Forget the mall walkers, David Jasper's hoofin' it with the Skunk Ape

Along with everything else going against Bigfoot - decreasing territory, low public interest, excessive body hair - "they really do smell bad," says researcher Diane Stocking.

"You've got reports from "smells like a skunk" to "smells like rotten eggs" Somebody will have a report that it smells like ammonia, a musky ammonia smell. They all agree that it smells bad."

Stocking is a Florida Bigfoot researcher; which is a fancy way of saying she stalks Bigfoot. When I drive up to the gate of her property, where she and her three sons live in a trailer, I honk the horn, just as she'd instructed me. After she opens the gate, I drive up the shell and gravel driveway and past Choctaw, her 27-year-old horse, standing sentinel-like in front of the doublewide.

The home is parked on the outskirts of Mims, a small East Coast town north of nowhere, aka Titusville. She's wearing colorless overalls over a spaghetti-strapped tank. She attempts to get her dogs, including a Boston terrier named Sonny and a boxer named Rowdy outside in the thing rain. The terrier refuses and hops up next to me on the couch. Stocking offers me a beer or tea, then pops open a bottle of Busch for herself and lights a cigarette.

"So what do you want to know?" she asks. An excellent reputation for investigating Skunk Ape reports, she is part of the Bigfoot community's information elite, one vital link in a chain of researchers gathering data and filing it online.

Through her work, she has almost 30 documented cases of sightings in Florida. It is because of her efforts that I have come here. I want to know about Bigfoot and, if time and weather permit, perhaps see-him in his element.

Stocking believes that Bigfoot, much like the rare Florida panther, uses rural corridors to move between larger areas such as the Green Swamp, where there were several sightings in the '80s, Big Cypress National Preserve and Ocala National Forest. Farmton Wildlife Management Area, located just down the dirt road, could be such a pathway.

Archery season is in full swing and every few minutes a Jeep or monster truck rumbles by. Hunting season is the only time she has to worry about traffic on the secluded street. During our interview, several loud reports go off. They sound unnervingly close to the trailer.

"Was that a shotgun?" I ask. "Probably," she says. "I don't even pay attention to it up here. We have 'em go off all the time." Her dogs are of a different mind on that subject. Shortly after the shots go off, Kate, part Border collie, pops in the panel out of the screen door and climbs through, followed by Rowdy. "You just bull your way in young lady?" Stocking scolds. "You commin' in, too. (Rowdy?) I've gotta fix that now. I don't even want to talk to you. Go lay down. Go lay down. Lay down Rowdy, Lay down. Right behind the dogs, a tiny frog hops in and disappears behind Stocking's rocking recliner. I don't let on about it, though. She might think I'm kooky. "We could go out in the woods if you really, really want to," she says. "If you don't mind walking a little bit." Of course I don't mind. I have not just driven 141.3 miles to drink Busch and hope Bigfoot will climb through the screen door, like a dog or a frog.

Footprints from the Past

Someone wake up Leonard Nimoy: Bigfoot's 15 minutes of fame aren't up. You know Bigfoot, aka "Sasquatch"? Or its Florida moniker, skunk ape, but all refer to the tall hairy bipedal great ape stereotypically "found" in the Northwest. For a creature whose existence has never been proven - or disproven, a crucial conceit to this story - the elusive Bigfoot gets around.

The long fabled Bigfoot's popularity got a boost in 1967 when a pair of investigators, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin caught shaky footage of a large hairy ape-like creature making off into some nearby woods in Bluff Creek California. Even skeptics have had a hard time figuring out how this sighting, famously captured in what is now called "The Patterson Film," could have been hoaxed. (In the late 1990's, Cliff Crook, A Bigfoot investigator, held a press conference saying he had evidence of a bell shaped fastener visible in four frames of the film - proof that is was a man in a suit. This finding has been largely dismissed and Crook is viewed by many in the Bigfoot community as a hoaxer himself.)

America was hooked on Bigfoot throughout the 1970's, which fit perfectly with the decade's dirty zeitgeist, and Diane Stocking was hooked right along with it. She became interested after she heard about sightings in the southern portion of the state, where she was born and raised, and began reading books on the subject. The media quietly moved on to more sensational cryptozoological species (e.g.,chupacabras), but Bigfoot's hardcore fans remained warm if not hot on the Bigfoot trail.

Sasquatch Stomps on the Information Superhighway

The Bigfoot scene is awash in attention-seekers and media whores who impede the work Stocking and others are trying to do. Though some of these people have been discredited buy the Bigfoot community, the media still picks up on some of these guy's work.

