Skunk Ape: Legends from the Florida Swamp
You’ve heard of the Yeti, an abominable snowman type creature covered in hair as white as the snowy mountainous landscape they’re said to roam. And Bigfoot, the elusive giant ape-man that traverses the backcountry of the Pacific Northwest only to be caught in a blurry photo or two. Florida has its own legendary creature – the Skunk Ape.
In the heart of the Everglades, about three hours south of Polk County within the Big Cypress Preserve, past a speckling of airboat tours and the tiny Ochopee post office is The Skunk Ape Headquarters.
After a selfie with the Skunk Ape replica or the 28-foot fiberglass cougar statue out front, tourists can enter the small gift shop and purchase a magnet, hat, t-shirt, mug, or their very own copy of the Everglades Skunk Ape Research Field Guide. For a fee, visitors can step through a door in the back to see a collection of animals – different species of snakes, including a massive Reticulated Python, baby alligators, turtles, and birds to name a few.
A part of the Trail Lakes Campground, this one-stop-Skunk Ape shop and research headquarters was started by Dave Shealy, an authority on the creature and a self-described Skunk Ape expert.
Shealy is a generational gladesman. He claims his family can be traced as far back as the 1890’s in the Florida swamplands. The property where the research center is located was purchased by Shealy’s father around 1960 before the preserve even existed.
“I believe we’re the only privately-owned campground that’s within the boundaries of a national park anywhere in the country,” noted Shealy. Home to an estimated one million alligators, the remote area, “is the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi in the United States.”
This desolate swamp scene makes a prime home for a creature as elusive as the Skunk Ape.
Having heard tales of the Skunk Ape growing up, Dave became obsessed with the cryptid when he first encountered it at age ten. Dave and his older brother Jack were hunting in the glades when Jack saw something walking in the distance.
Only about 100 yards from the boys, Dave couldn’t see it over the tall grass. “He picked me up and I looked and there it was,” said Dave. They agreed that it looked exactly as it had been depicted in the stories they’d heard growing up.
An even earlier memory involved coming home from the store with his dad. There used to be a chain across the dirt road to their property. His dad got out to unhook the chain and found Skunk Ape tracks on each side of the road. “Although ten years old is when I actually saw one,” Dave said, “I was really young when he showed me the tracks. It’s pretty much been a lifelong thing, as far back as we can remember as children.”
Now in his fifties, Dave has dedicated most of his life to researching the Skunk Ape. He’s taken multiple photos and a video of the creature. He has been featured on The Discovery Channel, The Travel Channel, TLC, Inside Edition and other national and international media outlets.
Shealy described the Skunk as being bipedal, meaning they walk on two legs. The males stand up to seven feet tall, weighing in excess of 350 pounds and females notably smaller in stature between five and six feet tall, weighing between 180-250 pounds. Through his research, the Skunk Ape expert has found them to be omnivorous, eating plants and animals. The Everglades Skunk Ape Research Field Guide, a Skunk Ape blueprint of sorts penned by Shealy, details their diet to include fish, reptiles, and large mammals including deer and wild hog.
Sightings of the tall, hairy animal with reddish-black fur are almost always associated with a strong odor similar to rotten eggs.
Shealy attributes the smell to where they choose to make their dens during the dry season. “When it’s the dry season in the Everglades and the swamps are dry, that’s when I do most of my research where I can get out into the swamps and the ground is tacky and mucky and holds the tracks,” said Dave.
“The alligator caves have an air pocket in the back and they’re quite large and there’s a lot of available food. Many times, I’ve found tracks going into the alligator cave and coming out of the larger, older caves.”
He said the caves are full of methane gas which could be the cause of the stench.
During the wet season, Dave said Skunk Apes make their homes in the treetops. He compared their nests to that of an orangutan with branches laid over each other in the fork of a tree.
“Right now, based on the research that I’ve done over the past twenty-five years, there’s a really good possibility that here in this three-million-acre area which encompasses the south side of the lake and down, we could have as many as seven to nine skunk apes that live here,” said Shealy. He bases this estimate on the differences in track sizes he has found.
