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SNIFFING OUT THE SKUNK APE

FIELD RESEARCH NOTES

+ RESEARCHERS: Times staff writer Jeanne Malmgren and photographer Kathleen Cabble

+ MISSION: Prove/disprove existence of skunk ape. Large, shaggy beast with pungent body odor sighted several times this summer in remote areas of Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida. There are footprints, a photo, even droppings. Is it an undiscovered species or a hoax? Only extensive and dangerous field work can answer that question.

+ RESEARCHER BIAS: Must be noted at outset. Strong desire to see (and smell) ape.

+ PREPARATION: Before departure, review literature. Wild ape sightings date back to 1950s, usually in cycles. Florida creature, also known as swamp ape, is smaller than Bigfoot/Sasquatch of Pacific Northwest. Usually described as 6 to 7 feet tall. Black or reddish brown fur. Flat, smooth face. Walks upright. Distant relative is Himalayan yeti, or Abominable Snowman.

Florida ape has abominable body odor. Nosewitnesses from close encounters in the '70s report stench of rotten eggs, cooked cabbage or moldy cheese. Is mild-mannered. Does not harm humans, but does swipe bags of dog food or pots of lima beans left to soak on porches.

Researchers already debating scientific name for the new species: Gigantanthropus blacki or Bigfooticus hirsutii. Florida ape is possibly a subspecies: Touristus attractus.

+ RESEARCH SITE: Ochopee, an Everglades hamlet where alligators outnumber humans. Drone of airboats and mosquitoes. Town limits marked by "Animals Crossing Highway" sign on U.S. 41. Nearest civilization is Everglades City, which isn't too darned big itself. Rod & Gun Club appears to be ritziest place in town.

DAY ONE

+ Arrive in Everglades City. Local citizens seem calm, unconcerned about wild thing wandering in their midst.

First skunk ape evidence at Susie's Station Restaurant. Sign out front, with cartoon gorilla: "We have ape food. Bring some to Stinky." Also note fliers hanging around town to advertise Halloween party. "Everyone is welcome," it says, next to drawing of slope-shouldered ape.

Clearly, residents attempting to cover their fear with humor.

Real estate broker Jan Brock is one of several locals who admits to having seen the beast.

"It was animal-like but I know it wasn't a bear," Brock says. "I'm pretty sure it was black and it had white on its chest, but maybe that was dust from the lime rock on the road. It was shaggy. I couldn't see its face."

Brock, who says she's 50ish, seems normal enough: a frosted blond coiffure, no-nonsense attitude. Her work attire on the day we visit is a safari print dress and khaki sneakers.

She jumps in her black Chevy Suburban and drives out to Burns Road, just off Tamiami Trail, where she spotted the creature at 7:45 on a muggy July morning on her way to work.

"It was maybe a thousand feet ahead of me. I'm not good on distances. It went across the road from right to left."

Brock keeps a camera in her car. She reached for it, "but before I could really do anything, it was gone again."

Brock has lived in the wilds of South Florida 10 years. She has seen panthers. Bears come through her back yard. On a recent safari in Africa she bagged a wild boar. She knows her wildlife. She says she's a Bigfoot believer.

"I think there's something out here that's like the skunk ape, Bigfoot, Neanderthal man, whatever you want to call it."

Dinner meeting with David Shealy. Name appeared prominently in news stories about latest batch of skunk ape sightings.

Shealy is the owner of a gift shop/campground and a fourth-generation Ochopee resident. He grew up exploring, hunting and tramping the Everglades.

"He's swamp-savvy," says one admirer.

Shealy shows up in overalls and a beat-up camouflage hat with a CBS pin. He immediately orders lima beans for everyone at the table.

"This whole ordeal has cost me $9,000 so far," he says, firing up a Marlboro Light. Much of the money went toward skunk ape T-shirts to sell in his gift shop. Bulk lima beans aren't cheap, either.

"It's $23 for a 25-pound bag. I special order 'em at the market."

Shealy does what he calls "bean sets" _ skunk ape baits that are piles of lima beans left in the swamp. He did it for Inside Edition, he did it for a Miami TV news crew, he does it for any media types who blow into town on the trail of the skunk ape.

Shealy is 34. He has guileless blue eyes and an infectious laugh. He says he got bored with school in the eighth grade, took the GED test and passed it. In the early '90s he spent two years in federal prison for smuggling marijuana.

It was Shealy who broke the skunk ape news to the world in late July, when he took a photo of the creature and plaster casts of its footprints to the Collier County Commission. Reporters swarmed all over the story and Shealy suddenly had a new job: the skunk ape's agent.

