Finding Florida’s Bigfoot

Dave Shealy

The Legend of the Skunk Ape goes beyond imagination.

Since the earliest recorded human migration patterns, mysterious cryptids, creatures whose existence is claimed but unsubstantiated, have woven their way through folklore, fables and cautionary tales across the world. Recently, fascination with cryptids has been revived; dozens of online discussion boards have sprung up, and Hulu recently produced a documentary centered on Sasquatch. Better known as Bigfoot, its mythos originated among indigenous populations in the Pacific Northwest. While the existence of cryptids like Bigfoot can be the subject of debate, intriguingly, some cultures acknowledge the same creatures under different names. A trek into Florida’s Everglades, for example, may evoke whispers of Bigfoot’s swampish cousin, the Skunk Ape. 

It was 1973 when David Shealy, then aged 10, and his brother saw the ape-like figure slowly making its way through the grassland into the dense swamp on the Big Cypress Preserve. “My brother gave me a boost to see him over the grass,” Shealy recalled. “That was my first sighting.”

Shealy, a multi-generational “true Floridian,” has carefully researched the Skunk Ape for decades. His work and business have been featured on the Discovery Channel, History Channel and Animal Planet. He lives on what is considered ideal land for the creature: 3 million acres of the largest protected area east of the Mississippi River. 

That sighting of the Skunk Ape in the ’70s was not his last. In VHS footage dated July 8, 2000 and uploaded to YouTube by Smithsonian Magazine, Shealy captured a tall, dark-haired, silhouetted figure strolling through waist-deep water and sawgrass. The figure notices Shealy watching him and flees with the gait and run of a human man. In the comments section, viewers share different takes on the validity of the video, ranging from “his moves are too humanoid” to “no human dressed in a costume could walk that fast through the swamp!” One comment even mentions a sighting in Jacksonville in 2002, which begs the question: What’s the likelihood of encountering one? 

A sighting by another witness shows the long-haired, bearded creature, known as the Myakka Skunk Ape, leering at him as he photographed it from behind a grouping of palmettos. 

“These things have been spotted throughout Florida,” Shealy confirmed, “There’s been a rash of sightings in Tallahassee and the Panhandle. They also filter in through Mississippi and Alabama, but they take on different characteristics.” 

The Skunk Ape has primarily been described as being between 5-feet-5-inches to 6-feet tall with a matted or somewhat-frizzy coat. The coat is most commonly described as being a cinnamon shade of brown, but other witnesses recalled it as dark brown or even black. They’re often described as solitary creatures, and Shealy is convinced only about five to six of them are roaming around. “They’re very lonely animals, and I have no idea what their lifespan is,” he said.  

Sightings of the Skunk Ape can be traced back to pre-Colonial Florida with bands of the Seminole tribe passing down the legend of the “Esti Capcaki,” which translates to “tall man” or “cannibal giant.” There have also been claims of the Skunk Ape stalking fishermen and hikers, viewing them as prey. Most sightings within close range agree on the pungent primate having the odor of rotting food or a wet dog, which sets it apart from the closely related Bigfoot. 

Shealy noted there are other distinctions from its more famous relative. “The difference I found in my research is that there are four toes on the Skunk Ape and five on Bigfoot. The Skunk Ape is also smaller in weight, which likely has to do with it living in a hotter climate, so they don’t have to maintain a heavy body weight.” Bigfoot has also left big tracks to fill for Shealy, as far as sharing his study and findings of the Skunk Ape with other cryptid researchers. “It took me years to convince the Bigfoot community that these exist,” he stressed, “but now they recognize the Skunk Ape as a subspecies.” 

The Skunk Ape has been compared to other modern primates with its habits and features. Researchers studying orangutans have frequented the Everglades in the last decade to investigate the Skunk Ape sightings: Are these the great apes people are actually spotting?

“I can admit they have some similarities: They [both] climb trees, make beds in trees,” Shealy said. “Ground beds are out of the question. [The Skunk Ape is] similar to orangutans .. .but I know it’s not an orangutan.”

Though Shealy recently retired from his Skunk Ape research, his work lives on, and he’s happy to chat about his findings with curious tourists and cryptid enthusiasts alike. To kick off this retirement, On the Track of the Skunk Ape, a comprehensive collection of his experience and research, hits Amazon on Memorial Day weekend. 

In the meantime, he strives to tackle environmental issues and keep natural, old Florida alive on the preserve. He also runs a museum dedicated to the Skunk Ape, campground and Everglades boat tours with guides that live on the site. “Skunk Ape Research Headquarters is a multi-faceted business and Bigfoot research center. We have multiple types of cabins … a gift shop with Skunk Ape merch and pole boat tours—which is our signature tour.” 

But the Skunk Ape isn’t the only wildlife worth ogling—the compound is also home to a whopping 24-foot-long, 300-pound reticulated python, which Shealy affectionately named Goldie. She is one of the largest snakes in captivity in the world. Shealy said he is waiting on Guinness World Records to visit the property and possibly verify her as the largest.

As summer suns rise and set across the grass prairie and dense swamp, the legend and lore of the Skunk Ape continue to cast shadows across the Everglades. But despite his decades of research, the rise in sightings and growing public interest, Shealy wants one thing to be known: “There’s a lot more to the Skunk Ape guy than what you see in print.” 

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