Differentiating from the infamous five-toed Bigfoot tracks, all the Skunk Ape tracks Dave Shealy has found have been four-toed.
According to Shealy, “This is not the only area in Florida you’re going to find Skunk Apes.” A little closer to home in the Green Swamp, is a hot-bed area for Skunk Ape sightings, as is the Ocala National Forest.
Shealy isn’t the only one to spot the Skunk Ape across the swampy landscape. Tourists and locals alike claim to have seen the elusive beast. “The majority of the sightings here in the Big Cypress Preserve have been within three miles of my place here,” he said.
A notorious sighting spot and Skunk Ape crossing is down Turner River Road. “Several tour buses operate out of Naples and Marco Island that bring visitors out here to the preserve to see the alligators and go on an airboat ride. One of the things they do is they go up this Turner River Road,” he said, beginning a story that takes place in the late 90s.
During this time, over the period of several months, there was a rash of sightings by these buses. “They saw Skunk Apes right there while they were viewing the alligators, either on crossing the roads or on the far bank in the trees.”
Several of the sightings were reenacted on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, along with an interview with Shealy.
Thinking of planning a Skunk Ape expedition? If you’re going to visit the Everglades, Shealy suggests one of the pole boat or eco-tours they offer as the best way to experience Florida’s nature in the hopes of spotting wildlife (Skunk Ape and otherwise).
A few pro tips from the Skunk Ape expert include wearing appropriate clothing such as snake boots, and to dress for the weather during the season you’re going. Also, be sure to keep an eye out for Florida’s many predators like the black bear, panther, and of course, snakes and alligators. You can find everything you need to know in the research field guide including an expedition checklist. One rather unusual item on the list was lima beans. Apparently, they’re the best bait for a Skunk Ape.
Skunk Ape Headquarters
40904 Tamiami Trail E,
Ochopee, FL 34141
A Terrifying Day-Trip to Spook Hill
Ah, Lake Wales, Crown Jewel of the Ridge, home to Bok Tower Gardens, rows of blossoming citrus trees, the friendliest people, and (wiggles fingers in a menacingly scary way) Spoooooook Hill.
Posted on a sign just before the hill is the legend of Spook Hill. The sign reads:
“Ages ago an INDIAN TOWN on Lake Wailes lake was plagued with raids by a HUGE GATOR. The town’s GREAT WARRIOR Chief and the gator were killed in a FINAL BATTLE that created the huge swampy depression nearby. The chief was buried on its north side. Later PIONEER HAULERS coming from the old ARMY TRAIL atop the ridge above found their horses LABORING HERE… at the foot of the ridge … and called it Spook Hill. IS THE GATOR SEEKING REVENGE, OR THE CHIEF PROTECTING HIS LAND???”
Then it states simple instructions: Stop car on white line, place in neutral and let it roll back.
We decided, for research purposes, to try it out for ourselves.
All I could think as we approached the hill was, “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.” I, as is only right, thought it in the voice of The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling.
Continue Rod Serling voice: Instead, we entered The School Zone (doo-doo-do-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo)! We arrived just as the adjacent Spook Hill Elementary was releasing students for the day. This meant extra traffic and lots of spectators.
First, we watched as another car attempted it. It appears that they didn’t have any luck. They graciously moved out of the way for us to give it a go.
We stopped on the white line facing the Spook Hill sign, put the car in neutral, and sure enough, it rolled back. Which is kind of what we expected to happen. We all agreed that we just weren’t getting it, maybe we were doing something wrong?
We tried it going the other way down the street. That time we rolled forward, which is what we expected would happen.
I’ve heard that Spook Hill is an optical illusion, a trick of the eyes, but we weren’t seeing what was so spooky about it all. The only thing we collectively conceived was that maybe there was a smaller hill at the bottom which made it an optical illusion.
In the end it was just us and another car turning around a few times, driving around like crazy people while I’m sure parents in the car line laughed heartily at the spectacle.
Though we didn’t see the chief or the giant gator, it was fun to try out. I give Spook Hill, three out of five Exorcist head spins, since it was not very scary, but made for a fun trip with plenty of laughs!