Creature Feature

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

First they'd glimpsed it from a distance, jogging from east to west across Turner River Road, a common sightseeing route that parallels the alligator-crowded Turner River Canal. Then, after Vickers pulled off the road to lead most of his passengers on a "gator walk" a few hundred feet north along the canal bank, the thing popped out of the bushes 30 yards from the van -- frightening the three people who had stayed behind, two women in their thirties and an eight-year-old girl. "The ape man is out there, and he's going to eat me!" Vickers reported the girl screamed when he arrived back at the van, too late to get a close look at the cause of her terror. Vickers cut his tour short, loaded his passengers back into the van, and drove down to Everglades City to report what he'd seen at the local ranger station.

It was all great stuff, straight out of a Fifties B-movie. The Echo ran the story at the top of page one, headlining it "'Beast' causes stir." The paper illustrated its account with a pencil sketch that looked suspiciously like Lon Chaney in The Wolf Man.

Doerr, not one to waste his time on frivolity, paid scant attention to the gathering Skunk Ape storm. He didn't even bother to develop his film until ten days later. By that time, another player had stepped forward to take charge of the game.

That player was David Shealy, who along with his brother Jack owns the Florida Panther Gift Shop and the Big Cypress Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee. Located three miles east of where the Tamiami Trail meets the road down to Everglades City, the Shealy brothers' place is a perfect example of that endangered Old Florida institution, the roadside attraction.

It's most easily recognized from the Trail by the giant realistic fiberglass statue of a panther out front. The twenty-foot-long cat poses as if about to dash across the highway, his huge head turned to look east toward Miami, 65 miles away. Nearby a sign in front of a large metal building invites tourists to "See Alligators Turtles Snakes Bird Fish." Until recently those animals were the stars of the show here, the main draw for busloads of customers brought in by Everglades tour guides. Now, though, the concrete patio outside the gift shop bears the painted tracks of an exotic new heavyweight.

Along with a nearby store/restaurant called Joe's Quick Stop and a post office distinguished as the smallest in the United States (approximately seven by eight feet), the Shealy brothers' place is about all that's left of the village of Ochopee, a once thriving tomato-farming community that at midcentury lost the produce wars to Immokalee.

The Shealys have been on Tamiami Trail since before there was a Tamiami Trail, and they have been catering to tourists for close to half a century. Their father, Jack Sr., started the family campground in the early Sixties, and their mother Evelyn ran the closet-size Ochopee post office for years. David and Jack grew up in the family business, descendants of a clan that, like the Miccosukee tribe to the east, had gone from living directly off the land to marketing to outsiders its natural surroundings and traditional culture.

Unlike the Miccosukees, the Shealys and their neighbors in Ochopee and Everglades City were unable to set up casinos and bring in the cash, although they have tried other, somewhat shadier alternatives. Bird-plume hunting, moonshining, and alligator poaching have all had their days as semi-honorable occupations in the southwest Florida outback. In the Seventies and Eighties another outlaw pursuit, marijuana smuggling, took over. Like much of the area's male population, the Shealy brothers got into what became known locally as "pot hauling." And like many other locals, they got caught at it. The three years David spent in prison was the longest stretch of time he has been away from Big Cypress country. Oddly, he claims that those years were less stressful than the six months he has spent as the Skunk Ape's self-appointed spokesman.

The Shealys and the Skunk Ape go way back. According to David, the brothers got their one and only firsthand glimpse of the creature while out hunting in 1973. At that time, David was nine; he says the Skunk Ape they spotted "wasn't much to see, just a tall object moving into the Turner River Swamp, the same swamp where it's been sighted now." The location of their sighting south of the Tamiami Trail is pinpointed on a map that hangs in the gift shop's back room, which David has turned into a dollar-a-head minimuseum he calls the "Skunk Ape Research Headquarters." The map also shows the sites of the most recent encounters on Turner River and Burns roads, as well as other features of local ape lore: the Austin Camp, where a Skunk Ape reportedly fell through a hunting cabin's roof in 1974; and what's referred to as a "known breeding area" for a "family of five to seven" in the neighboring Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Above the map hangs a two-page spread from the Weekly World News headlined "Rampaging Bigfoot Threatens South Florida!" Other mounted clippings, from the Fort Myers News-Press, St. Petersburg Times, Florida Today, and the National Examiner, prominently feature both Vince Doerr's enigmatic photo and shots of local Skunk Ape experts David and Jack Shealy.

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