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.”
• • •
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.