyBusiness Member Peter English

The Forest Is Their Home

“In some ways it’s like putting a watch together… Thousands and thousands of little pieces that fit together.” – Peter English

In the 1993 blockbuster film Jurassic Park, the character Dr. Alan Grant, based on real life paleontologist Jack Horner, posits a theory about the connection between dinosaurs and birds: “Well, maybe dinosaurs have more in common with present-day birds than they do with reptiles,” says Dr. Grant. “Look at the pubic bone: turned backward, just like a bird. Look at the vertebrae: full of air sacs and hollows, just like a bird. And even the word ‘raptor’ means “bird of prey.” His eyes twinkle as he talks about the evolution of dinosaurs into birds. You can see his passion and respect for the animals oozing through the screen. That same passion comes alive in Peter English’s eyes when this theory comes up. “It’s totally true. That is completely true. The early birds were like lizards. It turns out it doesn’t take much of a genetic chain to change from growing a scale into growing a feather. Once dinosaurs got feathers it was all about losing weight. Birds can grab air with their hands and throw themselves off the ground. It’s like doing a pull up without the bar. To do that you have to lose a lot of weight. They started as lizards. There were two different kids of dinosaurs they most likely evolved from. There were the smaller dinosaurs who would run on their two back legs – that’s the kind of thing they evolved from. They started running up trees, putting their arms out, growing feathers. All that stuff happened by random chance because it’s just mutations are accidents.”

Peter English started coming to BodyBusiness in 2014 and in those years since he has learned quite a bit about pull-ups, losing weight and how a body can change. Only his adaptations are far from accidental. Peter wears a bulky knee brace everywhere he goes. To be clear, he actually wears two. “I’ve got this spot right there,” Peter says pointing to his knee. “It’s close to bone on bone. You can’t really tell but I’m pretty bow legged. The brace just pushes me over to get off that spot. As long as I get off that spot, I don’t have to get a knee replacement. I have a workout brace and a dress up brace. The workout brace is much tighter. That’s how I do workouts here.”

Peter’s casual tone as he says this belies something much more intense inside of him. Rachel Ross, Peter’s trainer for the past 3 years here at BodyBusiness, knows just how inspired he truly is. “I had seen what Peter could do. He has no limitations,” says Rachel. “He appears to have limitations but he has none. He’s one of those guys – get out of his way. It doesn’t matter if it takes him a day, a week, a year. He’s going to accomplish it because he said he would. Which is awesome for a trainer. It’s so much fun. My goal is to just support him and continue to find him things to motivate him.

“You can take any basic workout to him and you wouldn’t know he has an injury. The first time that he tried – he had never tried much single leg work. Which is super important for having an injury, especially with the knee injuries he’s had. The first time we tried to squat and stand up off of a bench with single leg, that was maybe a year ago. He had no idea he couldn’t get off that leg. A few weeks ago, we were down to a one platform height and he could almost complete pistol squat on that leg. That was pretty awesome to see. The only limitation he has is if his brace hits it. I can’t sit down with one leg and jump back up – but he can.”

Peter’s life story takes him across the United States, through the jungles of South America and the Caribbean and back here to Austin, Texas. He’s a UT professor, a master birder, a PhD, a Fulbright scholar, Executive Director of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society and Watson Fellowship recipient. He’s lived or worked in 28 countries. Led birdwatching tours and studied international conservation efforts in South America all before attending UT for grad school. Through it all he has had a torn quad, two torn rotator cuffs, two broken ankles and a knee injury that’s still hounding him. To truly know Peter English, its best to hear the man tell the story himself – in his own words:

When did you join BodyBusiness?

It was the start of 2014 because I had my knee surgery in July or August 2013 (Peter tore his meniscus on a family ski trip). Then I gained 10 pounds a month. I didn’t know you could do that. I had never been overweight before. I couldn’t walk for 6 weeks. Then I was on crutches for another 6 weeks. I had a handicap pass so I was walking about 10 feet a day. Then Christmas came and I put on some pants I hadn’t worn for a while and they didn’t fit. I looked to my wife like, “What is going on here?” and she said, “You gained some weight”. She got me into Personal Training Best Start. Ross was my trainer here for the first couple years. I had my knee, two torn rotator cuffs, so I just got the one leg that works. Tore my quad in my left leg. Ripped through my tricep in college. But it’s not bad.

