Skunk Ape Research Headquarters
You may be surprised to learn that the most likely place to see an American bigfoot, outside of the Pacific Northwest, is in the Florida Everglades. The region around the tiny town of Ochopee is particularly favored by smelly, hairy bipeds, and it is here that the Shealy brothers -- Dave and Jack -- have opened the world's only Skunk Ape Research Headquarters.
Dave Shealy, the younger and more outspoken of the two, is Florida's self-appointed Skunk Ape expert. Slim, in his mid-forties, he wears dark, wraparound sunglasses, a hat with a band of alligator teeth, and no shoes.
"There's never been a documented case of anyone ever being physically attacked by a Skunk Ape," he says, reassuringly. "But also, there's a lot of people that go into the Everglades that never come out."
Dave has been studying the Skunk Ape "pretty much all my life" and describes it as six to seven feet tall and 350 to 450 pounds. He guesses that there are between seven and nine of the creatures around here, in a waterlogged and buggy wetland of buzzards, alligators, and towering sawgrass.
"Not everyone who sees a Skunk Ape reports it," says Dave. "They don't want people to poke fun at 'em, or to tell 'em they're crazy. That's not the exception; that's pretty much the rule." But reports do get through. Dave recalls that in 2003 two European women were in the Big Cypress Swamp, photographing plants, when they were surprised by "a huge male Skunk Ape" with an erection. "It was what I believe was the mating season," Dave explains. The women escaped unharmed.
Why do Skunk Apes smell so bad? According to brother Jack, they hide in the air pockets of underground alligator dens, and their bodies absorb a lot of stinky methane. Dave adds: "It's hot down here. And the Skunk Ape sweats. And it doesn't bathe."
Dave has seen a Skunk Ape three times in his life. He's taken photos and video of the animal, which are featured on a DVD sold at Skunk Ape Research Headquarters. The HQ also serves as the office for the Trail Lakes Campground, which is owned and operated by the Shealys. Visitors can buy Skunk Ape t-shirts, camouflage caps, and bumper stickers, which no longer carry the Headquarters phone number. "We'd get calls from all over the country," says Rick, who manages a small zoo at the Campground and who doesn't believe in Skunk Apes. "People would see it and -- I guess -- be bored and need something to do."
A small display in Headquarters showcases newspaper clippings of Dave's interviews, prints of some of his photos, and a prized plaster cast of a Skunk Ape footprint. The highlights of the year at the Campground are the Everglades Skunk Ape Festival held every June -- with a Miss Skunk Ape contest -- and "Skunktoberfest" in October.
"A lot of people thought the Skunk Ape was a hoax," Dave says. "They said it cheapened my business. Made me look like some kind of flim-flam man, out to take advantage of tourists. That's not my intention at all."
If the Skunk Ape is to ever attract bigfoot-size attention, it probably needs Dave -- a natural salesman and promoter. But Dave may be as endangered as his fetid favorite. He is locked in a war with the federal government, which owns the Big Cypress National Preserve next door, and which wants to kick out the Shealys and their campground. That would probably silence all talk of the Skunk Ape. "Here I am," Dave says, his voice rising in frustration. "I'm an American. I should be a shining example of how great this country is. But instead the Parks Service has built all of these campgrounds around me, their employees direct customers away from me, one of their employees has attempted to buy illegal weapons in Miami to kill me. And they won't even fire the guy."
Dave tells us that he is now forbidden from taking visitors to Skunk Ape sites.
"It's illegal for me to take anybody anywhere," he says. "A person who just pulls in off the road and says, 'I wanna see a Skunk Ape'? I generally just point those people in the directions where their chances might be best for seeing one."
"It's a helluva way to live. And the worst part of it is, I don't get any respect."
Dave's heart may be with the Skunk Ape, but his body must be at the Campground. He must put aside his advocacy and field work to be a cop, janitor, lawn mower, maintenance worker, and bookkeeper. He must make certain that his stock of DVDs and t-shirts doesn't run out. "I don't want to get into any big conspiracy theories," he tells us, sounding like a man anxious to avoid any more battles. But then he adds, cryptically, "There's a lot going on down here."
"You've heard of the Everglades Restoration Program?" he asks. "And the cost: what is it? $300 billion? Why would the government invest that kind of money into an area that's nothing but a swamp? They are making huge tracts of the Everglades off-limits. The first thing that I think of when I hear "off-limits" is that there's something going on out there.
"There are things," he says, "here in the Everglades, I can assure you -- and I would not lie to you -- that are secret. And that's what makes this the greatest country in the world. It can keep secrets."
The Skunk Ape, thankfully, is a matter of public record. People have been seeing it for hundreds of years, and they aren't likely to forget about it any time soon -- at least, as long as there's a Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, and as long as it's called a Skunk Ape. "It's the worst of insults, as far as a name goes," Dave concedes. "But it's catchy."