The Skunk Ape - Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland - Dave Barry

Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland - Dave Barry (2016)

The Skunk Ape

Iset out from Miami driving west on Route 41, the Tamiami Trail, which connects Miami on the east coast of Florida with Tampa on the west. At the Miami end, it’s also known as Calle Ocho—“Eighth Street”—which is considered the heart of Little Havana, the place where the TV news crews go to shoot man-in-the-street video of authentic Cubans drinking authentic Cuban coffee and reacting to whatever is happening in Cuba. You can spend a day here and never hear any language but Spanish.

I head west on the Trail to Krome Avenue, which is just a few miles from Calle Ocho in linear space but light-years away in ambience. Across Krome, the world changes, quite suddenly, from city to swamp. This is the edge of the Everglades, Miami’s vast, wild, weird backyard.

For many decades, most people—most white people, anyway—viewed the Everglades as a waste of space, a bug-infested bog to be drained and turned into something useful. We now know, of course, that the Everglades are a unique, precious, fragile and irreplaceable wetlands ecosystem. But I’ll be honest: This place has always kind of creeped me out. Strange things live out here; strange things happen out here.

For example: On the northwest corner of the Krome Avenue intersection, just inside the swamp, is a three-hundred-room hotel/casino resort operated by the Miccosukee Indian Tribe. One day in 2007, police received a report that two men were breaking into cars in the parking lot. Police responded and caught one of the men. The other ran away and dove into a nearby pond. That was a poor decision: This particular pond happened to be the residence of a large alligator, known to the resort staff as “Poncho.” The next day divers recovered what was left of the man fifty feet underwater.

I know some pretty crazy things have happened in Las Vegas, but I doubt that anybody on a Vegas casino property was ever eaten by an alligator.

Poncho is not alone: There are a couple of hundred thousand gators in the Everglades, and maybe a billion bullfrogs. There are also panthers out there, and bears, all kinds of birds, and God knows how many snakes, including Burmese pythons just about long enough to be used, if you could straighten them out, for first-down measurements.

And there’s exotic human wildlife in the Everglades. There are poachers out there, and smugglers, and other well-armed people who seriously—I mean, seriously—value their privacy. There are fugitives hiding for one reason or another, lying low in a place where it’s famously easy to disappear. There have been hidden commando bases out there where, for decades, various paramilitary groups—some known to the U.S. government, some not—trained for secret missions. There are stories of Indian burial sites where the ground is littered with artifacts worth a fortune, just lying around for the taking, if you could find them, which you can’t.

This is an inadequate list of the elements that make the Everglades weird. It’s safe to say that there are many more strange things going on out there that very few people know about, or ever will.

So, what with the combination of wildlife and weirdness, I have never viewed the Everglades as a place where I want to hang out. I have viewed it as a big flat space to be driven across as quickly as possible, much like Nebraska, but with a funkier aroma. When I’m crossing the ’glades, I crank up the car radio and zip along at 70, 80, 90 miles an hour, my only interaction with the unique, precious, fragile and irreplaceable wetlands ecosystem around me coming in the form of flying insects the size of cocker spaniels splatting on my windshield.

But today I’m going to stop in the Everglades. Because today I’m on the trail of what could be the strangest of all the strange things out there, the weirdest of the weird: the skunk ape.

The skunk ape is Florida’s version of Bigfoot. It is said to walk erect, like a man, but its body is completely covered with hair like an ape, or the cast of Duck Dynasty. It allegedly stands seven feet tall and reeks of an odor like rotten eggs or worse. It is said to like lima beans.

Over the decades, many people claim to have seen the skunk ape, or its footprints. There are a few photos, and even a video, but as is so often the case with this kind of thing, the images are blurry or inconclusive.

Dozens of journalists and TV shows—including Comedy Central, which sent Stephen Colbert to the Everglades—have done stories on the skunk ape. Smithsonian magazine, among others, ran a long investigative piece about it. Some serious mainstream researchers have also looked into the sightings. But so far, nobody has found any conclusive proof— at least, not the kind accepted by scientists—that the skunk ape exists. The consensus in the scientific community is that either people are seeing some other animal—maybe a bear, maybe somebody’s pet orangutan that escaped into the wild—or the skunk ape is a hoax, some guy running around in a gorilla suit. But as I say, plenty of people claim they’ve seen it, and plenty more believe it’s real.

