Bigfoot Encounters

Mysterious `ape' raising a big stink 
By Cyril T. Zaneski, Miami Herald Staff writer

1998 - OCHOPEE, Florida -- Someone -- or something -- was lurking in the dark, mysterious swamp just a few steps away from the old gravel road in the heart of cypress stands about 40 miles west of Miami. A small group of British tourists and their tour guide swear to that.

They reported seeing the hulking, ape-like creature lurking one afternoon last week behind a veil of Spanish moss that drips from the towering cypress trees at the swampy edges of Turner River Road.   Could it be . . . the skunk ape? That's right, the skunk ape.

Florida's Bigfoot, the Sasquatch of the Swamp, the Abominable Snowman of the subtropics, the Yeti of the Glades. A distant cousin of the more famous apemen of the northlands, the skunk ape's reported description usually closely follows those of its primitive relatives: about seven feet tall, flat-faced, broad-shouldered, covered with long hair or fur and -- of course -- reeking of skunk.

In recent weeks, several people have phoned in reports of creatures that fit that description to officials at Big Cypress National Preserve. The reports were believed to be the first since a flurry of skunk ape sightings in Southeast Florida 20 years ago.

Vince Doerr, chief of the Ochopee Fire Control District, saw a strange creature cross Burns Road near his home last Monday morning. "I was riding along when, 800 feet ahead of me, a brown-looking tall thing ran across the road," Doerr said. "It wasn't a bear -- that's for sure. It ran into the woods."

Doerr said he grabbed his camera and snapped away, but he thinks the creature was too far away for a good shot. He hasn't developed the film yet. Another tourist attraction: There were also reports from tour operators who travel one of South Florida's  best places to see wildlife -- Turner River Road. The unpaved state highway cuts through a slough crowded with bald cypress trees laden with Spanish moss and spidery air plants.

Dow Rowland, 54, a guide for Everglades Day Safari, said he was hauling six British tourists up Turner River Road last week when they spotted the apeman loping along the cypress trees on the west side of the road, about two miles north of Tamiami Trail.

"It was about six feet tall with brown, long fur," Rowland said. "It loped along like a big monkey or a gorilla, then it disappeared into the woods." Big guy gets around!  Rowland said his group was not the first to see the apeman this summer.

"There was a sighting from the Naples Trolley Tour out of Marco Island," Rowland said. "That driver was really shook up."  David Shealy, 33, owner of Florida Panther Gift Shop on Tamaimi Trail here, has a theory about why the skunk ape has shown itself lately.

"The mosquitoes have been so bad this year that they probably ran the skunk ape out of the mangroves," said Shealy, who claims to have seen the ape at a distance many years ago and sees its large, mushy footprints in the mud during hunting seasons.

Maybe it's a conspiracy: The tales go back decades in South Florida. "There were rumors in the 1960s of a Bigfoot or a really large skunk ape being held by the armed services at . . . Everglades National Park," wildlife biologist George Dalrymple said.

The ape escaped by ramming itself through a concrete block wall, as the story went. Some investigators made plaster casts of its prints, but those casts are top secret, probably locked away in federal vaults, Dalrymple said with a sly wink.

Sightings of the skunk ape were most frequent in the 1970s in the wake of 1967 film that allegedly showed Bigfoot strolling the California woods and a flurry of news reports of Sasquatch sightings in the Pacific Northwest. Not coincidently, this was also the time in Southeast Florida when developers were working their way west into the Everglades, bringing newcomers -- suburbanites -- into close contact with country folks who spent their weekends at hunting or fishing camps in the marshes.

"Back when everybody had camps out there, people would come back to town with stories," said J.A. Wasilewski, a biologist who once worked at Everglades Holiday Park, the airboating and fishing stop on U.S. 27 in western Broward. "People were seeing shadowy things, but that was usually after a couple six-packs of Bud out there in the swamp."

Endangered habitat: The stories have faded as the marshes and the camps have disappeared under suburban pavements. The sightings in the untamed swamps now being reported in Southwest Florida, which is now experiencing a housing development and tourism boom of its own.

Richard Greenwell, secretary of the International Society of Cryptozoology in Tuscon, Ariz., a group that investigates reported sightings of animals unknown to science, expects there'll always be reports of sightings of strange creatures somewhere.

"We live in a world where everything is structured by technology and predictable things," Greenwell said. ``People like to know that in this modern, humdrum world, there still unknown places. Still places wild enough to harbor animals still unknown to science."

Send the suit to the cleaners: To be sure, not everyone is curious. Ron Clark, leader of Big Cypress' resource management team, said the preserve doesn't investigate skunk ape sightings.  "I think we're safe in assuming that there are probably no previously unclassified primates roaming the Big Cypress," Clark said.

"We think somebody's playing a prank on our tourists."

Doerr and Rowland both believe what they saw was probably a man in a gorilla suit. "If I thought it was real, I would have run in there, beat it to death and sold it to the National Enquirer," Doerr said. "I think it's just somebody playing games."

Herald staff writer Susan Cocking also contributed to this report.

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