Florida may be home to Skunk Ape, other mythical creatures
BY CHRIS KRIDLER
Forty years ago this month, a bit of film shot in California gave Bigfoot believers the evidence they wanted: shots of a loping, ape-like creature that still make skeptics scoff.
There's a lot of evidence for apelike creatures, believers say, and though little of it is good evidence, searchers can't help wanting to find an animal like Florida's own Skunk Ape.
"Don't I wish," says Michael Newton, author of a new book from University Press of Florida, "Florida's Unexpected Wildlife: Exotic Species, Living Fossils, and Mythical Beasts in the Sunshine State."
Newton explores sightings and sometimes fossil evidence for bizarre creatures, from the Indian River sea serpent of 1895 to a St. Johns River "dinosaur" named Pinky to a giant octopus off St. Augustine to, of course, the Skunk Ape.
"What a horrible nickname," says Newton, author of more than 200 books. "They stink all over the world, or so I'm told. There's always these reports, but only Florida's actually called them stinky."
Dave Shealy of Ochopee, who claims he's seen and photographed Skunk Apes multiple times, has a theory about why they stink. They hole up in gator caves, where their fur soaks up the swamp's exhalations of methane.
Shealy, who runs a campground with his brother along with what he calls the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, suspects there are seven to nine of the primates living in South Florida, and he's heard reports from Kissimmee that make him think a few live there.
He goes out into the swamp to look for evidence and always seems to find some -- bedding areas and broken branches. "These things can climb trees," he says.
Some people who put credibility in Skunk Ape stories draw the line at Shealy's.
"He has a remarkable facility for seeing the Skunk Ape every time he goes out in his trailer park," Newton says. "It is a bit surprising."
Scott Marlowe, who's taught noncredit courses at Florida Keys Community College in cryptozoology, says Shealy's photos and video are easily debunked. "He's known for his Alligator Dundee persona," Marlowe says.
Shealy is used to criticism. "Do people walk up to me and call me a liar? No. That's never happened," he says. "There are skeptical people. They generally keep their opinions to themselves."
Marlowe knows first-hand how hard it is to prove a sighting. He had his own look at a Skunk Ape -- he prefers "swamp ape" because of the former's hoaxer connotation -- in a rural area outside Orlando in 1975, when he saw what he thinks was the creature in his apartment parking lot.
"I knew, of course, it was a Bigfoot or Swamp Ape as it was known locally," Marlowe says. It was bulky and more than 7 feet tall, he says. "We met eyes, because I could see the whites of the eyes."
He explores cryptozoology, or unproven creatures, through his organization, the Pangea Institute.
"I'm in a quandary," he says. "Being a scientist, I have to be skeptical, and there's no actual evidence to prove that the animal exists in the sense that we have DNA or we have a body or something like that. But there's a lot of physical evidence that the animal does exist."
Artistic renderings of such creatures over thousands of years lend support to the idea they exist, he says. He clearly leans toward "yes" on the "Is there a Skunk Ape?" question. Er, Swamp Ape.
"I don't know that you can really call it a myth," Marlowe says. "There's something out there. Now whether it's an unknown animal, or some kind of relic hominid that's not extinct, or whether it's a feral human of some kind with perhaps a disease . . . is anybody's guess."
Newton, who's been fascinated by cryptozoology since he got the Boys' Life magazines on the abominable snowman and the Loch Ness monster as a kid, says there's enough evidence to encourage him.
"I don't consider myself a believer, because that's almost like a religious thing," he says.
The people debunking hoaxers and disputing so-called evidence, such as the Patterson film of "Bigfoot," contradict one another so much, they don't help, he says.
"You start to pile the hoax stories up on each other and they collapse," Newton says, "which again is not the same thing as having Bigfoot stretched out on the autopsy table, but at least it gives me hope."
Even if the debunkers are as inconclusive as the believers, skeptical analyses of Bigfoot-type evidence have raised ample questions about the 1967 film, various big-ape footprints, hairs and so on.
Though Brevard County has had its Skunk Ape sightings and hoaxes, there's still no smoking-gun photo. If you see something weird, be calm, try to get pictures, and note features in the scene and how the creature measures up to them, Newton says.
If you're in a boat, about the only thing you have to compare a critter with is the size of the vessel.
"Eyewitness descriptions are always subjective and subject to error," Newton says. So researching "Florida's Unexpected Wildlife" was a challenge, considering how few of the reports are well-documented.
The most likely beast to exist of the unlikely animals in his book is probably that giant octopus beached in St. Augustine in 1896, he says. Some skeptics have tried to write it off as a piece of sperm whale, but Newton says the evidence is convincing.
As far as other animals go, "the black panthers are not unlikely," he says. "I'm going to come down on the negative side for the giant chicken in the polka-dotted underwear that's in the last chapter."
Here are some creatures Michael Newton describes as being spotted in or near Brevard County in "Florida's Unexpected Wildlife: Exotic Species, Living Fossils, and Mythical Beasts in the Sunshine State": Skunk Ape: Also known as the Swamp Ape, it may be the state's most famous cryptid. A Bigfoot-type creature, it's reported to be so smelly dogs won't even track it. Pinky: Not the fake elephant. Instead, this moniker was applied to a dinosaur-like creature spotted in the St. Johns River, with the most famous sighting in 1975. Giant octopus: What appeared to be a huge piece of a giant octopus carcass washed ashore in St. Augustine in 1896. This may be the most plausible critter account that Newton found. Indian River sea serpent: Sightings began near Titusville in 1895. In one disturbing incident that March, two men in a boat and a crowd onshore reportedly saw a 60-foot-long creature with "a wicked looking head with basilisk eyes." Tourism sank afterward.
Contact Kridler at 242-3633 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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