'Ape-man' meets Glades showman|Richard_Ffirstname.lastname@example.org|04/21/05 at 04:28:00|richard_f|xx|0|220.127.116.11|'Ape-man' meets Glades showman
Self-styled expert tries to make a living off the Florida skunk ape, a fabled creature that may or may not exist
BY CARA BUCKLEY
OCHOPEE - David Shealy's life mission is singular, a little lonely, and sometimes jinxes him with the ladies. None of this may be surprising, given that for more than a decade Shealy has tried to convince the world that outsized, lumbering ape-men call the Everglades home.
''It opens up a whole Pandora's box of bull----,'' Shealy, 41, conceded one recent sweltering morning as the sun made soup out of the air in Ochopee, a blip of a town in Big Cypress National Preserve, 30-odd miles west of the Miami-Dade County line.
Shealy is the self-appointed world expert on the Florida skunk ape, a legendary seven-foot-tall mangy creature and presumable cousin of Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yowie, the Abominable Snowman, el Chupacabra, Harry of Hendersons fame and possibly Chewbacca the Wookiee.
The skunk ape, alias swamp ape, apparently smells like bad eggs and goat dung, an odor attributed to its poor bathing habits and penchant for sulfurous alligator caves. Tales of its existence percolated in Everglades City and points north for a hundred-plus years, with various people -- including a busload of highly excited British tourists who swore the creature revealed itself to them in 1997 -- finding massive footprints and claiming sightings.
But Shealy, tall, lanky and goateed, a man rarely seen without his snakebite-proof boots, is the first to make the Florida skunk ape a full-time, if struggling, business. He guesses about seven apes wander about Florida, with Miami-Dade's expansion flushing them his way.
''I don't have a choice to believe, because I've seen him three times,'' said Shealy, blue eyes a-twinkle beneath the brim of his gator-tooth-embossed, black leather outback hat.
Shealy sells skunk ape ball caps, camouflage T-shirts and bumper stickers in the curio shop run by his brother, Jack, at the pair's dusty, sprawling campground in Ochopee on the Tamiami Trail. He hosts a somewhat annual Skunk Ape Festival, replete with bands and hippies. He talks the creature up on local radio. He believes the skunk ape legend could bolster tourism for Collier County, and once convinced its Tourist Development Council to part with $44,000 for a skunk ape hunting expedition, a plan the County Commission shot down.
''It serves the tourist promotion business best as legend,'' Jim Coletta, a county commissioner, wrote in a solemn consolation letter.
COULD IT BE?
Shealy's efforts drum up a mixed local response. Staff members at nearby Everglades City's visitors center roll their eyes at the mention of his name. A young woman at another tourist spot said the skunk ape was hooey, but noted Shealy's parties rocked. Debbie Hooks, a waitress at the Oak House restaurant, said the Shealys were odd to start with, and that kids used to pick on them on the school bus.
''It's a joke,'' she said of the skunk ape. ``It's one of them in a monkey suit.''
But others, reflecting the almost gothic, Old Florida air that still permeates Everglades City, believe a darkly mysterious and otherworldly creature could lurk in the swamps.
Floyd Brown, a 67-year-old wizened, devout drinker, said old-timers always avoided certain areas for fear of an apelike beast.
Sandy Steele, a clerk at Glades Haven Grocery Store, said grown men often return shaken from expeditions to isolated, mangrove-blanketed islands.
''You hear bloodcurdling screams, things you can't describe,'' Steele said. ``Maybe things got stranded on those islands. I wouldn't be surprised.''
Shealy said he has spotted the creature thrice: first when he was 10, second in 1987 when he was up a tree in a deer blind, and lastly four or five years ago. He shot pictures and later videotape, which he said he sold to a California man for $10,000.
His transformation into a self-styled Skunk Ape Hunter began a decade ago. Life had never been easy. The Shealys' campground steadily lost business to Big Cypress National Preserve, which all but subsumed their tiny town. Shealy left school after the seventh grade and later began running bales of marijuana through the Everglades. After marrying in his teens, he had a kid, got divorced and was busted in 1989 for possessing 30,000 pounds of pot.
Three years in a federal prison left him eager to start anew. But the campground struggled, and does so still, even after the brothers added a motley coterie of abandoned and donated emus, lizards, mud puppies, pythons, cockatiels, alligators and goats. Jack Shealy is currently facing animal cruelty charges, which his brother says are unsubstantiated, for allegedly trying to lure a sick panther with a tied-up goat.
In the mid-1990s, Shealy began pursuing skunk ape lore, with dreams of spinning legend into gold. He made plaster casts out of purported footprints and tacked a sign, ''Skunk Ape Research Headquarters,'' onto the gift shop.
A few years later, a busload of British tourists returned from an Everglades excursion in a tizzy: Something tall and hairy appeared on a dusty road roughly two miles from the brothers' gift shop. A park ranger later admitted to spotting something similar nearby, too.
Statewide sightings had been reported before, though some turned out to be monkeys on the loose.
''There's plenty of evidence, but no scientific proof,'' said Bob Carr, executive director of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy in Davie. ``But Dave has done a heck of a job to promote it.''
Another expert, Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, an associate professor in biological science at Idaho State University, said he has seen compelling, extra-large footprints before, some with textured imprints of skin, from the Pacific Northwest and southern Georgia. But a cast footprint from Shealy, obtained by a cryptozoologist, left him unconvinced.
''It was not anatomically satisfying that this was left by a living animal,'' Meldrum said.
Shealy, for his part, swears that he is neither the skunk ape nor a hoaxer, even though he keeps 13 assorted gorilla masks pinned to his bedroom wall and donned an ape suit to reenact the beast for the TV show Unsolved Mysteries.
Curiously, Shealy seems to identify with the creature, too.
On a recent drive past the visitors center, he muttered, ''They don't like the skunk ape there.'' Once he interrupted a County Commission meeting with the howl, ``No one likes the skunk ape!''
Now though, after years of dead ends, Shealy's ship may be coming in. After performing at a Skunk Ape Festival, Nate Martin, a local musician, made a film about Shealy's skunk ape quest.
Footage includes Shealy setting out piles of wet lima beans to entice the creature, Shealy locating a tuft of long brown hair on a wire fence -- ''Yep, definitely a skunk ape!'' Shealy announces after taking a deep whiff -- and the creature itself, tall, lanky and slightly auburn, bounding through the woods.
The film debuted last week at a Marco Island club and was apparently warmly met. Shealy said he could barely keep up with demand for his T-shirts, the backer started talking about film festival distribution, and David Letterman's show called.
''It's all good, so many people came. People came from Lion Country Safari,'' an ebullient Shealy said. ``The movie is the biggest thing that ever happened outside of getting busted.''