That's where the usefulness of the Internet comes into play, says Stocking. It allows researchers and witnesses to circumvent the usual means of communication - the mainstream media, or worse, sensationalistic tabloids - as the usual means of getting word out about sightings or new information. All without attracting the usual ridicule.

"We can talk amongst each other, spread information a lot faster than waiting for somebody's book to come out or somebody's research paper to come out. There is still a lot we need to learn, but we've learned a lot even though we have no specimen to actually study, we are learning more about their anatomy as far as their feet, their legs, the -- you can put your feet up there," she says. I do. I put my size ten feet on the wooden coffee table and ponder what we might find once we're in the woods. As an investigator-researcher, Stocking must wade through the many reports of sightings she receives. Unfortunately about 70% of those turn out to be hoaxes or "kids playing around on the Internet." There are also "misidentifications." At dusk, a tree stump or the behind of a horse can look remarkably, to some eyes, like Bigfoot.

The rest, she says are legitimate sighting. The drawers of her wooden desk are stuffed with files. Once Stocking receives word of a Bigfoot sighting, she will either travel to the location of the sighting or have one of six volunteers around the state interview the witnesses, check out the area and write a formal report. (If you know anyone in the Panhandle, she could use a volunteer in that area).

Ochopee, Florida, a town between Naples and Miami saw a flurry of Bigfoot activity in July 1997. Among several who had sightings were a real estate agent named Jan Brock, who had a sighting of a 7 foot tall, furry brown creature crossing the road two miles north of U.S. 41. A few minutes later on that same morning, Vince Dooer had a similar sighting.

Hot on their heels was David Shealy, owner of a local R/V park and gift shop who insinuated himself into the situation. He once snapped 27 photos of a skunk ape in one day and in 1999 lobbied Collier County to budget part of its funds toward skunk ape tourism.

"Through interviews and phone conversations with Shealy, "this investigator sees this entire incident as a hoax perpetrated by Shealy. There are too many inconsistencies in his story." Complains Stocking: "Most of the time I'm fielding things about David Shealy, instead of going out there and hunting something down. Luckily, now they hear something from David Shealy, they'll probably roll their eyes and say, "yeah sure!"

"If I was standing there next to David and there was Bigfoot standing next to him, and he said, "hey Diane, this is a Bigfoot," I wouldn't believe him."

Swamp Boogie

Stocking rides shotgun in my wife's Mitsubishi through American Pickup-truck country a couple of miles to the management area. We pass several circular marks in the dirt road; the results she says, of four-wheelers doing donuts. We park at the end of a dirt road next to a squatters' hunting camp of dilapidated trailers, old sinks, tarps. Not my exact idea of hell, but not a place I'd want to spend eternity ore even a night.

The road becomes increasingly grassy and overgrown until we read the brush. "You're gonna get your feet wet, now," She says. "That's ok," I say, figuring you can't find Bigfoot if you don't get your feet wet. "It's gonna be deep here." She Steps off into a puddle, and we begin wading through knee-deep water, then thigh-deep, which is as far as I'll let water go on the first date.

Although there is never been a sighting that she knows of in this management area, "This is prime territory right here," she says. "And you don't have to worry about the snakes. We're heading for high ground right now.
"So right now we can worry about them?"
A minute later, we're still wading. "This is normal. I go through this all the time," she says. I'm beginning to lose faith in this high-ground theory. The landscape in the area consists mostly of saw palmetto and small to medium pines. A wildfire in 1998 gave Stocking a scare, she says. "It passed right through my back yard."

According to her, until just three weeks ago, the submerged path where I now watch my sneakers disappearing under tannin-colored water was bone dry. She yanks out a reedy plant. "See these?" - I tore off the bulb off - but (Bigfoot) will eat the bulbs off of these water plants. That's why you'll see them a lot during the wet season in areas like this because they'll eat these bulbs, because they're tender.

They will also eat nuts and berries, according to Stocking. "They'll get in to an area where there's a lot of huckleberry, wild blue berries and grapes that grow wild."

Before she became a baker three years ago, Stocking was a meter reader. Before that, she worked in forestry. During the Reagan administration, she says, it was difficult for anyone in her field to get work beyond 180-day appointments, assignments that took her all over North Florida. Though she has never had a Bigfoot sighting, her experience
comes in handy when she's investigating other people's sightings. "Some people (who have had a Bigfoot encounter) are amazed or awed," she says. "Most are frightened." "I've never seen it," she says. "If I ever do, I'm sure I'll be shook up. But no, I'm not afraid for my life." She will, however, sometimes take her .38 with her.

