Creature Feature

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

Then I see Shealy stand up straight, as though startled. "What's happened here?" he says, taking a big step forward into what I recognize as the site of the bean-set. "Look at this!" I'm looking already, not sure what I'm seeing. For some reason the blue, five-gallon bucket in which Shealy had carried the beans is lying on its side in the middle of the mud. The rake he used to clear the ground and which he'd left standing upright in the bucket and leaning against a pine tree is now in the mud too -- but it's in pieces, its sturdy wooden handle snapped at three points like a toothpick. The beans, once piled in a neat, six-inch mound, are almost all gone.

Shealy is kneeling down, examining the ground a few feet in front of the biggest piece of rake handle, staring at a strange mark in the mud. "There's a print!" he exclaims. "See the heel, the toes?"

When I return alone to the site at 8:30 the next morning, the footprint is still there. A quick measurement confirms that it is, in fact, quite big -- about fourteen inches from its toes to its deep-pressed, water-filled heel, and about five inches across at its ball. It appears to be a right foot.

The bucket and pieces of rake lie where they were dropped. The night before, I'd moved only one thing -- the rake's plastic teeth. An unfamiliar odor is still present on them hours later. Strangely, it is not especially unpleasant, and nothing like a rotten-egg stench. Rather, it smells like licorice crossed with something else, something completely outside my experience. Now, with that smell still on my hands, I'm left to wonder just what it was we almost encountered last night. With the sun up, it's much harder to imagine a rampaging Skunk Ape loose in these woods. And yet this is about the same time of day that Chief Doerr snapped his now famous picture of a fuzzy, red-brown figure standing right there -- an image that has since appeared on TV news here and abroad and has been picked up by dozens of newspapers and posted on multiple Bigfoot Websites.

Doerr, who retired as chief a month ago, is a paradoxical figure in the Skunk Ape craziness that swept this area this past summer. On one hand, his photograph probably did more than anything else to make the story attractive to tabloid TV shows like Inside Edition, which ran its take on the sightings late last summer. On the other, he thinks the Skunk Ape's most recent appearances are probably hoaxes. "I just think somebody's playing games," Doerr says when asked his opinion of what he saw. Then he gives his stock answer, well practiced after a two-month barrage of calls from reporters as far away as Australia: "All I can say for a fact is that I seen something at 800 feet and took a picture at 400 feet."

Doerr's story of his meeting with the creature is straightforward enough. Unaware that two vans of tourists had seen "Bigfoot" the previous week, he was calmly making his regular Monday-morning drive down lime-rock Burns Road to the district's main fire station in Everglades City. On the truck seat beside him was his camera, which he always carried in case he had to document a fire or accident scene.

"It came from the left, which is the east, and then went across the road, and it went into the west," Doerr recalls, speaking in the flat, matter-of-fact tone he always seems to use. "When it crossed the road, it looked like it was taking kind of long steps. It wasn't no bear, that's for sure. I know bears -- bears don't stay upright that long. When I got to that point [even with it] -- it was about 800 feet or so -- then I got out with my camera. I seen it walking in the woods, and I yelled. It kind of stopped, turned a little bit, and then it started north, parallel to the road. I had to turn my light meter on, and then I adjusted, and I snapped one picture, which was the first picture on the new roll that I had. I had 23 more, but I just snapped the one and I looked at [the creature again], and it was kind of a small brown spot."

Deciding that whatever he was looking at was too far away to justify another shot, Doerr got back into his truck and headed on to work. At most, he says, he thought what he had seen would make a funny story to tell that morning at the station. It never occurred to him that he had just jumped with both feet into the world of tabloid media.

The flood began as a trickle that afternoon with a phone call from the local weekly paper, the Everglades Echo. Doerr told reporter Cindy Hackney what he'd seen and that he'd taken a photo of it, and offered his opinion that someone was "playing a little situation here." She told him some things he hadn't known: Realtor Jan Brock, one of Doerr's neighbors, had seen the thing a few minutes before he had, crossing Burns Road from west to east. And an hour and a half later, two miles to the west, about twenty tourists in a van driven by Naples Trolley Tour guide John Vickers had experienced a far more intense encounter with the creature.

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