By the light of a full moon, the Big Cypress swamp seems far closer to the world of dreams than to that of everyday experience. The trees -- thin-trunked, ruler-straight slash pines and skeletal, twisted pond cypress -- stand above moon-silvered palmettos like eerie, silent sentinels. The ground underfoot is uncertain, a patchwork of puddles hidden by grass, slippery black mud, and uneven limestone outcroppings. Our footsteps crunch and splash, the only sound in the woods except for the occasional booming hoot of an owl and the far-off grumble of swamp-buggy engines. "I've got a feeling, I've just got a feeling," David Shealy says. "It's just one of those times."
Shealy walks in front of me, a small flashlight in one hand, his tall, lean frame slightly stooped as he picks his way along an old game trail. He has spent almost all of his 34 years in Big Cypress, and he knows this part of the swamp like most people know their front yards.
We are about four miles east-southeast of Shealy's campground and gift shop on the Tamiami Trail in the village of Ochopee, trying to get back to the spot where, three hours earlier, we dumped two and a half gallons of uncooked, soaked lima beans.
The beans are bait. The creature they are meant to draw out of the depths of the swamp -- the one Shealy has the feeling we may find signs of -- is neither deer nor bear nor wild hog. It is not covered by any of the hunting regulations that apply to this area or that are recognized by the federal and state agencies responsible for protecting the animals most often identified with Big Cypress, the endangered Florida panther and the American alligator. But according to those who say they have seen it, it is no less real.
It is the Skunk Ape, reportedly a nonhuman primate that walks on two legs, stands more than six feet tall, is covered in dark hair, and smells like rotten eggs mixed with three-day-old roadkill. A part of Florida folklore for more than 50 years, the Sasquatch-like Skunk Ape (also occasionally referred to as the Swamp Ape) has been sighted -- and smelled -- all over the state, as far north as the Ocala National Forest and as far south as Tavernier in the Keys. Over the decades, tales of harrowing encounters with shaggy, stinking giants have come from the suburban frontiers of Florida's east and west coasts, while also persisting in the agricultural interior.
One region, though, has recently produced more Skunk Ape sightings than any other: the undeveloped 2400-square-mile hinterland dominated by the Big Cypress National Preserve. It was here -- within two miles of where Shealy and I are walking, in fact -- that this past July four separate vans packed with tourists saw something they identified as "Bigfoot." It was not far from here that a Fort Myers television crew filmed Shealy finding huge, manlike tracks of unknown origin and pulling a clump of reddish-brown hair off a Brazilian pepper bush. And it was within a few hundred feet of here that Ochopee Fire District Chief Vince Doerr photographed a tall, hairy, reddish-brown thing he spotted the morning of July 21 while driving to work on a dirt road.
Whatever it was all those people saw, it wasn't a bear. It was too tall, too thin, and it walked on two feet. That leaves two possibilities: either a hoax by a human in a monkey suit or an unknown creature.
David Shealy says he has no doubt which of those two is the truth. For the past six months he has been talking about the Skunk Ape to anyone who will listen, taking TV and print reporters out to look for tracks and lugging buckets of lima bean bait into the woods. His public relations efforts have helped bring media attention from all over the world to this backwoods corner of South Florida and have attracted scientific investigators as well. His "bean-sets," as he calls the lima bean baits he puts out, also seem to have produced results: Something is taking the beans and leaving fourteen-inch, humanlike footprints behind.
The place we are heading for tonight is one of Shealy's favorite bean-set locations -- a "proven spot," he called it this afternoon as he raked grass and pine needles out of the way to expose a ten-by-ten-foot square of clean, unmarked mud. If the Skunk Ape goes for the beans, Shealy explained, he will leave tracks in the mud. It has worked before on this very location, which lies near a ridge of slightly higher ground between Burns Road -- the scene of the fire chief's sighting -- and Turner River Road, where the tourists had seen it, two miles west through the pine and cypress. All we had to do was come back later.
