Creature Feature

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

According to Greenwell, the only thing more unlikely than four vanloads of camera-toting tourists spotting the creature without getting one snapshot is the proposition that they were all in on a hoax: "These tourists didn't even know each other. They were from all over the world -- there were Germans, Brits. But it's still something that debunkers will seize upon, even if it doesn't make sense, just to sort of denigrate the whole business."

The possibility of a hoax, with or without the involvement of David Shealy, is one that both Greenwell and Carr have considered since the beginning of the Ochopee Skunk Ape flap. It presented itself immediately in what Greenwell calls Doerr's "sort of peculiar and unique" lack of confidence in his own experience. But Greenwell believes he understands Doerr's hesitance. "I think Doerr is basically trying to protect his reputation, to the point where he just keeps repeating, 'Oh it was a man in a gorilla suit,'" the cryptozoologist says. "That way his reputation is untarnished."

Unfortunately, Greenwell adds, what has been tarnished by the possible hoax is what could be evidence for an actual unknown animal. What might be going on, he suggests, is some combination of the two possibilities: "It could be there's a real animal, and the hoaxing is just to move it along a little faster to increase tourism. People that do that -- we call it scientific vandalism -- all they're doing in terms of science, of zoology, is hurting the whole thing, because when the hoaxing becomes apparent, it discredits the whole thing."

Every good monster tale deserves at least one sequel. And just as the great King Kong has returned many times since his 1933 debut, the Skunk Ape can't seem to stay out of the limelight. I found out about his latest comeback when I called David Shealy on the afternoon of Friday, February 6, and he answered the phone with a line straight out of Jaws II: "Oh, man, it's started all over again!"

It seems that about four hours before, passengers on a van tour out of Marco Island met the creature on his old stomping ground, Turner River Road. The witnesses were local guide Mason Weeks and twelve salesmen from the BASF corporation on a morning's jaunt away from a weeklong conference at Marco's Radisson Hotel. Out of the van and strolling south along the Turner River, they saw a tall hairy figure emerge from the bushes and cross to the east side of the road, where someone -- not he, Shealy insists -- had left piles of beans. "All of a sudden, this thing walks out into the road and kneels down and picks something up!" Shealy says, barely controlling his excitement. "It saw them and threw its arms up in the air and took off running. And two of the guys, from what I understand, went in after it."

Later that evening Scott Smith of BASF confirms that he was one of the two who pursued the creature. Starting out several hundred yards away and still feeling the effects of a hangover, he did his best to close the distance before the creature got too far back in the swamp. Smith didn't make it. "He got out of the road pretty quick, whoever or whatever he was," he says. "To be honest, it might have been real, and it might not have. But it was a sight, it was a spectacle! Just seeing something like that you're not used to -- that made it interesting for everybody."

According to Smith, most of the salesmen assumed that the sighting was a Disney World-style character appearance. Tour guide Weeks had mentioned earlier in his spiel that if they kept an eye out, they might see the Everglades version of Bigfoot. And they thought the thing they saw seemed too small -- not much more than six feet tall -- to be any kin to an eight-foot Sasquatch.

Weeks, a fourth-generation native of the area, says he had a different reaction. "It was kind of a shock, you know," he recalls in the distinctive, round-toned accent once common in southwest Florida. "I was born and raised in the Everglades, and I do remember my grandfather and different of the old-timers talking about the Skunk Ape being in the Everglades. People had sighted it and all of that. But so far as myself, this is the first time I've ever seen it."

His earlier comments about watching out for the Skunk Ape, Weeks says, were a coincidence: "I was just joking and cutting the fool with 'em, you know, carrying on, and I said, 'We have to be careful about the Skunk Ape down there.' They asked me what the Skunk Ape was, and I told them it was similar to a Bigfoot or Sasquatch or whatever, that there were stories about it years ago. And then we kind of let it drop. I never mentioned it again.

"Later I got to thinking," he continues, "Jesus, after I told them about it this morning and then, here, it all of a sudden shows up -- it did look kind of funny. But I take tours down there five, six, seven days a week, and this is the first time I've ever seen it."

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