On the Trail of Florida’s Bigfoot—the Skunk Ape

Is an imaginary creature a case of mistaken identity?


(Continued from page 1)

Shealy and I spent about an hour hiking the swamp before climbing up into one of his tree stands to take a break. We talked about Shealy’s life in the swamp and his family’s history there, which dates to 1891, when they settled and built the area’s first schoolhouse. For decades, they catered to tourists, giving swamp tours and renting spots on their campground. After the NPS established the preserve in 1974, though, it bought out most of his neighbors, and things took a turn for the worse. “The park took all our air buggy trails, and swamp boat trails, and they built their own campground. They stole our 50-year customer base,” he said. “My mom and dad worked hard for this place, and then the government built six campgrounds and instructed their employees to tell people not to come here. They just wanted us gone.” Most infuriating, he said, was that if he wanted to keep giving visitors tours on swamp property, he’d have to sit down in a classroom and take an official test. His burning resentment of the park service was palpable. (Later, when I asked Bob DeGross, the park spokesman, about all this, he declined to comment on Shealy’s particular complaints, but acknowledged that the creation of the preserve was “a controversial process.”)

Then Shealy returned to talking about the skunk ape; he pointed out plants growing in the surrounding area that he believes the family of 6 to 12 existing animals feed on and complained that most park authorities who have declared that the animal don't exist hadn’t spent nearly as much time as him in the swamp. But at a certain point, it became hard to ignore the fact that his long-running feud with the government endowed some of his claims regarding the skunk ape with the tinge of conspiracy. He told me that the night after he spotted the skunk ape in 1998, he saw a government helicopter hovering above the site for hours on end. He said that when he spotted the animal in 2011, he gathered a small sample of its hair off a branch where it’d been snagged, but that unidentified federal agents came to his house the next day and confiscated it.

(Photo by Joseph Stromberg)
(Photo by Joseph Stromberg)
(Photo by Joseph Stromberg)

As I listened to Shealy’s claims, they also became hard for me to swallow for a reason that had nothing to do with his history: his utter lack of hard proof. “There’s something called the International Code of Nomenclature, and it tells you that if you’re going to describe a new species, there are certain types of evidence that you have to have, and they have to be available for other scientists to evaluate,” Roland Kays, a wildlife zoologist who worked with Helgen in discovering the olinguito, had told me before my trip to Florida. “That’s where sightings are just useless. The quality of the evidence needs to stand up to the boldness of the claim.”

While it’s impossible to completely disprove the possibility, he said, it seems exceedingly unlikely that the skunk ape could live for centuries in south Florida without us coming upon firmer evidence: a specimen, likely in the form of roadkill. Kays pointed me to the case of the eastern cougar—a relict population of cougars that, some believe, lives in the Northeast, although we have no verifiable evidence. The unlikelihood of that scenario was demonstrated in 2011, when an actual cougar, for unclear reasons, migrated from South Dakota to New England and produced several pieces of hard evidence along the way, including clear photos taken by motion-activated trail cameras and, eventually, its dead body, hit by an SUV on a highly trafficked Connecticut parkway.

Moreover, the ecological and evolutionary circumstances of the skunk ape are suspect. There’s no fossil evidence showing that the extinct mega-apes that some Bigfoot believers cite ever lived anywhere in the Americas. North America, meanwhile, has never proved itself as a hospitable ecosystem for any great ape apart from humans.

The lack of evidence may tell us that the skunk ape doesn’t exist. But does that make Shealy a fraud? Many have observed that the animal in these images looks remarkably like a person in disguise, and have even speculated that it’s Shealy’s media-averse brother, Jack—the only other person present at Dave’s very first sighting—wearing the costume.

Sitting up there in that tree stand and chatting with Shealy, I wanted to come to any possible conclusion besides one that would result in my traveling to the swamps of Florida to spend a day with a generous, likable man, listen to his stories and then call him a liar. As our conversation concluded, we hiked back to his house, and he gave me a can of Coke before I set off. “Drive safe now,” he said, shaking my hand before I turned to get in my car.

* * *

Shealy had told me about one time, when a skunk ape sighting was called in to him from the nearby town of Immokalee and he went to investigate. He followed a pair of tracks until they came up against something unexpected: a tall, barbed-wire fence that enclosed a mysterious primate-breeding facility. He stood there, listening to the whooping cries of monkeys, before following the tracks as they continued away. The skunk ape, he speculated, had been attracted by the cries of its distant brethren. He’d previously heard rumors of the place, and even believed that its location might not be coincidental, given the presence of a large ape indigenous to the surrounding area.

The story sounded as far-fetched to me as any he’d told. But, undaunted, I pulled over at the Big Cypress welcome center about three miles from his house and searched “primate facility Immokalee” on my phone. Primate Products, Incorporated was the first hit. Immokalee, it turns out, is home to a facility that breeds several species of macaque monkeys—with a total capacity of about 1,500—and has been the subject of frequent animal rights protests. I was even able to find the facility’s coordinates and spot it on Google Maps. With a full tank of gas and a few hours of sunlight left, I decided, on a whim, to drive 45 miles north to see what I’d find there.

After about half an hour on a state highway, I turned off onto sandy, backcountry roads that put a beating on my subcompact rental car. After passing a state prison and tomato fields, the landscape emptied into sand-clogged scrub. I drove as fast as I could, battling a strange paranoia that was inexplicably setting in. I was driving an incongruous car, with no explanation why I should be there, and couldn’t shake the sense I was being watched, a feeling that was heightened when a pickup appeared seemingly from nowhere and began following me closely. I slowed down, and felt a bit of relief as the truck passed, but knew something was amiss. I wasn’t about to discover the secret of the skunk ape, but it seemed that I was about to discover something weird.

