Creature Feature

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

Whenever Shealy recounts this unlikely tale, he pointedly avoids referring to Men in Black, the summer blockbuster that opened shortly after the mysterious hair confiscation supposedly occurred. But when Inside Edition aired his interview, a three-second clip from the movie was edited in, MTV-style -- like a little nudge, to reassure the viewers that it was all just a joke after all.

Some people other than David Shealy do take the Skunk Ape seriously, of course. In the weeks after word of Vince Doerr's encounter got out, he received visits from several of them at the fire station in Everglades City. One made a particularly favorable impression.

"Bob Carr, the archaeologist, he was looking at it like, if it's true, it's true, and if it ain't, it ain't," Doerr says. "What was neat was when Bob came, he was sitting there in my office, and I was telling him about what happened years ago in Davie on Flamingo Road, when it ripped a calf's head off, and on U.S. 27, where a driver almost hit it, and when a patrolman came along and he almost hit it. And when I mentioned these [stories from] back in the Seventies, Bob had 'em documented. That amazed me."

If you ask Bob Carr -- for years Miami-Dade County's official archaeologist and now director of the county's historic preservation division -- what he makes of the Skunk Ape and the latest rash of sightings in Big Cypress, he'll give you an answer that combines personal history with scientific detachment. He dates his interest in the subject to 1971, when Miami adventurer Robert Morgan invited him to join what he called his American Yeti Expedition in the Pacific Northwest. "As a student at that time, and having my way paid for a great adventure, I was certainly open to that, but I had absolutely no belief that there was anything like a Bigfoot or Sasquatch or anything like that," Carr says, sitting at the dinner table in his Davie home -- a table half-covered by folders filled with Skunk Ape-related newspaper clippings and eyewitness interviews.

"I was even more incredulous when people began to tell me that there were Florida sightings," Carr goes on. "If I was leaning even slightly toward the phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest, I had no expectation of anything in Florida. But what I discovered through time is that first of all, these events in Florida have occurred over a long period of time, just not necessarily hyped up by the media. And then I began to interview a number of people relative to the Davie episodes, and those were very credible stories from people who had no reason to lie. As I collected these stories and began to organize them, I began to realize that we were talking about a phenomenon that had a pattern, that had geographic locations that were repetitive. In that sense, I think it became a valid subject to investigate."

The Skunk Ape phenomenon's essential patterns, Carr says, are most easily seen if the sightings are plotted on a map. Doing so reveals definite clusters of activity with common elements that, to Carr at least, suggest that what's going on is more than just witnesses jumping on the Bigfoot bandwagon.

"You would expect that if there were no flesh-and-blood reality to these reports that the distribution would be more random," he points out. "But instead, we see these clusters across the state of Florida. The most important clusters -- and they occurred at different times -- include ones in Davie, South Miami-Dade, and the Big Cypress. And there are several on the west coast -- at Charlotte Harbor, the Peace River, and Brooksville."

Carr's geographical argument for a "flesh-and-blood" Skunk Ape (which he's careful to note could also be an escaped known primate) makes sense when one considers the environmental context for the sightings. The two areas he has studied most closely, Davie and South Miami-Dade, were both overwhelmingly rural in the early to mid-Seventies when at their height as Skunk Ape encounter zones. They also lay in close proximity to true wilderness: the Everglades and south Biscayne Bay's coastal mangrove swamps. The same could be said of all the other clusters -- evidence for at least the possibility that an unknown creature might be prowling the edges of suburbia.

"In Davie you had a hammock ridge and some pinelands, and you had lower areas around it," Carr explains. "Of course, when these incidents occurred, they were no longer swamp, but they were all cultivated with citrus. You'd have to cross some roads, but you could get from Pine Island Road all the way to the Everglades without seeing any people, just going down the ridges and kind of working your way through. It's hard to believe now, but in 1971 you could do that."

Carr began seriously looking into the Davie sightings in 1978, four years after South Florida's most celebrated series of Skunk Ape encounters played out on a dark highway on the southwestern edge of his study area. Just after midnight on January 9, 1974, Richard Lee Smith of Hollywood slammed his car into something not far from where U.S. 27 meets Hollywood Boulevard.

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