If you read the skunk ape stories, one name comes up again and again over the years: Dave Shealy. He claims to have seen the skunk ape three times. He shot the best-known skunk ape video, which shows the ape—or something, anyway—hurrying across an open area in the swamp. Shealy also operates Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters, which is located in Ochopee, a speck on the Tamiami Trail fifty-five miles west of Miami. That’s where I’m headed today.

En route, I pass by a deserted lot on the left where there was once a tourist attraction, of which all that remains is a weathered sign that says FROG CITY. I pass some open attractions with Miccosukee names—Buffalo Tiger, Osceola Panther—where tourists can take airboat rides, watch alligator shows, learn about nature, maybe eat some frog legs or alligator nuggets.

About thirty miles out of Miami I pass a road on the right marked by a sign that says DADE-COLLIER TRAINING AND TRANSITION AIRPORT. This road goes to one of the more incongruous sights in the Everglades: a 10,500-foot concrete runway, capable of handling jumbo jets, surrounded by … nothing. The runway was built in the late sixties as part of a planned “Everglades Jetport,” which was going to be the world’s biggest airport, with six runways, capable of handling supersonic jets. The project was scuttled when people realized that the Everglades are unique, precious, fragile and irreplaceable, etc. But the runway is still out there. It’s sometimes used for aviation training, although there are rumors of secret military operations, and occasionally a plane deemed suspicious by the authorities will be forced down there by Air Force fighters.

Every now and then, when I’m on a commercial flight descending toward Miami International Airport, we pass over the Jetport runway, and to me, especially if night is falling and I have had a couple of Bloody Marys, it always looks vaguely sinister, this huge, deserted strip of concrete in the middle of nowhere with nothing but miles of swamp around it in every direction. I imagine what it might be like at night, with gators all around, and snakes slithering off the runway to avoid mystery planes landing in the dark.

As I say, the Everglades creep me out.

I’m a little early for my appointment with Dave Shealy, so a few miles before Ochopee I stop at the Big Cypress National Preserve Visitor Center. (The National Park Service administers this part of the Everglades as a preserve.) It turns out that the visitor center is closed this morning; there’s only one car other than mine in the parking lot and there’s nobody in it.

There’s a canal running alongside the property, separated from the parking lot by a low chain-link fence with a sign that says DO NOT FEED OR HARASS ALLIGATORS. Another sign offers some Alligator Safety Tips, including: “Fifteen feet is the recommended safe distance for alligators.” This tip is illustrated by a diagram showing a silhouette of a man standing fifteen feet from the silhouette of a large alligator. The man, who appears to be wearing a suit or sport jacket, appears unconcerned: He has a relaxed, casual stance, half turned away from the alligator, as if he’s not at all worried about it, seeing how he is the federally recommended distance away. The alligator, on the other hand, is looking directly at the man. Its jaws are open, revealing sharp, jagged teeth. It is clearly thinking: “That’s right, don’t worry about me, Mr. Sign-trusting, recommended-distance-observing, tasty-looking, sport-jacket Man.”

I wander over to the fence to look at the canal. On cue, an alligator roughly the size of a standard aircraft carrier slides off the opposite bank into the water. I scurry back to the car to grab my camera, then scurry back to take a picture of it. Here’s the actual alligator I saw, with a UPS truck next to it for scale:

As I watch the alligator, it makes a slow left turn. It is now heading directly toward me. It can’t get to me, of course, because there’s a fence. I have nothing to worry about! Nevertheless, standing out there alone in the empty, silent parking lot, I feel an overpowering urge, originating from deep in my sphincter, to be somewhere else. I turn and walk briskly back to my car.

At the Big Cypress National Preserve Visitor Center, nobody can hear you scream.

I resume driving west and soon reach Ochopee, which consists of a tiny post office (billed as the smallest in the nation), a restaurant called Joannie’s Crab Shack, a commercial campground, and not much else. There used to be a larger community here, but when the federal government created the Big Cypress Preserve it bought out most of the landowners (more on this later).

