Creature Feature

Move over, Sasquatch. Beat it, Bigfoot. It's time you met South Florida's own: The great Skunk Ape.

By the light of a full moon, the Big Cypress swamp seems far closer to the world of dreams than to that of everyday experience. The trees -- thin-trunked, ruler-straight slash pines and skeletal, twisted pond cypress -- stand above moon-silvered palmettos like eerie, silent sentinels. The ground underfoot is uncertain, a patchwork of puddles hidden by grass, slippery black mud, and uneven limestone outcroppings. Our footsteps crunch and splash, the only sound in the woods except for the occasional booming hoot of an owl and the far-off grumble of swamp-buggy engines. "I've got a feeling, I've just got a feeling," David Shealy says. "It's just one of those times."

Shealy walks in front of me, a small flashlight in one hand, his tall, lean frame slightly stooped as he picks his way along an old game trail. He has spent almost all of his 34 years in Big Cypress, and he knows this part of the swamp like most people know their front yards.

We are about four miles east-southeast of Shealy's campground and gift shop on the Tamiami Trail in the village of Ochopee, trying to get back to the spot where, three hours earlier, we dumped two and a half gallons of uncooked, soaked lima beans.

The beans are bait. The creature they are meant to draw out of the depths of the swamp -- the one Shealy has the feeling we may find signs of -- is neither deer nor bear nor wild hog. It is not covered by any of the hunting regulations that apply to this area or that are recognized by the federal and state agencies responsible for protecting the animals most often identified with Big Cypress, the endangered Florida panther and the American alligator. But according to those who say they have seen it, it is no less real.

It is the Skunk Ape, reportedly a nonhuman primate that walks on two legs, stands more than six feet tall, is covered in dark hair, and smells like rotten eggs mixed with three-day-old roadkill. A part of Florida folklore for more than 50 years, the Sasquatch-like Skunk Ape (also occasionally referred to as the Swamp Ape) has been sighted -- and smelled -- all over the state, as far north as the Ocala National Forest and as far south as Tavernier in the Keys. Over the decades, tales of harrowing encounters with shaggy, stinking giants have come from the suburban frontiers of Florida's east and west coasts, while also persisting in the agricultural interior.

One region, though, has recently produced more Skunk Ape sightings than any other: the undeveloped 2400-square-mile hinterland dominated by the Big Cypress National Preserve. It was here -- within two miles of where Shealy and I are walking, in fact -- that this past July four separate vans packed with tourists saw something they identified as "Bigfoot." It was not far from here that a Fort Myers television crew filmed Shealy finding huge, manlike tracks of unknown origin and pulling a clump of reddish-brown hair off a Brazilian pepper bush. And it was within a few hundred feet of here that Ochopee Fire District Chief Vince Doerr photographed a tall, hairy, reddish-brown thing he spotted the morning of July 21 while driving to work on a dirt road.

Whatever it was all those people saw, it wasn't a bear. It was too tall, too thin, and it walked on two feet. That leaves two possibilities: either a hoax by a human in a monkey suit or an unknown creature.

David Shealy says he has no doubt which of those two is the truth. For the past six months he has been talking about the Skunk Ape to anyone who will listen, taking TV and print reporters out to look for tracks and lugging buckets of lima bean bait into the woods. His public relations efforts have helped bring media attention from all over the world to this backwoods corner of South Florida and have attracted scientific investigators as well. His "bean-sets," as he calls the lima bean baits he puts out, also seem to have produced results: Something is taking the beans and leaving fourteen-inch, humanlike footprints behind.

The place we are heading for tonight is one of Shealy's favorite bean-set locations -- a "proven spot," he called it this afternoon as he raked grass and pine needles out of the way to expose a ten-by-ten-foot square of clean, unmarked mud. If the Skunk Ape goes for the beans, Shealy explained, he will leave tracks in the mud. It has worked before on this very location, which lies near a ridge of slightly higher ground between Burns Road -- the scene of the fire chief's sighting -- and Turner River Road, where the tourists had seen it, two miles west through the pine and cypress. All we had to do was come back later.

Later, then, would mean tomorrow morning. But after seeing how bright the moon is tonight, Shealy has been inspired to check the beans early. So here we are, pushing our way through patches of hip-high sawgrass and palmetto, getting our feet wet in the interest of science. A certain skepticism seems in order -- it's hard to believe we could really get results so soon -- but otherwise, it occurs to me, there are worse ways to spend a warm Saturday night in January.

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