Workouts Here at BodyBusiness

Sometimes it limits me, but it’s not permanent. Sometimes I will feel a little tweak so I’ll have to stop for that day but I’ll come back to it. I think I can do everything, just not necessarily every day. Yesterday it hurt a lot for mountain climbers. But today it was fine. Yesterday we tried to do one-legged jumps and it hurt but today its fine. With the brace I can do just about everything but without it I can’t. That wasn’t always true. I’ve been getting stronger and stronger. I just can’t have two torn shoulders and a knee replacement. I would be out for like two years. I just figure I’ll get stronger and stronger. I’ve been working out with Rachel for about 3 years. We try to do about once a week. I try to work out every day that’s not a kid day. No weekends. I usually take the kids to school, drop them off then head over here. I work over at Link (in The Village shopping center) so that’s why my wife got me the membership here. She figured it would be easy. And that’s half the battle. I’ve been trying to keep it to an hour a day.

Professor at University of Texas

I teach Intro Biology to freshman and sophomores and I teach this really challenging physiology lab to seniors. I get both ends of the spectrum. I’ve taught a bunch of other courses and I’ve written a lot of curriculum. I’m also Executive Director of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society, which is a group of 1,700 people who teach Anatomy and Physiology at undergrad institutions and graduate and med schools and places like that. We have initiatives that have to do with that — teaching and learning. We have a comprehensive exam that 10-20,000 people will take and you can compare yourself to other universities. We create comparative tools. Today I have to lecture at UT to the big class. One of the bigger halls — 150 people. Yesterday was my lab. That’s 10 seniors who are doing really high-level stuff and at the end of the day, we all have headaches because we have been thinking too much.

Voices of Amazonian Birds Vol 1 – 3

That was a project I did in the 90’s. I’m a bird expert. My actual expertise is in tropical birds. Where I spent the most time was in Ecuador. I was in Ecuador and nobody knew the bird calls. It was a time where everyone was just discovering them. You would see a bird and get your tape recorder and go “I just discovered the call of that species!” It was really kind of this crazy time. I had made a lot of the recordings and this other guy who was super famous had made a lot of recordings. I went to Cornell and put together this tape of the birds you would hear in Ecuador. And we sold it through this nonprofit in Quito that helped conserve the birds. That’s when I was in grad school. Back then you couldn’t get calls. It was cool. It was a neat project.

Napo Wildlife Center

(FYI in 2018 Napo won awards from Conde Nast for 2018’s “Best Green Hotel” and in 2017 was named “The Americas’ Most Sustainable Hotel” by Boutique Hotel Awards. The Eco-Lodge is now run completely by the Kichwa Añangu Community.)
I helped build that. After grad school I worked in DC for a while and we started our own nonprofit that built lodges with indigenous communities. I had been in that area of Ecuador since 1989. I was leading this bird-watching tour for 25 years. I had this long history there. I was at this lodge and some of the indigenous guys who knew me told me they needed help. I went back this year to check it out and it’s just amazing. The whole community was very poor. Now they are netting about half a million dollars a year. They have millions in the bank. They have solar rays – they powered everyone in the community. They have a high school and a medical clinic. When I started there was a house I lived in that had one plate and one fork. You had to eat sequentially. I was the guest so I ate first. It was super awkward. That whole river basin is different because of that project.

Environmentally Safe Eco-Tourism

You are trying to monetize the jungle without disrupting anything, which is very difficult. Our goal was to support the community. You have to have a lot of money. So, you have to have an attraction that you can charge a lot of money for. You have to cite these things in a place where someone in a place like Austin would think that’s cool, not necessarily just the people in Ecuador. You need someone willing to pay $250 bucks a night. Once you are in Quito you’re spending like $30 bucks a night. We built it from the ground up. We had the attractions – the parrots come to you. Giant otters, species of monkeys you only see in this area. We were able to attract those people. Because I was a tour leader, I could tell people this was ecologically special because I had been to all the others. It’s still going to this day – wins awards from the UN, won like every tourism award. The community owns it and runs it. The animals are amazing. They have done everything right. It got very complicated because all the men had to build the lodges. No one was tending the crops. So now I have to pay for the food otherwise when they finish building, we still have to pay for the food because they then have to get the crops back in rotation. It’s complicated getting all the pieces together. The problem they have now is they have sent all their kids to college. So now there’s no 18-20 year olds because they all went to college. It’s a good problem to have, right? They give them scholarships. It’s great.

Future of Eco-Tourism

It’s do-able. Take Napo. We had like 80 square miles. At any given time there are probably 35 tourists. I’ll take that. People do these analyses where they say the trail is eroding by 18 inches. I’ll take 18 inches out of 80 square miles any day. It isn’t impact. You can’t bring a herd of people in to see the animals. A lot of it is people in a canoe. There are more monkeys then there used to be. The Caiman population has grown. Endangered species populations have grown. Now, there is no hunting.

