Roaming through the swampy, inhospitable vastness of the Everglades, there exist foul-smelling, hairy, bipedal creatures that are purported to have glowing eyes, weigh 500 pounds and stand 6-8 feet tall.
Legend has it that Florida Skunk Ape roam the more than 2 million acres that comprise Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park. A cousin of Bigfoot, the creature has been known by a handful of regional titles throughout the state: Heap Monster, Swamp Cabbage Man, Swampsquatch and the Two Egg Stump Jumper.
This cryptid — an animal whose existence is unsubstantiated — has been the subject of passionate research, films, books and newspaper reports. But other than footprint casts and some purported visual documentation, cryptozoologists and researchers have yet to produce definitive evidence showing Florida’s Sasquatch exists.
Despite his detractors, one longtime Skunk Ape hunter, Dave Shealy, insists that his photographic and video documentation prove the beast’s existence.
“None of my findings have ever been disproven, none of them. Not my tracks, not my photographs, and certainly not the video,” he said. “I feel like I’ve proven they exist.”
Skunk Ape’s research epicenter
At first glance, the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters appears to be a kitschy roadside attraction complete with alligators, a 10-foot python and a Florida panther statue, plus myriad Skunk Ape T-shirts, shot glasses and barbecue sauce. But it’s also the site where Shealy, the Skunk Ape researcher, captured evidence he says proves the cryptid is real.
At this Ochopee roadside stop along Tamiami Trail, U.S. 41, visitors may have the chance to meet the fourth-generation inhabitant of the Everglades, who is usually wearing a cowboy hat to complement his tall build and gray goatee. As a 10-year-old boy, Shealy had a fateful encounter that inspired his life’s work.
“My brother and I were out hunting, and he saw something in the distance. He had to pick me up to where I could see over the grass,” he said. “About 100 yards away, walking in front of us from right to left, was a tall animal … It was manlike and covered in hair.”
From that point on, Shealy set out on a quest to learn more. While running the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters and Trail Lakes Campground, he’s spent countless hours in the swamp, hoping for further proof of his claims.
In 1997, Shealy had another pivotal sighting around the same time a busload of tourists claimed to have spotted the Skunk Ape.
“It crossed right in front of me, 100 yards, very near the spot where I saw it as a kid. It was textbook stealth hunting,” he said. “I was just amazed; it was like seeing a ghost … I took 27 photographs that day. When the pictures came out, I was like, ‘Holy smokes; I’ve done it.’ ”
Though the photos didn’t garner widespread attention, Shealy continued on his quest. In 2000, he captured two minutes of grainy footage showing an apelike creature meandering across the swamp before breaking into a run.
“I was thinking I’d see a deer and then all of a sudden, I saw a Skunk Ape,” Shealy said. “The water at that time of the year was about a foot and a half high … It starts running faster than a man could ever run. Water is flying in the air.”
Other than the visual documentation, Shealy points to footprint casts and eyewitness accounts, some of which he investigates himself, as additional evidence of the cryptid’s reality. Plus, he investigates food sources and “nesting” materials in trees, where he suspects Skunk Ape live.
While many of the Sunshine State’s caves are only accessible to scuba divers who venture out underwater, Florida Caverns State Park in the Panhandle presents explorers with the opportunity to walk through an air-filled underground cave system on a guided tour.
Though skeptics may dismiss Shealy’s work as fake, far more reputable researchers are open to the possibility of nonhuman bipedal apes.
Jane Goodall, the well-known scientist, conservationist and chimpanzee expert, hasn’t ruled out the existence of Sasquatch or Bigfoot.
“I’m a romantic. I would like Bigfoot to exist. I’ve met people who swear they’ve seen Bigfoot,” she said in an interview with Yahoo. “There’s something; I don’t know what it is. I’m always open-minded.”
Dr. Jeff Meldrum, an Idaho State University professor, received an endorsement from Goodall on the cover of his book, “Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science,” for bringing a “much-needed level of scientific analysis to the sasquatch — or Bigfoot — debate.”
Meldrum, who specializes in anatomy and anthropology, believes the Patterson-Gimlin film and footprint casts he’s collected point to the existence of bipedal “relic hominids” — nonhuman apes that have persisted alongside Homo sapiens — but doesn’t find Shealy’s evidence compelling.
“I find the footprint evidence offered by Shealy is highly questionable and it’s inconsistent with the model of a Sasquatch foot,” he said, noting that his casts have five toes and Shealy’s have four. “There’s enough titillating, if not compelling, evidence that something is leaving these footprints. People are seeing something out there in the woods that defies explanation and rationalization.”
The National Park Service did not return requests for comment about the Skunk Ape.
Other researchers, such as Florida anthropologist and archaeologist Bob Carr, have investigated the possibility of Sasquatch but remain unconvinced.
In interviews over the years, Carr heard enough eyewitness reports to think “something real” had been seen by somebody more than once. But, in his mind, these accounts don’t prove the existence of an apelike beast.
“None of this type of evidence, including films or any kinds of videos, is really proof. There is no proof that there is a Florida Skunk Ape,” Carr said. “I have yet to see anything fully documented in the way of DNA or looking at hair samples that indicate an unknown creature.”