Shealy has seen the beast once, he says, as a child in 1973, while playing in the marsh. He says many Ochopeeans have seen it over the years but are afraid to talk. "Only one out of 10 sightings is reported."

Shealy seems to treasure the idea of the skunk ape as a last vestige of wild Florida. He speaks passionately about development ruining the Everglades.

"Ever since I was born, it's been somebody from outside tellin' us how to live."

Now he's mad at the National Park Service. Shealy's property is within the Big Cypress Preserve. He's not allowed to have roadside signs advertising his $14-a-night RV sites. The park service has big signs for its campgrounds, though. And its sites are free.

"Last year they took $50,000 out of my pocket," he says.

Soon after the skunk ape story got out, Shealy says, he was visited by two government men. They showed up in a black Lexus. Black suits, black hats, black wraparound sunglasses. They flashed official-looking badges and demanded to see Shealy's Bigfoot plaster prints. Luckily, the casts weren't in the house that night.

But a hunk of skunk ape hair was, red and matted (and presumably odiferous). Sealed in a Ziploc bag, it lay on the dining room table. One of the men grabbed it.

"They said, "We're gonna have this analyzed. We'll be back to talk to you,' " Shealy says.

Three nights later, black helicopters hovered for two hours over Shealy's campground and nearby skunk ape habitats. Shealy says the incident cost him a live-in girlfriend.

"She got scared and left."

When dinner is finished, Shealy orders another bowl of lima beans, to go. "I really like 'em," he explains.

Out in his truck are another 10 pounds of limas, raw but soaked. Soft, plump and albino. Ape bait. Shealy doesn't want to trap the animal, only lure it to a midnight snack. Maybe it will leave tracks.

Outside town, Shealy stops his Toyota 4Runner at the edge of a gravel road. His equipment: two plastic bags of soggy lima beans, a rake and a couple of bottles of Budweiser. He strides into the palmetto thicket. There's marshy ground underfoot and an ink-black sky studded with stars. Mosquitoes burrow into noses and ears.

"Normally, when you're huntin' for deer, you wanna minimize your scent," Shealy says. "But with skunk ape, scent is good. It makes 'em curious."

He builds a fire out of palm fronds and deadwood, then swipes at the muddy ground with his rake. He mounds the beans in two piles next to the mud.

"This thing weighs 350 pounds," he says. "If it comes in here, it'll leave a track."

There's not much else to do, other than sit and sip a beer, watch shooting stars.

"I'll stake my life on the fact that somethin' 's goin' on around here," Shealy says. "The park rangers, they say they've never seen one. But I ain't never seen them out in the woods. How would they know? They just ride up and down the road in their trucks."

Shealy thinks there could be lots of weird animals in the swamp.

"I've heard tales since I was knee-high. An old hunter told me he saw a giant anteater. My brother saw a spotted hyena. During (Hurricane) Andrew, there were a lot of wild animals that got away. You don't know what you're gonna come across out here."

Maybe the skunk ape is "a cross between an ape and a bear," Shealy muses. His theory on why Stinky came out of hiding this summer: "The mosquitoes were the worst we've had in 40 years."

DAY TWO

Drop in on fire Chief Vince Doerr, snapper of skunk ape publicity photo.

"My infamous day in history," Doerr says in his office at the Ochopee fire station.

Doerr was 15 minutes behind Brock on Burns Road that morning. The skunk ape crossed in front of his truck.

"At first I thought it was a bear, but bears don't stay up on two the way this thing was. Then I thought, who's playin' games?"

By the time he drove up to that point, the beast had retreated into the brush. It was about 400 yards from the road, Doerr says.

"I grabbed my camera and I yelled at it. It turned and looked at me but it kept walkin', parallel to the road. I waited till it got between two trees and then I took a picture."

He had the photos developed at Winn-Dixie. The skunk ape shot is basically a brown blob among palmettos and pines. It is visible from the waist up.

After Shealy took the primate portrait to the county commission meeting and the story broke, Doerr was offered the princely sum of $100 by the National Examiner. He refused payment. He says he's not in this for money.

Doerr, 57, seems a credible witness. He has been chief since 1979 of the largest rural fire district in Florida. He's a sensible guy, with a full head of white hair and a deep Glades tan. He's a fan of Hank Williams Sr. and ham radio. Never touches booze, he says.

Doerr was surprised by the worldwide interest in the skunk ape. He got calls from the BBC, from CNN and Unsolved Mysteries.

"I have never seen in my life something, true or not, to take off this fast. But maybe this little town needs a big tale. It'll help the tourist business this winter, that's for sure."

Doerr thought the skunk ape was a hoax until he heard about other sightings around the country.

