Creature Feature

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

Smith told the Florida Highway Patrol that he had hit what he at first thought was a huge man in dark clothing -- and then had been astonished to see a seven- or eight-foot-tall hairy monster get up, roar at him, and charge his car. Smith fled the scene, and over the next few hours, other drivers called police to report seeing a limping giant on U.S. 27. Officers in the area were dispatched on a search for the injured party, and at 2:12 a.m., a Hialeah Gardens patrolman said he spotted the huge, hair-covered accident victim, still limping, a few miles away. At dawn police searched the area with help from two helicopters, but they failed to find the creature.

The sensational nature of the Smith case -- the very idea of cops on a monster hunt -- ignited Skunk Ape fever on a scale never seen before or since. And for a few years afterward, Floridians saw Skunk Apes all over the place: sneaking out of chicken coops, lurking just outside the firelight on teenagers' camping trips, even drinking from water hazards on golf courses.

Obscured in the flurry of reports, Carr says, was something he discovered when he began pursuing his research in earnest. Solid, reliable people -- farmers, housewives, police officers -- had been seeing the Skunk Ape around Davie for years before Smith had his fateful collision, and some of their stories were every bit as scary as his. Particularly disturbing were reports connecting the thing with violence done to cattle -- the events Vince Doerr, a former Davie resident, remembered when he said it had "ripped a calf's head off." Carr cites a report from his files he finds especially unsettling: "I talked to one gentleman who was a security guard [in the early Seventies], working at a trailer park next to an orange grove. He saw a large gorilla-type creature pulling a dead cow into a ditch at night while he was doing a patrol in his car, and it completely freaked him out."

Looking beyond the lurid details of the Davie stories, Carr determined that they seemed to be focused around two areas: the citrus groves of the coastal ridge and the intersection of U.S. 27 and Alligator Alley near the edge of the Everglades. Around the same time, he realized a similar cluster about 30 miles south. This one had its western focus near the main entrance to Everglades National Park, where in January 1975 dozens of giant footprints had been discovered at a catfish farm called Homestead Fisheries. The prints were twelve inches long and seven and a half inches across, with a stride length of five feet. They baffled everyone who tried to explain them in conventional terms, including Everglades National Park Superintendent Jack Stark. "It's beyond my comprehension that something could make a footprint that big," Stark told the South Dade News-Leader. "I personally tend to disbelieve in the Skunk Ape or yeti, [but] I wouldn't say it's not the Skunk Ape or yeti -- the discovery remains an unsolved mystery of the Everglades."

South Dade's unsolved Skunk Ape mysteries were not limited to the Everglades, though, for the eastern focus of Carr's sighting cluster lay near Black Point on Biscayne Bay. There, just west of Biscayne National Park's mangrove forests, Skunk Ape encounters were also unusually common. Metro-Dade police checked out one such incident well after midnight on March 24, 1975, responding to a report that an eight- or nine-foot "giant apelike man" had been seen rocking a blue Chevy parked on the dirt road to Black Point. According to witnesses Michael Bennett and Lawrence Groom, the Chevy's driver jumped out of his vehicle and screamed for help when they drove up in another car; the "apelike man," they said, fled into the mangroves when their headlights hit him. The responding officers were unable to find any trace of either Chevy or Skunk Ape when they arrived more than two hours later, thus missing the chance for their own brush with hairy destiny.

For the first part of Bob Carr's career as a Skunk Ape investigator, he was more documentalist than hunter. That is, he worked mostly on collecting interviews. Archaeologists tend to meet people who know back-country areas well, and Carr put this aspect of his vocation in the service of his avocation. Every now and then, at intuition's prompting, he would ask a new acquaintance the question "What's the most unusual thing you've ever had happen?" Then he would sit back and see what came out.

In the mid-Eighties, a period when the Skunk Ape seemed to have vanished from the public consciousness, Carr's investigative methods underwent a significant transformation. He began working with a retired surveyor and expert animal tracker named T.L. Riggs.

Riggs had shown up one day and volunteered his surveying expertise at an archaeological dig along the Miami River; later Carr learned of his tracking skills and asked whether he'd like to help out with the Skunk Ape. Riggs considered himself a complete skeptic, but he went along out of curiosity. Soon he was seeing things that didn't seem to make sense unless there really was a creature out there -- although, he, like Carr, maintains that nothing he's seen so far truly proves the existence of an unknown animal.

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