That’s when I arrived at a huge sign hammered into two-by-fours set in fresh concrete. “WARNING! PRIVATE PROPERTY,” it read. “If you are employed by a Local, State, or U.S. Government agency or are a curious individual you must have prior permission to enter this property.” Even those with clearance, it warned, had to proceed directly to their job site: “Permission to enter is not permission for sight-seeing or ‘looking around.’”

(Photo by Joseph Stromberg)

After a few minutes of deliberation, I decided that my curiosity didn’t justify getting arrested inside a monkey-breeding facility deep in Florida’s backcountry. But as I drove off, I mulled over a new possibility. Was it so far-fetched to think that the whole thing might be a case of mistaken identity, and the skunk ape was actually an escaped primate?

Primate Products isn’t the only primate-breeding center in the area. A research organization called the Mannheimer Foundation runs a satellite facility about an hour north of Immokalee that houses a reported 5,000 macaques and baboons, and in July 2013, an unidentified company released plans to build a new 3,000-primate compound nearby. “Obviously the weather has a lot to do with it,” Primate Products’ president Thomas J. Rowell told the local News-Press. “The mild winters make for ideal climate to breed and maintain non-human primates in a setting that is very close to their natural habitats.”

Note: all locations are approximate.

Could a resident primate actually escape and survive in the wild? Primate Products declined to comment on any escapes for this article, but Bob DeGross, the preserve public affairs officer, told me he’s seen escaped primates in Big Cypress several times, likely the result of people releasing unwanted exotic pets into the wild, and in one case, the damage wrought by Hurricane Andrew to breeding facilities in Miami in 1992. Meanwhile, there are several confirmed wild, self-sustaining monkey populations statewide, including one in Naples (about a 45-minute drive west of Shealy’s property) and a larger group in Silver Springs (a few hours’ drive north) that descended from a couple of rhesuses imported and released by a tour operator in the 1930s. In  2012, a rhesus macaque was captured more than 100 miles away, in Tampa. Admittedly, it might be unlikely to mistake a monkey for a skunk ape (macaques and baboons are generally only about two to three feet tall), but about 140 miles north of Shealy’s research headquarters, there’s the Center for Great Apes, a sanctuary that houses a few dozen retired or rescued chimps and orangutans.

This last species might be the most interesting, given best-known photographs of an alleged skunk ape, which arrived in an unmarked envelope at the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department along with an unsigned letter on December 22, 2000. The photos purportedly showed an animal that had repeatedly climbed onto the back deck of the photographers’ house, and the letter itself speculated that it was an escaped orangutan. Loren Coleman, an author and cryptozoology enthusiast, analyzed the creature’s anatomy and agreed with the orangutan hypothesis, as did Canadian Wildlife Service biologist Tony Scheuhammer.

A 2000 photo sent in to the Sarasota Sheriff's Department, identified by experts as an orangutan.
A 2000 photo sent in to the Sarasota Sheriff's Department, identified by experts as an orangutan.

Skunk ape enthusiasts, however, seized upon the images as further evidence of the legendary creature. Dave Shealy was no exception. “It doesn’t look exactly like what I’ve been seeing—the hair’s a little bit longer—but all the same, I think it was a skunk ape,” he told me when we discussed the photos.

All of this—the strange, hidden primate-breeding facility, the colonies of escaped monkeys, the great apes living farther north in Florida and the apparent evidence of an escaped orangutan—provided just enough opening to seriously consider the idea that the skunk ape was indeed a real ape, but a chimp or orangutan, rather than a new species. Maybe Shealy did film a person in a gorilla suit to produce the skunk ape photos and video, but only after seeing an actual ape cemented a genuine belief in the skunk ape in his mind. Perhaps he did so out of desperation—on the verge, he believed, of getting a state grant to further his research, but in need of hard evidence to land it—and driven further by the fear of losing his land, as profits from his tour operations dwindled.

If true, his moments of fraud would be irreparably unscientific. But his search, as a whole, is motivated by the same curiosity that drove Kristofer Helgen and Roland Kays to discover the olinguito. “Enthusiasts of cryptozoology are doing something noble,” said Peter Dendle, the folklore expert, even though he doesn’t believe in the existence of the skunk ape or any other cryptid. “They’re carrying on a tradition of exploration, and open-mindedness, and genuine inquiry, the spirit which has driven science for many centuries.”

skunk ape.gif
A clip from Shealy's 2000 skunk ape video. (From video courtesy Dave Shealy)

* * *

Occasionally, in the swamp, if a pine tree dies under the right conditions, all of its resin is absorbed into its core, producing a waterproof, extremely flammable wood called lighter pine. But Native traditions, Shealy explained, held that the substance was the result of a bolt of lightning striking a tree, magically trapping all its energy inside. Similarly, during dry season, when the swamp’s water had dried up entirely, a sudden downpour would arrive, and within an hour, enormous catfish could be found swimming in the rising waters. They’d been living in underground gator holes, he said, but according to Native legend, they’d simply rained down from the heavens. “Both of those answers, technically, are incorrect,” Shealy told me. “But in their own way, they tell a story.”

He’d meant this as an allegory for the Native explanation of the skunk ape, but I realized it could be an analogy for Shealy’s beliefs as well. An unidentified primate escapes from a breeding facility and is spotted roaming across the swamp. It’s probably a chimpanzee or orangutan, but for any number of reasons—the need to retain control over a swamp that’s rapidly being taken over by outsiders, the desire to accomplish something truly noteworthy or the unconscious wish to maintain a vision of the world as a mysterious and unexplored place—Shealy says it’s a skunk ape.

His answer, technically, is incorrect. But in its own way, it tells a story.

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