Conservation vs Tourism

I do a lot about birds. So there’s the Master Birder Program I have been developing. I’m the head lecturer for that. That came because I’m the head bird lecturer at UT and the Audubon people knew I was doing that. It’s all about trying to make the point about is there a danger – not if you charge enough. You can pay the people a living wage. Once you have money, you can do stuff. The kind of eco-tourism that is dangerous are the people that don’t know what they are doing. It’s a mom and pop set up where they have a field and they see some birds so they decide it’s an eco-tourism thing. Nobody wants to come look at their scraggly field. You get people who aren’t there for the eco. It just devolves. The community then says eco-tourism is a failure. No… yours was because it should have never started. Doing it well is more intensive than many organizations want to get involved in. You need about $1.5 million to get off the ground for a high-quality operation.

Individual vs Large-Scale Efforts re: Climate Change

It’s all the same thing. Corporations would take active responsibility if everyone got engaged. Then they wouldn’t have a choice. I think the larger issue is… look at India where the air is literally killing people. You know what they are doing to solve it? Nothing. Nobody has potable water. You look at the areas – the underdeveloped areas that really have trouble. It’s actually toxic. Lebanon has tons of rivers. Every river is now toxic. They have spoiled almost every source of fresh water through pollution. Costa Rica is great. They just abolished their military. Put it all into education. They have a lower illiteracy rate than the United State and miraculously… not as many problems. There are all these big packages but it’s all the same thing. If you know what an allele is then you understand evolution so you understand as well why you shouldn’t cut that tree down.

Fulbright Scholarship and Watson Fellowship

My “well-defined project” was to study mixed species flocks in Amazonian Ecuador. Flocks of birds in the jungle are not like flocks of birds here. Flocks of birds here are like pigeons or alternatively you see birds on the poles. The birds in the tropics, in the actual real jungle, you have these flocks that are one pair of each of many species and they go around together and eat insects. One of the species leads the flock and has this really loud call and uses it to lead them. They go around their territories and they have these fights against other flocks where only species A fights against species B and if C is here and C is not in this flock then C stays away and just screams its head off…almost cheering. If you get down the line of fighting you can see this. There’s only like two other people who have studied that system because you have to be able to identify all the other species in the jungle before you can start looking at how they interact and it takes 5-10 years to learn that if you are good at it. It just doesn’t match with the academic cycle because they want people to get their PhD’s in five years. Well you can’t gather that data in five years. Because I was a tour leader and spent so much time in the tropics, I knew the birds already so I was able to study the system. I got a Fulbright to do that and that’s what helped pay for my dissertation. Before that I had a Watson Scholarship which was super cool. Thomas Watson Sr. started IBM and his kids were like playboys and no-goods. Well, Thomas Watson always believed that if you got out of the United States and went to other countries you could be a better person, so he sent his kids off. He said “I’ll give you money but you have to do something and you can’t come back for at least a year.” When he died, his kids started up this thing in his honor where they said we are going to send 75 kids from the United States off internationally. My study was that I wanted to look at conservation internationally in a variety of countries because all the propaganda said the international institutions were following what the locals wanted to do but if you looked at the programs, they were all the same. It’s not all the locals wanted the same thing – it’s were they catching on to what gets funded. Are the international organizations saying you can do whatever you want to do but if you do this, I’ll fund it? You can’t penetrate that from the outside. I volunteered with each of the organizations worldwide to see how the international influence worked. I spent over 2 years living by myself in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. That was right after college. I taught myself Spanish. A lot of Portuguese.