Later, then, would mean tomorrow morning. But after seeing how bright the moon is tonight, Shealy has been inspired to check the beans early. So here we are, pushing our way through patches of hip-high sawgrass and palmetto, getting our feet wet in the interest of science. A certain skepticism seems in order -- it's hard to believe we could really get results so soon -- but otherwise, it occurs to me, there are worse ways to spend a warm Saturday night in January.
Then I see Shealy stand up straight, as though startled. "What's happened here?" he says, taking a big step forward into what I recognize as the site of the bean-set. "Look at this!" I'm looking already, not sure what I'm seeing. For some reason the blue, five-gallon bucket in which Shealy had carried the beans is lying on its side in the middle of the mud. The rake he used to clear the ground and which he'd left standing upright in the bucket and leaning against a pine tree is now in the mud too -- but it's in pieces, its sturdy wooden handle snapped at three points like a toothpick. The beans, once piled in a neat, six-inch mound, are almost all gone.
Shealy is kneeling down, examining the ground a few feet in front of the biggest piece of rake handle, staring at a strange mark in the mud. "There's a print!" he exclaims. "See the heel, the toes?"
When I return alone to the site at 8:30 the next morning, the footprint is still there. A quick measurement confirms that it is, in fact, quite big -- about fourteen inches from its toes to its deep-pressed, water-filled heel, and about five inches across at its ball. It appears to be a right foot.
The bucket and pieces of rake lie where they were dropped. The night before, I'd moved only one thing -- the rake's plastic teeth. An unfamiliar odor is still present on them hours later. Strangely, it is not especially unpleasant, and nothing like a rotten-egg stench. Rather, it smells like licorice crossed with something else, something completely outside my experience. Now, with that smell still on my hands, I'm left to wonder just what it was we almost encountered last night. With the sun up, it's much harder to imagine a rampaging Skunk Ape loose in these woods. And yet this is about the same time of day that Chief Doerr snapped his now famous picture of a fuzzy, red-brown figure standing right there -- an image that has since appeared on TV news here and abroad and has been picked up by dozens of newspapers and posted on multiple Bigfoot Websites.
Doerr, who retired as chief a month ago, is a paradoxical figure in the Skunk Ape craziness that swept this area this past summer. On one hand, his photograph probably did more than anything else to make the story attractive to tabloid TV shows like Inside Edition, which ran its take on the sightings late last summer. On the other, he thinks the Skunk Ape's most recent appearances are probably hoaxes. "I just think somebody's playing games," Doerr says when asked his opinion of what he saw. Then he gives his stock answer, well practiced after a two-month barrage of calls from reporters as far away as Australia: "All I can say for a fact is that I seen something at 800 feet and took a picture at 400 feet."
Doerr's story of his meeting with the creature is straightforward enough. Unaware that two vans of tourists had seen "Bigfoot" the previous week, he was calmly making his regular Monday-morning drive down lime-rock Burns Road to the district's main fire station in Everglades City. On the truck seat beside him was his camera, which he always carried in case he had to document a fire or accident scene.
"It came from the left, which is the east, and then went across the road, and it went into the west," Doerr recalls, speaking in the flat, matter-of-fact tone he always seems to use. "When it crossed the road, it looked like it was taking kind of long steps. It wasn't no bear, that's for sure. I know bears -- bears don't stay upright that long. When I got to that point [even with it] -- it was about 800 feet or so -- then I got out with my camera. I seen it walking in the woods, and I yelled. It kind of stopped, turned a little bit, and then it started north, parallel to the road. I had to turn my light meter on, and then I adjusted, and I snapped one picture, which was the first picture on the new roll that I had. I had 23 more, but I just snapped the one and I looked at [the creature again], and it was kind of a small brown spot."
Deciding that whatever he was looking at was too far away to justify another shot, Doerr got back into his truck and headed on to work. At most, he says, he thought what he had seen would make a funny story to tell that morning at the station. It never occurred to him that he had just jumped with both feet into the world of tabloid media.
