TAMPA — The authenticity of a Florida Skunk Ape video has been debated since 2000, when David Shealy supposedly captured footage of the creature in Ochobee’s Big Cypress National Preserve.

The two-minute video shows a large, hairy creature strolling on two legs through swamp.

It has been viewed more than 250,000 times on YouTube, shared by numerous media outlets, including the Smithsonian Magazine, and helps bring curious visitors to Shealy’s Skunk Ape Research Headquarters that doubles as a gift shop and campground office.

Is his footage real? More importantly, is the Skunk Ape?

“When people do not believe, it is ridiculous to me,” Shealy said.

Filmmaker Ryan Justice admits his own Skunk Ape footage captured in the wooded area behind the Museum of Science & Industry on Fowler Avenue is fake.

But he hopes it brings the same attention to the Florida legend as has Shealy’s video.

The Tampa producer and director spent September shooting a film with the working title The Wild Man throughout Hillsborough County in September.

Featuring Michael Pare, perhaps best known for portraying Eddie in Eddie and the Cruisers, the movie follows a group of young filmmakers who, while in the Florida wilderness as part of a documentary investigating a rash of missing persons, discover the Skunk Ape.

“As a lifelong Florida resident, I know the Skunk Ape is something people have always talked about,” Justice said. “Is it the Missing Link? Is it related to Big Foot? I don’t know. It is Florida legend that needs to be told.”

But is it real?

“There could be something else out there,” Justice said.

Hillsborough County film commissioner Tyler Martinolich echoed that sentiment.

“I’ll probably lose my filmmaker card for sharing this, but 90 percent of what I watch are shows about the paranormal and cryptozoology,” he said. “Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe.”

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Skunk Apes, named for their foul stench, are said to be between six and eight feet tall with short hair covering their bodies.

Unlike the five-toed Big Foot, Yeti, Sasquatch and the Abominable Snow Man allegedly seen in other parts of the world, Florida’s Skunk Ape have four toes and climb trees where they sleep on homemade matts, Shealy said.

Shealy, 57, believes there are as many as nine living in the area bounded by the 730,000-acre Big Cypress Preserve and the neighboring 1.5-million-acre Everglades National Park.

He has resided in the preserve all his life and claims to have spotted a Skunk Ape on four occasions since childhood.

“Sightings go back hundreds of years,” Shealy said. “During the Seminole Wars, people ran into Skunk Apes in their battles near the Miami River and Big Cypress.”

Still, in 1971, after an archaeologist reported seeing a seven-foot tall, 700 pound “ape man,” Betty Mae Jumper — a former chief of the Seminole Tribe — told Tampa reporters, “I’ve never heard anything like that in our legends … I’ve never heard any Indian talking about any ape man.”

But sightings continued throughout Florida.

In 1974, newspapers reported that the Florida Highway Patrol received two calls within two hours of each other from Fort Lauderdale residents who saw a Skunk Ape. The sightings were five miles apart near U.S. 27 and Hollywood Boulevard.

[ Times (1974) ]

Skunk Apes supposedly made their way to the Tampa Bay area in 1977. Newspapers reported sightings in Lakeland and Gibsonton, where locals discovered footprints that were 17 inches long, 10 inches wide and two inches deep.

“I get told of hundreds and thousands of sightings a year,” Shealy said. “I get asked all the time, ‘Then why are there no photos?’ Well, I see photos all the time. But I am not God. I can’t can’t call the news and force them to show someone’s photo.”

One of the more recent Skunk Ape sightings covered by local newspapers was in 2004, when a Lakeland woman claimed to have seen one up close. She described it as six to eight feet tall with hair that was two inches long and lips that had the texture of a dog’s paw pad.

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“I am not about to say that there is no such thing as the Skunk Ape,” said Cathy Salustri, who wrote about them in her book Backroads of Paradise: A Journey to Rediscover Old Florida.

“Every culture across the world, no matter how isolated they have been from other cultures, no matter where they are on the globe, has a legend of some sort of Sasquatch. It doesn’t matter what people think. If it is out there, it is out there.”

The Skunk Ape is one of three such creatures that allegedly reside in Florida, Salustri said.

The northeast Florida town of Bardin has what they call the Bardin Booger.

And the northwest Florida town of Two Egg has the Two Egg Stump Jumper, which is allegedly a “little bigfoot,” Salustri said. News archives say it stands around five feet.

If real, director Justice feels bad for these hairy human-like creatures resigned to dealing with the Florida heat.

His movie’s Skunk Ape body suit — created by special effects artist Derek Garcia, whose credits also include Avengers: Endgame and Doom Patrol — is a silicon number that required a cooling system to run cold water to the chest of actor Tim Bedinghaus.

“He had to wear the suit for five days,” Justice said. “It is hot.”

So, between takes, the actor was provided air conditioning and plenty of water.

His snacks did not include lima beans, which, according to Shealy, are a Skunk Ape’s favorite.

“They’re omnivores so like all sorts of beans,” Shealy said. “They will ransack a camp site and the primary things taken from the dry goods are beans, a lot of times lima beans.”

He recalled the time around 1967 when a group of campers in the Everglades were cooking lima beans in a pot. A Skunk Ape, he said, crashed through the cabin ceiling, snatched the beans and took “out a whole wall” to escape before the campers could get to their guns.

“They love lima beans,” Salustri said. “If you set out a pot of lima beans in the Everglades and they are eaten by morning, it could be a Skunk Ape.”

[ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

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