LAKELAND – They’re known around the globe by a variety of names – Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Grassman, Momo, Honey Island Swamp Monster and others.
But in the Sunshine State, they’re known as Skunk Apes, one of the various groups of ape-like creatures that purportedly inhabit the forests of North America.
Whether these subspecies of hominids actually roam the fragmented segments of the few wild lands left in Florida or whether they’re just funky Florida folklore has yet to be positively determined. But the possibility will be thoroughly discussed in the first Great Florida Bigfoot Conference on Saturday in Lakeland.
From 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the RP Funding Center’s Youkey Theatre, Skunk Ape experts, cryptozoologists, investigators, myth-busters and Bigfoot-related vendors will gather in a day of discussion and panels. The focus will be on Bigfoot, but more specifically, the elusive Florida Skunk Ape.
Martin Pippin, Great Florida Bigfoot Conference organizer, has promoted the event since 2017. By phone en route to Lakeland from his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, he said the conference would encompass all genetic branches of Bigfoot.
“Well, that’s why we always have fun at these events,” Pippin said. “We’ll find a certain number of people who swear up and down the different Bigfoot branches have absolutely no relationship, are completely different paths. The others say they’re variations of the same creature.”
In Florida, there is no definitive statistics on Skunk Ape sightings, but The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization lists 332 Skunk Ape sightings in Florida, most recently in January. Pippin said that number may have risen to about 350 by now. And of those, Polk County has 30, most recently in August 2017, when a “large brown figure was seen standing in water near Lake Wales.” In spring 1995, there was a “possible daylight sighting by fisherman near Bartow.”
One of the conference’s guest speakers, Stacy Brown of Crawfordville in Wakulla County, is a Skunk Ape researcher and filmmaker. He will speak about his multiple Skunk Ape encounters, including his first on Nov. 6, 2011, off the Apalachicola River, when one purportedly walked up to his campfire. He said he’ll address reported killings of Skunk Apes in the Okefenokee Swamp in 1829, the “capture” of a “wild man” off the Ocheesee Pond in Jackson County and numerous sightings in Collier County in the 1970s. He will also discuss about 20 seconds of thermal footage of an alleged Skunk Ape his father, Stacey Brown Sr., shot along the Apalachicola River in 2012.
Florida has the third largest number of sightings in the U.S., behind California and Washington and has the most in the Southeast.
“I’ll be talking about the Skunk Ape encounters in all of Florida. I’m trying to make the case that the Skunk Ape lives. People think about Bigfoot living in the Pacific northwest but the damn thing could be standing here in Florida at your back door,” he said.
In addition to Brown, the Great Florida Bigfoot Conference will feature Cliff Barackman and James “Bobo” Fay from the Animal Planet series “Finding Bigfoot”; Ryan “RPG” Golembeske from “Finding Bigfoot” and the Discovery Channel’s “Expedition Bigfoot”; and local experts in the Bigfoot and Skunk Ape phenomena, David Sidoti and Robert Robinson.
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Pippin said between 750 and 1,200 people are expected to attend the conference, along with 12 vendors, a vendor-sponsor and speakers with merchandise tables. He said Lakeland was chosen as the 2021 conference site because of its “backdrop of a decent number of sightings.”
“If you have any interest at all or are just curious, it’s definitely worth coming out to. Most people leave happy about what they’ve learned,” he said. “A lot of people have encounters they’ve never shared. This is a safe space to ... get it off your chest. It’s nice to get into a space to talk about this stuff.”
A panel of conference speakers will be available for an interactive Q&A along with a segment of encounters from the audience.
The first Smoky Mountain Bigfoot Conference was held in 2019 in Gatlinburg, where about 1,600 people attended. The 2020 conference in Gatlinburg drew about 1,300 when it was moved to an expo center to allow for social distancing due to the coronavirus.
If you go
WHAT: Great Florida Bigfoot Conference
WHEN: Saturday. Doors open at 9:45 a.m. Event run from 10 a.m.. to 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: RP Funding Center, 701 W. Lime St., Lakeland
COST: $20; $30; $40; platinum seating, $50
INFO: 863-834-8100; www.bigfootfl.com