Bigfoot Encounters

Dateline: OCHOPEE


September 7, 1997 -- Believers in the Everglades Skunk Ape say the beast is big, hairy, and smells like a combination of rotten eggs, moldy cheese and dung. It's a popular legend that's been told and retold for decades.

Now they say there's a photo that proves the south's own Sasquatch exists.

The image is, of course, from a great distance. The brown blob of color in the middle of the photo shows the head and shoulders of a burly, manlike figure from the back - believers swear it's not a man in a gorilla suit - as it retreats into the thicket.

``There are a lot of things people don't know about out here,'' said David Shealy, a lifelong Everglades resident who owns the Florida Panther Gift Shop and a campground. ``I saw it one time when we were going out to hunt.''

Vince Doerr, the fire chief in tiny Ochopee, located about 75 miles west of Miami, snapped the picture in July. At the time, Doerr said he saw something large and hairy running on two legs across a gravel road that runs into the Everglades. Doerr would not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Shealy, though, will paint you a picture of the southern version of Bigfoot - and it's not pretty.

The stench comes from hanging around caves

The ape avoids detection by living in muddy and abandoned alligator caves, which are underground holding tanks of sorts that alligators may inhabit for months, doing all that alligators do there then leaving the remnants behind to stew in the Everglades dry season.

That accounts for the smell.

Shealy also said the beast can make like water.

``A lot of oldtimers believe the skunk ape can go in the aquifer underneath the Everglades and travel through it and come out in another place,'' Shealy said.

Legend goes that the skunk ape stands more than 7 feet tall, weighs more than 300 pounds, and is the color of brown swamp mud. It has a mostly vegetarian diet and loves to! steal pots of lima beans left to soak by Everglades hunters. Yet the ape also has been said to kill a deer, split open its belly, and eat only the liver.

``Skunk ape hunters try to bait them with livers,'' Shealy said.

As with any myth, second- and third-hand accounts abound. A man calling himself Scotty in the Swamp tells of an incident he claims happened to a friend in the 1950s.

``It was getting dark and he saw a shadowy figure in the approaching darkness. In those days you'd stop for people,'' said Scotty, who sells another person's Everglades photography along Tamiami Trail. ``He immediately noticed a rotten odor. Then through the window came a big, hairy arm and he just floored it.''

Shealy said a group of hunters told him about the night a skunk ape fell through the roof of their cabin, its eyes glowing red. As the men scrambled for their guns, it ripped a window from the wall and disappeared into the 'Glades.

On the other hand, some are skeptical

Others who know the Everglades well don't give th! e skunk ape legend much weight.

Bill Carroll spent the last eight years as the chief ranger of the Big Cypress National Preserve. In all that time, neither he nor any of his 70 park rangers and firefighters - who annually cover the three-quarters of a million acres by helicopter, airboat, swamp buggy, and foot - have seen the creature.

``We're not giving it much credence,'' Carroll said of the photo evidence. ``But the skunk ape thing is fun.''

The Skunk Ape, also called the Swamp Ape, is the same legend as the Yeti, Sasquatch, or Bigfoot. There are numerous Internet sites dedicated to the legend, including the Global Bigfoot Encyclopedia that reports ``confirmed'' sightings of the animal in five south Florida counties.

``The number of sightings in Florida is the greatest number outside of the Pacific northwest,'' said Grover Krantz, a Washington State University anthropologist and noted Bigfoot expert.

While Krantz believes a skunk ape could exist, he doubts Shealy's accounts of the creature moving through the aquifer since the creature ``isn't any more fond of water than any other animal.''

And what about hiding out in alligator caves?

``They don't live in anything,'' Krantz said. ``They are open country animals.''

The five summertime sightings occurred in Collier County, in the 729,000-acre Big Cypress preserve. All of the sightings have been near Ochopee, which also claims to be home to the smallest post office in the United States.

Shealy maintains the skunk ape sightings are not a hoax. He has two large plaster-of-Paris prints supposedly cast from the footprints of the beast that he keeps in a glass-topped box.

Shealy claims to have had a reddish hair sample from the skunk ape that he plucked from a broken branch seven feet from the ground. But then two guys in dark suits with dark wraparound sunglasses and driving a dark-colored car - yes, men in black - burst in on him in the middle of the night and took it.

Maybe some good could come of all this

Last month, Shealy took the photo shot by the fire chief and presented it to the Collier County Commission. The panel let him speak even though they'd hoped to avoid the whole issue.

When commission chairman Tim Hancock was handed the photo, the other commissioners huddled around as they would to see a picture of a new grandchild and started to poke fun.

``Mr. Chairman, in the interest of tourist dollars, we should release the picture immediately,'' said commissioner Tim Constantine.

``We could sell it to `Inside Edition''' Hancock said. ``We could subsidize the general fund next year.''

©Tallahassee Democrat Florida September 7, 1997
Record Number: 9709070101

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