Creature Feature

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

Two days after my experience in the Big Cypress, Riggs visited the bean-baited Burns Road site to check out the scene David Shealy and I had found. The remaining beans were still there, well on their way to rotting, and the broken rake and bucket lay where we had discovered them.

But where Shealy and I had seen one footprint, Riggs was able to detect eight full prints in the mud. Some were nearly identical to the fourteen-inch casts in Shealy's display case; others were smaller, about eleven or twelve inches long. Riggs also managed to locate an incoming trail slightly south of west through the sawgrass. He traced it back for roughly twenty feet and continued west another twenty feet or so, where he discovered lima beans on the ground. Then, returning to the raked area, he broke out the plaster of Paris he had brought and proceeded to cast the most obvious print.

The results were surprising. What I had taken for a single right footprint was apparently two prints, the mark of a left foot stepping in a right footprint. Carr was impressed but still cautious. "The problem is that the tracks still beg for scientific authentication," he says. "That is not resolved simply by the fact that there are cast prints."

Carr has another reason to be hesitant about the bean-set prints. "What makes this particularly difficult is David Shealy," he says, speaking slowly, as if weighing each word. "Not that anything he's saying is incorrect or dishonest. It's just that it is so incredibly coincidental. He certainly was in the right place at the right time many, many times. I think you can't validate or invalidate this case based on David Shealy's involvement. I mean, that's sort of like a subset to the whole thing. Obviously he has an agenda -- I think he's personally interested, but he has an agenda in terms of his business."

Other investigators have expressed similar reservations with regard to Shealy, voicing suspicions about the ease with which he uncovers evidence in the presence of media representatives. One such skeptic is Richard Greenwell, secretary of the International Society of Cryptozoology, a group that takes a scholarly approach to claims about scientifically unproven species. Based in Tucson, Arizona, Greenwell traveled to Big Cypress this past November and stayed at Shealy's campground for a week while checking into last summer's Skunk Ape reports.

He remembers Shealy fondly but warily. "We really didn't spend too much time with him," Greenwell says. "He was helpful, he had a lot of stories and things, but most of his stuff is just basically too insubstantial to get anything out of. We found tracks similar to those casts Dave has, three-toed and fourteen inches long, on a trail where he had found tracks in July, and I think they were hoaxed, actually. I'm not saying Dave did it. but you know, I'm not saying he didn't, either."

In Greenwell's view, Shealy was just a little too enthusiastic and specific in his advice. The cryptozoologist wanted to see just how hard Shealy would push, so he played along.

"Dave kept telling us, 'Go up that trail, I found tracks there,'" Greenwell recalls. "We purposely didn't go, and every time he saw us, he'd say, 'Have you been up the trail yet?' I said no, no, we hadn't. Then we went up the trail, and sure enough, there were the tracks. But we didn't say anything to him. We didn't say a thing. And he kept saying, 'Have you gone up the trail yet?' No, not yet, you know. It was too good to be true. My friend Ronnie Roseman and I spent a day hiking through the swamp between Burns Road and Turner River Road, and if we'd found tracks out there in an isolated spot, that would have been different."

What Greenwell does think has value is the evidence not directly connected to Shealy -- in particular, Vince Doerr's photo. During his Florida visit, Greenwell obtained Doerr's negative, and he is now having it analyzed by specialists in computerized image-processing techniques. "It's some really sophisticated stuff with a military lab, people who do edge enhancements on rocket plumes in Navy missile tests," Greenwell says. "I'm waiting to hear from them. They say they may be able to tell if it's actually real hair -- I just can't believe that. They said that before they saw the photograph, so maybe once they got it, they realized it's not going to be that easy. But at least we'll get something out of it. It's too bad he didn't take more than one picture."

The lack of other photos is one aspect of the case that both baffles and frustrates Greenwell. "What I don't get is that with all these tour buses, with all these tourists who photograph alligators and birds, how come no one took a picture of it?" he asks. "That's totally puzzling to me. One of the bus drivers tried to get a woman to get out to take a picture, and she wouldn't. But why do you have to get out of the bus to take a picture? You can take a picture through the window."

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