My destination is the campground, which is called the Trail Lakes Campground, and which is operated by Dave Shealy and his brother Jack. The campground is also the home of Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters. Picture a scientific facility—a modern building housing pristine research laboratories equipped with the latest high-precision scientific instruments. Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters is nothing like that. It looks more like a tiki bar frequented by motorcycle gangs.

Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters also serves as the campground store. Here you can rent your campsite, book a tour, and buy snacks, supplies and souvenirs, including skunk ape T-shirts, skunk ape hoodies, skunk ape drink koozies, skunk ape hunting permits, skunk ape refrigerator magnets, bottles of skunk ape repellant and so on. If you can’t find the skunk ape-related item you’re looking for here, it probably doesn’t exist.

Outside the headquarters, positioned semi-randomly around the property, are statues of various animals, including a gigantic Florida panther, a lion, a killer whale and a gorilla holding (why not?) the flag of Iceland.

I pull into the campground property shortly before noon and I notice that there’s a turtle making its way across the parking lot, moving at the speed of a turtle. It’s not as big as the alligator; it’s more the size of a toaster. But it has a grumpy look to it, and I do not trust it. I get out of my car and eye it warily.

Also in the parking lot is a bearded man wearing camouflage shorts and an official Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters tank top. Apparently, he is familiar with this particular turtle. “Yesterday he was going that way,” he tells me, pointing in the direction of Tampa. “Today he’s going the other way.”

I ask the man what kind of turtle it is. He says it’s a snapping turtle. I move a little closer to snap15 a picture of it.

“Don’t get too close,” the man says. “That’s the fastest turtle there is, as far as striking. Lightning-fast.”

I step back from the turtle. Fortunately, it makes no attempt to strike. It continues across the parking lot, in the direction of Miami.

I chat with the bearded man, who reveals that he is Jack Shealy, the reclusive older brother of Dave. I ask him about the giant panther statue, and he tells me that not far from where we’re standing a panther jumped on a motorcyclist driving on the Tamiami Trail. I wonder what the federally approved safe distance from a panther is. Probably several miles.

I ask Jack if I can take his picture and he says—politely but definitely—no. He goes off to do something with a boat and I go into Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters to examine the merchandise. I buy a black long-sleeved skunk ape shirt for my wife. The ladies love a romantic gesture.

As I’m paying for the shirt, Dave Shealy appears in the doorway. He’s a tall, lean guy, fifty-two years old, with a shaved head and a gray goatee. He has startlingly blue eyes that, as a professional wordsmith, I am required to describe as “piercing.” He’s wearing a sleeveless Skunk-Ape Research HQ shirt, jeans and a pair of high Red Wing boots.

I will hang out with Shealy for the next four hours, most of which consist of him talking. He’s smart and articulate, a good storyteller, a yarn-spinner. He can be charming, and funny. I ask him if he’s married and he says, “I was married, one time, briefly. But I’ve had a lot of live-in girlfriends, and, to my credit, they were all beautiful.” He’s currently in a relationship with a woman in Naples. He has a son who he says is financially involved in running the campground but does not live in Ochopee.

Shealy is an entrepreneur, always looking for ways to promote the campground and the skunk ape research, always thinking of new lines of business to get into. He’s raising koi; he wants to grow and sell staghorn ferns. He talks a lot about money, which he says he doesn’t have much of, and the various ways he’s had to hustle to survive over the years. He says that lately he’s been installing swimming pool equipment in Naples, where his current lady friend lives.

Shealy is definitely a survivor. Let’s say that tomorrow some apocalyptic event—a massive financial meltdown, a nuclear war, a major Facebook glitch—causes American society to collapse. Suddenly there’s no food at the grocery store, no money in the ATM, no electricity in the wall sockets. There is no fire department, no medical care, no police to protect you. The world has become a violent, extremely dangerous place, a place where predators of all kinds roam the streets, and you’re totally on your own, with nobody to keep you and your family alive except yourself.

I don’t know about you, but I’d last maybe three days. I’d be Purina Predator Chow.

Dave Shealy would be just fine out in the Everglades. He’s a member of a tough but dwindling breed of Floridians known as Gladesmen, guys who have spent their lives roaming the swamp. Shealy knows how and where to hunt deer, where to catch fish, where to net crabs. He knows where to find the biggest bullfrogs, how to spear them, skin them, chop off and cook their meaty legs. He knows places where a person can hole up. If you went looking for him, he’d see you before you saw him. He’d survive out there, come whatever. He’s a survivor.