"If I go out there with something, it's to protect me from the two legged versions of us. I'm not worried about being attacked by a Bigfoot at all. On two of my investigations I've taken my sons with me."

As I slog through the much, trying to keep my tape recorder and notebook dry, Stocking gets a pretty good lead on me and I feel much less safe when she reaches dry ground, an intersection in the woods and I'm still wading a good ten yards back.

Suddenly she ducks back behind the brush and starts waving to me and pointing. "Look, look, look!" she says.
No, could it be? I ran over.
"Just turkeys" she says.
Just wild turkeys, a dozen-strong flock of them with the good sense to run down the dry trail ahead. We follow, the gap between them and us growing wider and wider, my sneakers squirting water every step of the way.

Bigfoot Schmigfoot

I'm going to break away from the traditional storytelling methods employed in this story and speak frankly, dear reader. I won't ruin the surprise because there is no surprise. (Unless you really thought we were going to see Bigfoot, in which case you've surprised me.)

We do not see Bigfoot in the woods near her house. We do not, in fact, see Bigfoot, or the skunk ape or whatever it is at all. Did you really think we would? However I did see a lot of large pickups that resembled Bigfoot, the famous monster truck.

Evidence of Bigfoot abounds - eyewitness accounts, plaster casts of footprints, blurry photos, videos, audio recordings and even scat (poop) samples - just about everything you'd need but the simian himself.

For some, the footprints and such are sufficient to stoke the fires of their faith. "Not good enough" says Michael R. Dennett, who spends his free time squirting water on these fires. Though he's a skeptic in general, - you should hear this guy go off on astrology - his area of interest is monsters and cryptozoology. A frequent contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer, Dennett contends that Bigfoot is not an impossible creature - just highly improbable. Not that he spends a lot of time in the woods looking around: "I'm not interested in wasting my time looking for something that's not there." Dennett studies the more organic evidence: footprints, hair and fur samples, even blood sample that turned out to be transmission fluid. For just about every sample their camp comes across, Bigfoot believers find a "theoretical expert," someone with enough academic credentials to identify it to their liking.

"Occasionally they will find somebody who we would recognize as a legitimate person in this field," Dennett says. "Because they are not familiar with some of the techniques that are involved, they will come to conclusions that seem to support the idea that there are these humanoid monsters running around - so that's where we can get involved and make some sense out of things that don't seem to make sense." Dennett is philosophical about the skeptic's lot in life. There is no dissuading hardcore believers, even though the decks are stacked against Bigfoot. Among Dennett's arguments against Bigfoot's existence is the fact that the Homo sapien is the only great ape (including chimps, gorillas, orangutans) that lives outside the tropics and this is adaptive behavior: We wear Polartec.

Going by witness descriptions, Bigfoot is larger in size and more human-like than any of the great apes. To also be bipedal (walking on hind legs, Dennett argues, it would have to be genetically closer to man that even the chimpanzee, which shares 98 percent of our DNA.

"I don't pay much attention to the Skeptical Inquirer," says Diane Stocking, though she is aware that North America doesn't have any other known great apes. "But see, we're dealing with something we don't know anything about. All we've got is fossil records to go by." Which brings us to what many believers (a word Stocking hates) believe: Bigfoot belong to a species called Gigantopithecus blacki, a descendent of the genus Gigantopithecus, a 50-million year old creature discovered in caves in China.

Even on this theory, the two differ. Stocking says all that's been found is a lower mandible and a couple thousand teeth. Dennett maintains that there are but three or four teeth. At anyrate, the theory holds that maybe, just maybe, like man, these creatures could have cross the Bering Land Bridge. Again there is no proof that this migration ever took place.

"We would contend that the burden of proof is on the promoters," says Dennett. And if ever the believers produced, say a carcass? Humph, well, they would be right," Dennett, says. "We'd immediately throw in the towel on that one. We would say, "Hey here it is. You've won your case. Very easily. We'd be happy too."
Or would they?
"Now. This said, the question would be: If you folks produced a body in Florida…we'd question that! If we produced a body here, would that mean that there really are skunk apes running around?"

They want his body

I hate to say it's gonna take a carcass," says Dan Jackson, one of Diane Stocking's 6 volunteer investigators - one of her best, she says. As a former marine and retired hunter and reptile trapper, he knows what to look for out in the field. We're in this to prove it's existence, scientifically and hopefully one of these days we will do that. I don't know what it's going to take. Evidently that might be just what it's going to take, a carcass."