The flood began as a trickle that afternoon with a phone call from the local weekly paper, the Everglades Echo. Doerr told reporter Cindy Hackney what he'd seen and that he'd taken a photo of it, and offered his opinion that someone was "playing a little situation here." She told him some things he hadn't known: Realtor Jan Brock, one of Doerr's neighbors, had seen the thing a few minutes before he had, crossing Burns Road from west to east. And an hour and a half later, two miles to the west, about twenty tourists in a van driven by Naples Trolley Tour guide John Vickers had experienced a far more intense encounter with the creature.
First they'd glimpsed it from a distance, jogging from east to west across Turner River Road, a common sightseeing route that parallels the alligator-crowded Turner River Canal. Then, after Vickers pulled off the road to lead most of his passengers on a "gator walk" a few hundred feet north along the canal bank, the thing popped out of the bushes 30 yards from the van -- frightening the three people who had stayed behind, two women in their thirties and an eight-year-old girl. "The ape man is out there, and he's going to eat me!" Vickers reported the girl screamed when he arrived back at the van, too late to get a close look at the cause of her terror. Vickers cut his tour short, loaded his passengers back into the van, and drove down to Everglades City to report what he'd seen at the local ranger station.
It was all great stuff, straight out of a Fifties B-movie. The Echo ran the story at the top of page one, headlining it "'Beast' causes stir." The paper illustrated its account with a pencil sketch that looked suspiciously like Lon Chaney in The Wolf Man.
Doerr, not one to waste his time on frivolity, paid scant attention to the gathering Skunk Ape storm. He didn't even bother to develop his film until ten days later. By that time, another player had stepped forward to take charge of the game.
That player was David Shealy, who along with his brother Jack owns the Florida Panther Gift Shop and the Big Cypress Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee. Located three miles east of where the Tamiami Trail meets the road down to Everglades City, the Shealy brothers' place is a perfect example of that endangered Old Florida institution, the roadside attraction.
It's most easily recognized from the Trail by the giant realistic fiberglass statue of a panther out front. The twenty-foot-long cat poses as if about to dash across the highway, his huge head turned to look east toward Miami, 65 miles away. Nearby a sign in front of a large metal building invites tourists to "See Alligators Turtles Snakes Bird Fish." Until recently those animals were the stars of the show here, the main draw for busloads of customers brought in by Everglades tour guides. Now, though, the concrete patio outside the gift shop bears the painted tracks of an exotic new heavyweight.
Along with a nearby store/restaurant called Joe's Quick Stop and a post office distinguished as the smallest in the United States (approximately seven by eight feet), the Shealy brothers' place is about all that's left of the village of Ochopee, a once thriving tomato-farming community that at midcentury lost the produce wars to Immokalee.
The Shealys have been on Tamiami Trail since before there was a Tamiami Trail, and they have been catering to tourists for close to half a century. Their father, Jack Sr., started the family campground in the early Sixties, and their mother Evelyn ran the closet-size Ochopee post office for years. David and Jack grew up in the family business, descendants of a clan that, like the Miccosukee tribe to the east, had gone from living directly off the land to marketing to outsiders its natural surroundings and traditional culture.
Unlike the Miccosukees, the Shealys and their neighbors in Ochopee and Everglades City were unable to set up casinos and bring in the cash, although they have tried other, somewhat shadier alternatives. Bird-plume hunting, moonshining, and alligator poaching have all had their days as semi-honorable occupations in the southwest Florida outback. In the Seventies and Eighties another outlaw pursuit, marijuana smuggling, took over. Like much of the area's male population, the Shealy brothers got into what became known locally as "pot hauling." And like many other locals, they got caught at it. The three years David spent in prison was the longest stretch of time he has been away from Big Cypress country. Oddly, he claims that those years were less stressful than the six months he has spent as the Skunk Ape's self-appointed spokesman.