Flying a Glider Plane

I fly gliders — airplanes that don’t have motors. No engine. They have a place you can attach a rope. You tie it to a plane that does have an engine to pull it up to about 2,000 to 3,000 feet. Then there are columns of hot air that are rising. Usually the top of that might be a fluffy white cloud. If it’s a good day then you have strong thermals and you can put the glider in there and circle. A glider is always coming down because its gliding. But if you put it in air that’s coming up faster than its going down and you put it in bank and you circle, you’ll go up. My longest flight is about 300 miles. You are going down but you have faith you are going to find it. You’re in this tiny little thing. I’ve done some competitions where you will fly this triangle. It took me about 100 miles away from the airport. I’ve always loved flying. It’s like my bird thing. I’ve always wanted to fly. When I was in grad school…everyone has a hard time right before they are done. Someone I was talking to said you just need a reward system. Set a weekly goal and if you hit your goal, you get a reward. So, I started taking flying lessons with gliding because its just so much cheaper. I could afford it. I started flying in grad school and got my license and became a commercial pilot so I could fly rides for pay. I took Gage (Gage Smith, fellow BB member) for a ride one time. Took Maurice (Maurice Anderson, fellow BB member) for a ride one time. The first Saturday of every month I take people for rides. Last Saturday I flew four people. Took me about a year before I could do it on my own. My first flight I remember very clearly: I hit a bump so hard my legs flew up and both hit the panel and both my shins got cut on the metal of the panel. I’ve lived through that and every flight since then. I could land it in a 100-foot spot. That’s what you have to do to get the license.

Bird Expert on Call

It’s just being a bird expert. You ever heard of The Slo-Mo Guys on YouTube? There’s an episode by them about hummingbirds. There’s like 3.5 million views. I keep telling my wife I’m going viral. I keep getting these calls about birds — so for the grackles (he’s been contacted by The Daily Texan, CBS, The Austin Statesman, etc. to discuss the local birds) they got into an HEB and started eating the meat. Its fun to do those interviews. I’ve done a bunch of those interviews for TV shows and radio programs where they need a bird expert. If they are in the Austin area, they will call UT and UT will call me.

It’s All About the Birds

You know the cone that’s inside of a jet engine that pokes out? That’s actually from a Peregrine Falcon. A German engineer who designed it was a bird watcher. One of the adaptations of a Peregrine Falcon is they can dive at 180-200 mph. Stick your mouth out of a car going 140 mph — you can’t breathe because of the pressure. Inside the falcon’s nose is that little cone. Jet engines were having trouble getting the air in so they tried mimicking the falcon. That’s how the Germans were able to get the first jets going.

James Bond wrote The Birds of the West Indies. The author of the spy stories (novelist Ian Fleming), was at a lodge in the West Indies and saw the book and thought “Oh my God, that’s a great name. I’m going to make that my star.” James Bond was named after a bird watcher.

I spent a weekend at Camp David bird-watching with President Bush (43). Laura Bush’s mom was a bird watcher so I met her because I was leading tours in Midland. I took them out when he was governor. Then he became president. It all goes back to the birds.

I have a wife and two kids. A dog. Grew up in Austin. Spent about a decade living in the jungle. Came back to start our family here. Washington DC is no place for a family. I met my wife at UT.

I’ve been coming to BodyBusiness for five days a week for five years. I have a 4-Runner and I hurt my shoulder in high school. I had never been able to close the hatch because I was never able to reach up and pull. It was like three years ago I… (mimics closing the hatch) YES! I was too young to not be able to play with my kids. Now I can do everything. I coach their soccer teams. Its great. I’m super happy to have come to this place.

“For me, its pride. To be in this hotel.”

Jiovanny Rivadeneira is a member of the Kichwa Añangu Community. He lives in the Amazon Rainforest, next to Lake Añangu in the country of Ecuador. He is seated, speaking to someone behind a camera who is making a film for a documentary on his people and his land. They are asking him ‘Why? Why is the conservation of your land so important? Why not just take the money the oil companies are offering for the land?’

“Some of our friends have goals similar to ours, says Jiovanny. “But the oil companies are messing with these communities, with their heads and their thoughts. Giving them money…what are the communities to do? ‘Okay, here they are, giving me money.’ But they aren’t thinking about the future. The future will be oil, pollution and disease.
“We live from the forest. The forest is the natural medicine for indigenous people. Now is the time to protect the forest so that in the future our children will know it.”

The filmmaker’s name is Laura Jones. Her documentary, “Para Los Futuros”, which translates to “for those to come”, is part of the first national television series of independent films on the environment – the Emmy-award winning Natural Heroes. It aired on May 14, 2006 on PBS. The words “The forest is their home, their culture, their only asset – and everyone wants a piece of it” flash on a black screen at the beginning of the film in forest-green letters.

Her husband, Peter English, appears on screen at the 5:34 mark. “We are really trying to make things just and equal,” says Peter. “We’re really trying to help. So, I’d like it to not only be a successful lodge but a model of how things should be done.”

Later in the film, a child reads off a chalkboard in a small classroom: “I am little because I am a child, but when I am old as my father, I will be big.”

A mother speaks to the camera shortly thereafter: “Now that we have the project my babies have enough food. Every day my babies eat.”

Congratulations, Peter. Mission accomplished.