Shealy invites me back to his house. He grabs a big sack of fish food from his pickup truck and carries it out to his back deck, which overlooks a pond where he’s raising koi. He dumps a bunch of food into the pond, which instantly erupts as the koi and many other fish swarm to the food, their gaping mouths breaking the surface, slurping down the food pellets. It’s amazing to me how many large fish are swimming around in that murky water. If you don’t like the idea of living things pretty much everywhere, you would not like the Everglades.

With the sound of fish slurping in the background, Shealy and I sit on the deck to talk. He lights the first of a half-dozen cigarettes he’ll smoke that afternoon and tells me his story.

His family has been in Florida since the 1800s. His father was a machinist who worked in Miami but went out to the Everglades often to hunt and fish. He also had a side business: He made moonshine in a still he built out in the swamp. (People made moonshine in the Everglades long after Prohibition ended; I’m guessing people still do.)

In 1961, Shealy’s father bought some property near the Turner River.

“He bought this land with moonshine money,” says Shealy.

Shealy’s parents built the Trail Lakes Campground, which was where they raised Jack and Dave. Shealy’s mother also served as the Ochopee postmaster; his father organized a volunteer fire department. The boys roamed the swamp freely, neighbors helped each other out, and life was good, if not always easy, in the tight little community of Ochopee.

Then, in 1974, the federal government, at the urging of environmentalists concerned about overdevelopment of the Everglades, created the Big Cypress Preserve. Suddenly the Shealys were not living in a mere swamp; they were living in an ecosystem, which had been officially deemed unique, precious, fragile, etc., and which was now to be administered by people far from Ochopee.

The law that created the Big Cypress Preserve allowed the Seminoles and Miccosukee to remain on their land and operate businesses. But the law gave the government the power to buy out non-Indian landowners who had arrived after a certain cutoff date—if necessary, by condemning their land. Some landowners fought the government, claiming their constitutional rights were being violated, but in the end the government won. Many of the Shealy family’s neighbors had to leave. Ochopee turned into a ghost town.

To say that Dave Shealy is not a fan of the federal government, or environmentalists, would be an understatement. He’s still bitter about what happened to Ochopee, and he’s not alone. Jeff Whichello, who grew up in Ochopee, and whose family operated a motel there before being forced out of business, wrote a book called What Happened to Ochopee? In it, he says this about the Big Cypress land acquisition:

Only people with a certain creativity, work-ethic, and talent succeeded in this mucky land… . A small twentieth century pioneer town prospered on the open plain where children were born and families lived in peace.

Then, the takers came. These big-picture people were unconcerned about the details of their actions while staring at a map of Florida from their government offices. They were unable to imagine or realize the activities of this unique community living free in the wild. When environmentalists and developers collided on the Ochopee battle ground, it was the common person, the one who scrambled every day to feed their family, who suffered in this war.

Melodramatic, yes. But it’s how some people felt then, and still feel today.

The Shealys, because they had bought their land earlier than their neighbors, were allowed to keep their campground. But over the years new regulations restricted their operations, especially airboat and swamp buggy rides, which were sources of revenue for them. Meanwhile, the park service was building new campsites nearby—free campsites—creating tough competition for Trail Lakes.

“The government wanted us gone,” says Shealy.

Business at Trail Lakes suffered. “Things started to unravel,” says Shealy. “It really rocked the boat in my mother and father’s relationship.”

Then things got worse.

“My father somehow, I don’t know how, he got AIDS,” says Shealy. “He passed away.”

The campground was in trouble. “Money was tight,” says Shealy. He pauses, lights a cigarette. Then he says, “At that time there was a lot of marijuana smuggling going on.”

Indeed there was. In the late seventies and throughout the eighties, Florida was awash in marijuana and cocaine; at one point, the Florida attorney general declared that drug trafficking was the second-biggest industry in the state, behind only tourism. Bales of pot—the legendary “square groupers”—washed up on South Florida beaches. Bags of cocaine, tossed from planes by smugglers being pursued by the feds, literally fell from the sky.16 There were absolutely insane quantities of cash floating around Miami.