Cryptids across continents
In the United States, Sasquatch made its way into public consciousness in 1967, when a 60-second film captured by cowboys Bob Gimlin and Roger Patterson showed a gorilla-like figure wandering through the forest in Northern California.
“It certainly has become the iconic image [for Bigfoot] because it’s so singular,” Meldrum said. “If it’s authentic, there was a lot of luck, but also a lot of sweat and perseverance that went into capturing that film.”
This piece of Bigfoot history lurched the creature into the spotlight with ranks of researchers following in the pair’s footsteps, hoping to find the unproven species. To this day, Sasquatch has also left a giant footprint on pop culture, appearing on stickers, posters, T-shirts, beer cans and even in live music.
But some Bigfoot believers are quick to point out this legend dates back much further.
“The history of these large-footed cryptids — the Yeti, the Abominable Snowman, Sasquatch, Bigfoot — the stories go back hundreds of years … Most of the Indians have some kind of hairy man mythology,” said Brad Bertelli, an author and curator of the Keys History Discovery Center (82100 Overseas Highway in Islamorada). “Six of the seven continents have stories that date back about these creatures.”
Tales of the Skunk Ape have appeared in newspaper reports in the last several decades, particularly when a slew of sightings made their way into headlines in the 1970s.
A team of amateur archaeologists reported seeing a manlike animal in their Big Cypress Swamp camp one night with footprints that measured 17.5 inches long, according to the “Sarasota Journal” in 1971. The Florida Highway Patrol received reports of a humanlike beast near U.S. 27 and went looking for the smelly creature in January 1974.
Then there was a well-documented sighting in Key Largo in July 1977. Charles Stoeckmann, a Vietnam War veteran and former police officer, was hunting for rare bottles along mangroves with his 13-year-old son when they sighted something lurking.
“The Skunk Ape was 8 or 9 feet tall and must have weighed about 500 pounds,” said Stoeckmann in The Reporter newspaper. “It had a huge head and shoulders, long fur all over and he stunk like a dirty wet dog.”
Stoeckmann’s wife, Leslie, also reported seeing the beast before taking her three children and leaving Key Largo while her husband stayed behind to look for the creature, gun in hand. Despite the sightings, police were unable to turn up concrete evidence of the Skunk Ape.
During the same year, Rep. Hugh Nuckolls from Fort Myers tried to pass a bill in the Florida House making it illegal to take, possess or harm “any anthropoid or humanoid animal which is native to Florida, popularly known as the skunk ape.” The bill did not pass.
Searching for Skunk Ape
Chirping crickets provide the soundtrack for trudging through the spongy swamps of the Everglades while cypress trees and bromeliads set the scene. Here and there, a crow caws as Shealy slogs his way through the brush in snakeproof boots.
Near the edge of a murky pool, there’s a footprint and a line in the mud, which the researcher stops to investigate.
“We found what appears to be an unusual track, possible alligators,” Shealy said. “Could be a Skunk Ape, so we’ll make a note of it.”
After pointing out what he thinks could be nesting material up in the canopy, Shealy squats, his back resting against a formidable cypress tree, and takes a long drag from his cigarette. His bright blue eyes light up, telling tales of nights under thousands of stars in the Big Cypress Preserve.
If anyone has, in fact, seen a Skunk Ape, it’s not unfathomable to think Shealy, a lifelong Gladesman, would be the one. The researcher has spent thousands of hours in the swampy Everglades, sometimes covering seven miles in a day while dodging water moccasins and alligators. In total, he said he’s logged four sightings, more than 200 tracks and believes there are seven to nine Skunk Apes in the Everglades.
Tracking down the elusive creature has proven to be dangerous work, plus Shealy has faced criticism from detractors for decades. Thinking of his grandkids and his well-being, the researcher has announced he plans to retire.
“It’s been a long, hard life … I’m going to put myself first for a while. I’ve never done that,” Shealy said. “[I have] a video that has never been disputed; it’s never been debunked. I’ve given it my best shot. I feel like I’ve proven they exist.”
Florida is not known for its waterfalls, as those natural features are usually reserved for states with bigger elevation changes. Though they’re few and far between, the Sunshine State has several hidden, cascading gems for explorers who seek them.
We live in a world where around 1.6 million species have been identified, and the Earth has been cataloged, explored and mapped to no end. Passionate Bigfoot believers can insist the cryptid is real, but from a scientific perspective, empirical evidence is necessary to prove a species exists.
“Until physical remains are brought into science where people can really look at it, I don’t think it’s enough to have hairs that are inconclusive,” Carr said. “You need the bones, you need the body. Until that happens, there will a lot of guys like you writing these stories.”
At the same time, it’s possible that a cryptid such as the Skunk Ape could be real when scientists hypothesize there are some 8.7 million species on Earth.
The mystery of this smelly creature begs the question: If enough people claim to have seen something, does that make it true?
More than 2 million acres of wilderness in the Everglades are largely unexplored, presenting a wet, inhospitable environment for humans. Out there, there could exist species we have yet to discover.
But in an era where we have many tools for scientific discovery, why does the only evidence of Bigfoot or Skunk Ape’s existence come in the form of grainy video and purported footprint castings? If the legend of this hairy cryptid proves anything, it’s that some questions can’t quite be answered.