In November 1983, Jackson had a skunk ape sighting while hunting hogs in Collier County. If anyone had a shot at bringing in Bigfoot tied to the hood of his truck it was Jackson. "That's where it got into my blood and got me hooked, so to speak," Jackson says. Sitting in folding lawn chairs in his Lithia front yard, Jackson and I are surrounded by the many stray kittens he and his wife take in. He recounts his Bigfoot sighting in chilling, hair-raising detail. Jackson was hunting hogs in Collier County, near Naples, Florida - "Out in the Glades so to speak" he says. The landscape there varies between open saw grass and bay head swamp, thick strands of threes that dot the Everglades prairie.

"I was in a big old bay head swamp," he says. "I had just inadvertently jumped a buncha hogs and I spooked 'em. They jumped up and took off - 12, 14 hogs - and so I just stood still. If you run 'em, they'll go to the next county.

Assuming that the hogs would head for high ground, Jackson attempted to sneak up and get downwind of them. When spooked, "a hog's mush glands get up and everything and you can smell them long before you see them."

After about ten minutes, he went around to the left to give them a wide berth. He walked out in the 3 ft tall saw grass, and then turned to head in the direction he thought the hogs had gone. "I was sort of hunkered down so they would see me, and I was looking at the ground trying to see if I had crossed their track. If they had come through if they was still in that bay head. I'd gone about a hundred yards and I stood up straight and was looking to see what I could see, and I saw a dark blob at this other bay head on my left, it was about a hundred yards away, standing right at the edge of the bay head." "I say, what in the world?" And my first thought was a bear. I got a bear." And as he held his Remington 12-gauge loaded with buckshot, Jackson said to himself, "I'm gonna have bear steak."

"I was hunkered low walking and I went about another 40-50- yards and eased up and saw he was still there. This thing stood up, turned, and looked at me. And when it did, that's when I froze solid inside and out, I mean just "zap!"

He stands and shows how the dark blob was bent at the waist, then turns to face me. "I didn't know what I was looking at. I don't want to say fear, but it was cold." The encounters lasted about 10 seconds. The way the creature turned, at the waist, is consistent with reported skunk ape and Bigfoot characteristics. It looked at Jackson for a moment, and then walked silently into the dark part of the bay head. Jackson waited a minute or two, "to unthaw and get my heart rate back," before following at least as far as where the creature had stood. When he got 20 yards away, the smell was rotten eggs and sulfur. "The smell was not overpowering, but extremely strong," Jackson says. "Very strong."

Jackson estimates that the bigfoot he saw was more than 6 feet in height, landing under the category of skunk ape, which is considered to be much shorter than the Northwestern variety of 9 footers. It was thickly muscled and weighed between 250 and 300 pounds.

Perhaps the strangest thing is that Jackson completely forgot about his gun. It didn't really occur to him until he headed back to camp and told his wife what had just happened. "That's where it got into my blood and got me hooked, so to speak," Jackson says. Before the sighting, he had heard about Bigfoot but never seriously considered the possibility of its existence. What he likes to do now, wife and weather permitting is to go up to the Green Swamp or down to the Big Cypress alone for a week at a time. He watches and waits, using the techniques he learned during the two years in the Marine Corp and 20 years as a trapper.

Having another sighting has proven difficult to say the least. "We are dealing with an intelligent creature.," he says. He's not an idiot and he's not a chimpanzee on TV. He thinks things out. I'm not saying that he can do math problems, but what I'm saying is he's a problem solver. And he's learned about man, he's learned about firearms. He knows what's going on there. And this is being passed on."

Luck has been on Jackson's side before and twice he has had the fortune to see the elusive Florida panther. Jackson stalks, but he does not intend to kill Bigfoot or the skunk ape or what ever is out there. "I'm not going to take pictures," he says. Along with cameras and tape recorders, he brings plastic bags for scat samples. "I hate to say it but I've gotten pretty good at telling scat." He estimates there could be a dozen skunk apes dropping droppings around the state. Stocking thinks it would take more than a dozen to maintain the population - which may be dwindling due to the encroachment of man.

"I love to do it," Jackson says of his expeditions. Going after this thing in his environment, at night, is exciting as all get out. I'm not afraid of being hurt by him. I'm afraid of hurting myself stepping in a hole and breaking my leg or maybe not seeing that cottonmouth water moccasin and getting bit or something like that. Or even worse, getting bit by a mosquito with some exotic disease."

"But the excitement - it's not dangerous excitement - looking for this and knowing that there is every possibility that in the next five minutes you're going to get the proof that is going to blow the scientific world right off its butt. Because they're going to have to stand up and say, "yes, this thing exists."

Feature writer David Jasper
© Weekly Planet Vol 13 No. 31 Tampa Florida

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