The Skunk Ape—or swampsquatch, abominable Florida apeman, abominable swamp slob, Florida Bigfoot, myakka skunk ape, swamp monkey, Holopaw gorilla, Squattam’s growler, stink ape, Sandman, swamp cabbage man, boggy bugger, or Bardin booger—is Florida’s own foul-smelling, tire-heaving, tom-peeping, pony-decapitating, Sasquatch variant.

Like the Sasquatch, the Skunk Ape has drawn the interest of very few legitimate scientists, and very many amateur cryptozoologists. And while there is no conclusive evidence, the scientific existence of Sasquatch cannot be ruled out a priori. The cultural existence, however, is very well established.

cast
Skunk Ape footprint cast.

While the Swamp Ape may be native to Florida, the Sasquatch tradition is rooted in Pacific Northwest indigenous ontologies. The word ‘Sasquatch’ itself is an anglicanized form of sásq’ets, which comes from the Halkomelem language spoken by Salish groups living on the Pacific Northwest Coast, from Southwestern British Columbia to Northwestern Washington.  The origin of the Skunk Ape legend is most likely non-indigenous, but it may be partially based on the Shaawanoki, a “snapping mouth entity” of Creek and Miccosukee lore. Other less-reliable sources (that don’t rely on native informants) claim the term means “big hairy men.”  

History of Skunk Ape

Much like the various Sasquatch/Bigfoot variants we hear of today, the Sasquatch had different behavioral traits and appearances to the different Salish bands living in coastal British Columbia. In Florida, the Skunk Ape is often described as a biped standing between five and nine feet tall, with brown, black, or red hair, covering all but the face. It is frequently described as lacking a neck, and is always said to have an intensely unpleasant smell.

artistskunk
Elegantly framed artist rendering of the Skunk Ape, looking longingly through beautifully lashed eyes, by Kari Schultz. Not pictured: smell.

While the antiquity of the ‘Skunk Ape’ moniker is unclear, it is most likely a 20th century invention. A documentary from David Shealy, a self-proclaimed Skunk Ape expert, stated that the term was coined by Shealy’s father, but Shealy himself stated that this was untrue. Still, he first heard the term in 1970 or 1971, just two to three years before his first encounter.

Shealy heads the Official Skunk Ape Headquarters, a “research station” and tourist stop along the Tamiami Trail, where travelers can purchase “officially licensed Skunk Ape merchandise.” While he is certainly personally (and financially) invested in advocating for the existence of the Skunk Ape, Shealy has also been instrumental in the elevating the Skunk Ape to the status of a Florida cultural icon. I, for one, am proud that a hairy, stinky, elusive, and dangerous ape (that is not Florida Man) has taken its place among Florida’s pantheon of weirdness.   

The Wild Man of the Green Swamp

While its range is said to extend west into Louisiana (though some would call that the range of the Louisiana Bigfoot) and north into North Carolina, Skunk Ape sightings are most common around the Green Swamp or Everglades areas in central and south Florida. There are numerous reported sightings—most of which occurred during the 1970s—a boat-load of footprint casts, a handful of photographs, and even a few videos, including this 2000 sighting captured on film by Shealy. Photos of one famous encounter, also from 2000, came from the backyard of an anonymous source. The photographer sent the photos to the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department, and she claimed that the subject was an escaped orangutan.

skunkrangutan
Anonymously snapped photo of the Myakka Skunk Ape. Photographer suggested it was an escaped orangutan.

Some of the many sightings in the mid-1970s may be related to the unfortunate story of Hu Tu Mei, called “The Wild Man of the Green Swamp” by local newspapers. A mariner, Mei had grown homesick after leaving his wife, four sons, and three daughters in Taipei, Taiwan. After he started to become violent, the crew of the the freighter he was working on, currently docked near Tampa, took him to the hospital. Then, he disappeared.

 

mei
The arrest of Hu Tu Mei.