The Shealys and the Skunk Ape go way back. According to David, the brothers got their one and only firsthand glimpse of the creature while out hunting in 1973. At that time, David was nine; he says the Skunk Ape they spotted "wasn't much to see, just a tall object moving into the Turner River Swamp, the same swamp where it's been sighted now." The location of their sighting south of the Tamiami Trail is pinpointed on a map that hangs in the gift shop's back room, which David has turned into a dollar-a-head minimuseum he calls the "Skunk Ape Research Headquarters." The map also shows the sites of the most recent encounters on Turner River and Burns roads, as well as other features of local ape lore: the Austin Camp, where a Skunk Ape reportedly fell through a hunting cabin's roof in 1974; and what's referred to as a "known breeding area" for a "family of five to seven" in the neighboring Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Above the map hangs a two-page spread from the Weekly World News headlined "Rampaging Bigfoot Threatens South Florida!" Other mounted clippings, from the Fort Myers News-Press, St. Petersburg Times, Florida Today, and the National Examiner, prominently feature both Vince Doerr's enigmatic photo and shots of local Skunk Ape experts David and Jack Shealy.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
Weeks's account, if accurate, contains one critical piece of information. Within ten or fifteen minutes of seeing the creature, he says, he was in the Shealy brothers' shop. David Shealy was visible out back, washing one of his snakes, and Jack Shealy was in the shop. "Ninety percent of the local people down there said, 'Well, it's just David pulling pranks, you know,' and I kind of halfway figured the same thing myself," Weeks reports. "But David didn't have time to get from where I was at to the shop, because there's no roads except that one road going back down to [U.S.] 41. So there was no way he could have got back to the shop before I did without me seeing him."
Encouraged by Weeks's testimony placing David Shealy far from the most recent sighting, Bob Carr wasted no time responding. He notified his tracking-expert partner, T.L. Riggs, that very afternoon, and by 8:30 the following morning Riggs was standing at the head of the trail near Turner River Road. Six piles of beans -- lima, pinto, and black-eyed peas, all mixed together -- sat apparently untouched on the far side of the lime-rock road. No bare footprints of any size were visible on the road's surface, and as Riggs entered the trail he saw only a few shoeprints. Evidently, the BASF bigfoot-chasers hadn't gone in very far.
Then, about 25 feet along the trail, Riggs hit pay dirt. Pressed firmly into the mud before him were five partial prints of large bare feet. Only the front third of each was visible, as if whoever or whatever had made them had been putting very little weight on its heels. The prints were smaller than those Shealy had found, but still quite a bit bigger than Riggs's size twelves; measurements put them at 4.3 inches across the ball. Not only that, they were perfect, each with five well-defined toes. Once again, as he had with the Burns Road footprint, Riggs went to work with his plaster to make an impression.
Like a microcosm of the Skunk Ape mystery itself, the cast Riggs brought back to show Carr offers a frustrating mix of clarity and obscurity. Where Shealy's fourteen-inch casts -- and the very similar fourteen-inch footprint we found by the broken rake -- are muddy and indistinct, Carr says Riggs's cast is detailed enough to evidence dermal ridges, the fingerprintlike whorls on the bottoms of the feet of all higher primates. (Carr and Riggs discovered this after the fact, when they took the cast out in bright sunlight to photograph it.) Tantalizingly, the toes of the Riggs print also seem to show no signs of having ever been confined in shoes. Then again, as big as it is, the new print still lies within the upper range of possibility for Homo sapiens. In Carr's view, it could have been made by a barefoot human over six feet tall and weighing more than 250 pounds.
"The track is authentic in that it's a track of a hominid, or a Homo sapiens-type creature. There's no doubt -- or I should say little doubt -- about that," Carr says. "The problem is, we haven't eliminated the fact that an individual much larger than the average human being could have been barefoot back there. The size doesn't in itself prove anything."
Once again, it would seem, the Skunk Ape has vanished back into the woods. But Carr thinks the creature's latest foray into the sunlight may have set the stage for resolving the matter. He plans to have the newest footprint cast analyzed by physical anthropologists, experts on feet and locomotion. He's continuing to monitor the Ochopee area, ready to chase the next sighting report at a moment's notice. He's even set up a toll-free number for Skunk Ape reports through the nonprofit Archaeological and Historical Conservancy -- stretching that organization's mandate to include the conservation of a living piece of Florida's heritage. The number is 800-790-0803. If you happen to see a huge, hairy, horrible-smelling humanoid, Bob Carr wants to know.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.