A huge amount of marijuana was coming in through Everglades City, a small, close-knit community a few miles west of Ochopee on Chokoloskee Bay. Traditionally, the main trade there had been catching fish and stone crabs. But the fishermen and crabbers had found that they could make more money—a lot more money, in cash—using their boats, and their local knowledge, to offload pot from smugglers’ ships out in the Gulf of Mexico, then bring it back through the Ten Thousand Islands, which from the air looks like the world’s most complicated maze. Good luck to any outsider lawman trying to follow a local fisherman through that in the dark.

From Everglades City, the pot was transported by land to Miami. Which meant it was moving through Ochopee. Which presented a financial opportunity for the Shealy brothers.

“I knew what people were doing,” Dave Shealy says. “We were offered money to allow them to bring marijuana across the property. My brother and I worked with the smugglers.” Shealy says they were involved in smuggling a million pounds of pot, “although we weren’t caught for that much.”

But they were caught. A lot of people were. In the end, the feds arrested more than three hundred people in Everglades City and nearby Chokoloskee. It was a national news story, this seemingly sleepy fishing village where it seemed as if almost everybody was involved in running drugs.

Dave Shealy served three years in the federal facility at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. His mother died thirty days before he got out. He returned to Ochopee, and to the struggle of keeping the campground afloat. This is when the skunk ape—which he says he first saw when he was ten—became a major part of his life.

“When I got home from prison, there was a rash of sightings,” he says. He cites anecdotes about tourists who told him they’d seen the ape, including two women who were photographing bromeliads on Turner River Road—where many alleged sightings have occurred—and encountered the skunk ape when they returned to their car.

“What was unusual about that one,” says Shealy, “is that it had an erection.”

Shealy created Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters and started doing his “research”: putting out skunk ape bait—mainly lima beans—and finding footprints, from which he made plaster casts. He wrote the Skunk Ape Research Field Guide and made a DVD. He told tourists about the ape and talked tirelessly to the media, doing interview after interview, spreading the word. More tourists came to Ochopee looking for the ape, and more media people. There were more sightings.

Of course there were also plenty of skeptics. There still are—people who see Dave Shealy as a huckster making crap up to sell his skunk ape merchandise. I ask Shealy about this.

“The skeptics have never been here,” he says. “For them to say it doesn’t exist, it’s just absurd. The frightening thing is, their ignorance can be pushing a species into extinction. I know that it’s real. It’s a real live animal.”

So there you are.

Shealy and I talk on his back porch for about an hour. Then we get into his truck to tour the area. He shows me around the Trail Lakes Campground, a peaceful, pleasant patch of land that offers campsites and “chickees,” which are little raised, thatched, screened-in cabins patterned after Indian dwellings. Then he takes me to a spot looking out toward where he says he first saw the skunk ape, when he was ten. It’s a story he has told many times.

“I heard something walking in the water,” he says. But he couldn’t see it because the grass was too high. His brother Jack lifted him up to see.

“Here’s this animal, walking through the grass,” he says. “It was covered with hair, but it wasn’t like a bear. It was like a person.”

I take a picture of Shealy, pointing toward where he saw the skunk ape. I get the feeling he’s done this same pose in this same spot a hundred times.

We get back in the truck, and Shealy takes me on a tour of Greater Ochopee. We head out on a back road where Shealy says he’s seen a large python, which he’d like to catch. I ask him how a person catches a large python.

“You grab it by the tail,” he says.

We don’t (thank God) find a python, but we do see a park ranger. Shealy stops the truck and yells to him.

“We’re skunk ape hunting,” he yells. “Any tips on where there might be a skunk ape?”

The ranger, looking uncomfortable, says no, he has no information on that. Shealy, clearly enjoying the ranger’s discomfort, grins and drives away.

We head over to Everglades City, which is back to being a fishing village, and continue a few miles south to Chokoloskee, a small community on an island at the mouth of the Turner River. We stop at the Smallwood Cemetery, a tiny, semi-hidden plot of ground with a few dozen gravestones, some old, some fairly recent. One of them marks the grave of one of Shealy’s ancestors. It says:

BORN 10 AUG 1869—DIED 15 JAN 1901

We drive around Chokoloskee, then Everglades City, Shealy waving to people, some of whom he says he smuggled drugs with. Everybody seems to know him. Then we head back in the Preserve. We turn off the Tamiami Trail now, driving on back roads made from hardpacked sand and shell dredgings. Shealy points to places where his neighbors’ homes once stood, now wild and overgrown, taken back by the swamp.