"It's somethin'," he says. "I ain't never said it was the skunk ape. But it's somethin'."

Right outside Doerr's office, in the fire department parking lot, there's a disbeliever.

"I believe you'd find Jimmy Hoffa out there before you'd find a dadgum skunk ape," says Lt. Ray LeMacks.

Stop in at Ochopee's tiny post office, famous as smallest in United States.

Postmaster Naomi Lewis is polite but firm on the subject of the skunk ape.

"That's kind of a big joke. I don't know if you know that," she says.

Other naysayers snort at the mention of Shealy and the skunk ape.

"Maybe he's like Jekyll and Hyde. He turns into the swamp ape at night," says Cindy Hackney, a reporter at the Everglades Echo newspaper.

Back in July, Hackney called costume shops in Naples. She found one that sold a black gorilla suit the week before the skunk ape sightings. It was paid for in cash.

Check in at National Park Service headquarters and Sheriff's Office. Official word at both places: No skunk ape reports. No further comment.

Back to Shealy's gift shop. Tell him some people in town believe he might be more than skunk ape's manager.

"For them to even make an assumption like that is absurd," he says. "They all live in the city. They don't come out here, they don't hunt and fish. If they fell in an alligator hole they wouldn't know what it was."

He swears this is not a vendetta because of the campsite controversy.

"This has nothing to do with the government."

Resume search for skunk ape supporters. Put in call to Dow Roland, tour guide for Everglades Day Safari.

Roland takes tourists on a $90 daylong roam around the wilds of South Florida. During Skunk Ape Week in July, he and six British customers saw the beast on Turner River Road, a remote area famous for up-close wildlife.

"The kids saw it first. They started yelling, "Bigfoot! Bigfoot!' And sure enough, up on the edge of the road, there was a creature that appeared to be Sasquatch, whatever you want to call it. It looked to me like a gorilla, like someone dressed in a gorilla outfit. The kids were really excited. They were screaming and pointing. The rest of us started to laugh."

Rowland drove to where they had seen the beast.

"It loped back out on the road behind us, looked at us and then went back in the brush."

Another tour guide, Steve Goodbread of Pelican Tours, is Skunk Ape Spotter No. 4. It was two days after Rowland. Same road, same scenario. A van full of tourists snapping gator pictures. Suddenly the beast showed up, shaking bushes and looking irritated. Goodbread and company sat in their bus and watched it for 15 minutes. It was 2:00 on a July afternoon. Goodbread is pretty sure a human in a full-body gorilla suit couldn't stand the heat.

He doesn't return repeated phone calls. Must be tired of doing ape P.R.

Another call: Ron Magill of Miami Metrozoo, who has possession of alleged skunk ape droppings.

Magill says he was commissioned by a TV news station to examine some mysterious scat found beside Burns Road. The pile was too big to be produced by a raccoon or possum, he says. It couldn't have been deer or cow or bear. Maybe wild hog.

The droppings contained bird feather quills and grass. No lima beans.

Magill saw the ape hair in a glass case at Shealy's gift shop before the Men in Black confiscated it. He got excited; wanted to do a DNA test on it. He says Shealy told him it wasn't skunk ape hair.

"I would love nothing more than to prove that this exists," Magill says. "This is the kind of thing zoologists love. That's an awful big area. Who's to say what lives out there?"

Still, he smells a hoax.

"Something stinks here, and it's not the skunk ape. This is what I call a healthy hoot. These are good people, decent people. They're just having good, honest fun. If it brings good to this community, it's no big thing."

Back to Shealy's. Time to check the bean set.

He says the bait usually disappears within 24 hours. He weaves through the swamp on foot and eventually locates the site of last night's campfire. He notes it is very near where the skunk ape was when Chief Doerr snapped his picture.

"This is a major travel route for it," he says.

The bean piles are gone. Nearby is a patch of flattened grass, as if the creature lay down for a nap after its snack. In the remains of the fire is a distinct footprint. Big as life. Four toes. Size 18.

"As far as I'm concerned, this thing is real," Shealy says quietly. He sits on the ground and grows pensive.

"I'm gettin' a little concerned, though. I'm not feelin' so good about doin' this anymore. This thing in the last two months has consumed 55 pounds of lima beans. That can't be healthy. And I think it's forming a bond with me. Becoming dependent on this."

He falls silent. There's no sound but dry palmetto fronds stirred by the wind. Shealy looks out from under his hat brim.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't watchin' us right now."

Research findings: Inconclusive. Never saw skunk ape.

Final observation: At debriefing dinner, after discovery of footprint in swamp, Shealy orders lima beans.

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