Creature Feature

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

Below this print-media montage is the exhibit's centerpiece: a locked glass case containing the plaster casts David made from footprints he found with a crew from WBBH-TV (Channel 2) in Fort Myers. The casts, both taken from prints made by a left foot, measure fourteen inches long and about five and a half inches across. They seem lumpish and crude, distorted to the point that they appear to be missing one toe -- a product perhaps of the muddy medium where they were formed. But primitive as they may appear, they mark a critical point in the evolution of the Ochopee Skunk Ape phenomenon. For it was on July 24, when he discovered these footprints with WBBH reporter Grant Stinchfield, that the world of television and radio discovered David Shealy.

It was, at least in part, a fluke. "I think there was an article in the [Fort Myers] paper about these German tourists that had seen it, and they took a picture at Dave Shealy's tourist shop," Stinchfield recalls. "He didn't know we were coming out. I think I just stopped in there, and he was like, 'Yeah, I'll take you out. I was just going out to look for it.' To tell you the truth, the whole time he took us out to look for it, I thought that this thing was gonna be a setup and maybe he had somebody out there in a suit."

Although no hairy-suited hoaxster showed up, Stinchfield got something almost as good. Shealy found footprints -- the prints he would later cast -- near Turner River Road. And a little way back in the woods, on-camera, he came across something more: a clump of light-brownish hair on a broken Brazilian pepper bush. "I think it was luck on his part," says Stinchfield, who believes that the hair was actually that of a bear. "As soon as he saw it, he goes, 'Oh, this is hair! Shaggy hair! Oh, this thing must be big!' He was perfect for television."

Within days after the WBBH report ran, Shealy was fielding calls from radio and TV stations all over the country. Unlike Doerr, who worried that, as fire chief, he might be lending official sanction to a hoax, Shealy had no misgivings whatsoever about talking to the press. He saw it, he says, as the perfect chance to promote the Everglades and Big Cypress -- and like any good performer, he clearly relished the chance to show off for a big audience.

"I had four solid months of interviews and reporters and questions, and my estimate is that the news has spread to over 300 million people," Shealy says. "One [U.S.] radio show that I did went out to 130 radio stations. I was on BBC four times, which was big news. I was on Radio Colombia. It built and it built and it built, and it went completely around the world."

Without hesitation, Shealy identified what the witnesses had seen as the Skunk Ape, and he went on to issue authoritative pronouncements on its nature and behavior. It was so visible this year, he opined, because the summer mosquitoes, even worse than usual, had driven it from its hiding places. It was not dangerous, although approaching it too closely was probably a bad idea. It was an Earth animal, not an alien, despite what some flying-saucer buffs might claim. It had a special fondness for lima beans, attested to in old Big Cypress hunters' tales in which beans left to soak overnight mysteriously disappeared.

Not everyone, of course, accepted Shealy's version of the phenomenon. "I think we're safe in assuming that there are probably no previously unclassified primates roaming the Big Cypress," preserve resource management chief Ron Clark told the Miami Herald. "We think somebody's playing a prank on our tourists."

The Echo's Cindy Hackney lent support to the hoax theory by reporting -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- that a Naples costume shop called Cynthia's Party World had sold a black ape suit for cash around the time the sightings began. And rumors about the purchaser's identity focused, quite naturally, on the person now most identified with the Skunk Ape: David Shealy. It all seemed just a little too convenient, after all. Shealy owned a gift shop, business had fallen off, and then, lo and behold! The Skunk Ape returned to bring Big Cypress country its biggest publicity bonanza in years.

Shealy's denials did little to quash the rumors. And his bizarre explanation for the mysterious disappearance of the ape hair he found with Stinchfield made matters even more confusing. According to the story Shealy tells -- the story he has told dozens of times, with a completely straight face, to everyone from the Collier County Commission to a reporter for Inside Edition -- four nights after he collected the hair, black-clad representatives of an unknown government agency barged into his house and confiscated it.

"Two men dressed in, like, suits, and long-type black coats," he says, punctuating his description with pantomime. "They said, 'Are you David Shealy?' I said yes, and they said, 'We want to know about the tracks, and we want to know about the hair. Where are they?' I said, 'Well, I don't have the tracks right now. But I got the hair.' It was on the table. I picked it up in the bag to show it to them, and they took it. The guy opens up his jacket, and he puts it inside his jacket. And I'm thinking, this ain't right. But then he said, 'We're gonna take this, and we're gonna have it analyzed, and then we're gonna be back to talk to you, Mr. Shealy.' And then, boom, they were out the door."

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