We pass an isolated house that’s still standing but abandoned. Shealy tells me it used to be occupied by a strange man, a loner, who kept wolves as pets.

“I’d be out at night, hunting,” he says. “I could hear those wolves howling.”

The thing was, nobody could figure out what the man was feeding the wolves. But there were rumors. People said the man would drive to Miami in his van, pick up homeless people and prostitutes there. They would never be seen again.

As Shealy tells me this, I’m looking at the house. The day is sunny, the temperature is over 90, and I’m getting chills.

“There’s a lot of missing people,” says Shealy.

We turn onto Turner River Road, which is where a number of skunk ape sightings have occurred over the years. My sense is that at this point in the ritual Kabuki Theater of skunk ape journalism, we are supposed to be looking for the skunk ape. My role here is to be the skeptical but bemused reporter, asking questions; Shealy’s role is to be Mr. Skunk Ape, showing me places where this group of tourists or that group of hunters spotted the ape; where he found footprints; where he set out lima beans that were mysteriously gone the next day.

But I’m feeling too old for Kabuki Theater. I don’t ask any more questions. We ride in silence. After a while, Shealy, gamely playing his role, says, “So, I suppose you want to know if the skunk ape is real.”

“Not really,” I say.

This answer seems to surprise him. But after a second or two he plunges ahead, delivering his lines.

“The Seminoles believe the skunk ape lives inside the Earth,” he says. “You can only see it if it wants you to. Some say it’s a spirit. But what I saw is flesh and blood.”

I write that down in my notebook but ask no more questions. We drive back to Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters. We shake hands and he’s gone. I get back into my car and drive back to Miami, probably passing the snapping turtle that was also headed that way.

Two days later I get an email from Shealy:

I had a great time! nice meeting you THANKS

I email him back that I also enjoyed spending the afternoon with him. And I really did. Shealy is a smart, informed, genuinely interesting person.

For the record, I don’t believe the skunk ape is real. I believe that if there were such a thing, somebody would have taken a decent picture of it by now since everybody in the world has a phone with a pretty good camera.

Does this mean I think Dave Shealy is a hoaxer?

No, I think he’s a survivor. I actually think he’s done a pretty wonderful thing, out there in the swamp, keeping Ochopee on the map. And I don’t think he’s doing anybody any harm, especially not compared to other people making money off of things I don’t think are real. For example, I think astrology is a massive pile of bullshit. Likewise, feng shui. I don’t believe “mediums” can communicate with dead people. I don’t believe the miraculous claims made by most major religions. At funerals, when the clergyperson says the deceased has gone to a better place, I don’t believe it, and I don’t think the clergyperson always believes it either.

So I’m not going to get worked up over the skunk ape.

I’m not a scientist, and I don’t know who’s right about how the Everglades should be protected. I think it’s probably a good thing that development has been stopped out there. But I think the federal government could have done a much better job of dealing with the landowners, and especially grasping the fact that Ochopee was a real community that—like the Miccosukee and the Seminoles—deserved some protection.

It’s too late for Ochopee. But it’s not too late for Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters. I think it would be nice if the National Park Service developed a sense of humor and recognized the headquarters as some kind of official historic thing, to be preserved as a classic example of a traditional, quintessentially Florida cultural icon: The Sketchy Roadside Attraction.

I also think it would be wonderful if the government recognized that Dave Shealy is an endangered species. I think he should be protected, not unlike the way the Florida panther is protected, except that it would be a very big mistake to try to put a radio collar on Dave Shealy.

None of this will happen, of course. It’s a good bet that, sooner or later, Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters will be just another ghost attraction on the Tamiami Trail, like Frog City. So if you want to see it, I recommend you see it soon. Afterward, you can check out the Everglades, which—make no mistake—are a unique, precious, etc. Be sure to wear mosquito repellant. I’ll wave to you as I drive past.