Hu spent eight months in the Green Swamp, subsisting off armadillos, snakes, and corn left out by hunters for wild turkey. By mid-1975, three counties had received reports of a “wild man” committing burglaries, and police had unsuccessfully sent six search expeditions after him.

 

With the aid of a search plane, a group of 15-20 deputies found Hu’s camp and, after a struggle, arrested him. Sumter County Sheriff Don Page described him as “the strongest man I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Hu was reportedly terrified while in custody: (through an interpreter) “They are going to kill me, and I will rather kill myself first.” He spent two days in jail before taking his own life in his cell.

Two years later, the Stoeckman family of Key Largo experienced a month-long ordeal that caused them to temporarily flee their home. Charles Stoeckman and his son reportedly saw a Skunk Ape while collecting bottles in the oceanside mangroves on his property:

“It had a huge head and shoulders, long fur all over, and he stank like a dirty wet dog. The noise he made was a high-pitched wailing.”

Stoeckman cleared over 30 feet of brush from his property to keep the creature away, but it returned several times over the next few weeks. Charles’ wife Leslie and her three children fled to Homestead after she saw its silhouette outside her bedroom window:

“Through a gap in the jalousie window, from where I was lying in bed, I saw these bright, colorless eyes. They must have been reflecting the backyard light, like a cat’s would. They were evil-staring. I could see the silhouette of its huge shoulder and head above an 8-foot bush, 30 feet from the bedroom window.”

Mr. Stoeckman remained behind by himself, guarding his home with a shotgun, until he joined a posse of four local men—the self-proclaimed “Skunk Ape Safari”—aiming to hunt and kill the creature, but to no success. Still, local police doubt this was a hoax. Sgt. Rondoll Chinn of the Sheriff’s Office said:

“There is definitely a problem there. These people are truly scared to death. It’s unlikely that someone is pulling a practical joke because it would require a great deal of effort. If it is a joke, someone’s liable to get hurt.”

Some locals sought to benefit from the Stoeckmans’ unique suffering, and advertisements for high-quality Skunk Ape t-shirts printed by Sea Hawk Graphics of Islamorada began appearing in the local paper, The Reporter.

SkunkTee.png
“Skunk Ape Lives!…In the Florida Keys.” Image from Florida Keys History & Discovery Center.

Protect the Skunk Ape

No doubt a direct response to the rash of sightings in the mid-1970s, one Florida lawmaker took notice. On October 13, 1977, (just three months after the Stoeckman ordeal) State Representative Hugh Paul Nuckolls sponsored House Bill 58,  “An act relating to anthropoid or humanoid animals, prohibiting the taking, possessing, harming, or molesting thereof.” The bill, if passed, would have made messin’ with the Skunk Ape a first degree misdemeanor. This was his second attempt, as a similar bill (HB 1664) failed to pass in the previous session.

In support of the Act was Lewis Bellarie of New Iberia, LA. His testimonial reads:

“In regards to your bill I am enclosing a few photos in the event that there may be a few skeptical Senators who need a little more convincing that the skunk ape, bigfoot, sasquatch, or as I name Boggy Bugger need the legislation you introduced. I speak for—or I assume I speak for—the above as I haven’t been contacted personally by any representative, the skunk ape, bigfoot, sasquatch, and so forth, but I don’t think they would mind and would like to express our appreciation whether it be your concern of our welfare in the State of FL. With this bill we can now shop in any shopping center or walk down main st. without being harmed or molested. It has been a problem in the past. Actually the photographs were taken during the filming of the movie, The Return to Boggy Creek, which I played, of course, Sasquatch, or in Florida, Skunk Ape. So you see why I am partial.”

returntoboggycreek
Poster for “Return to Boggy Creek” featuring Bellaire as “The Monster.”

Despite the commendable effort of sympathy and stewardship, which has not been equaled by any Florida legislator since, the “Hugh Paul Nuckolls Skunk Ape Act” failed to pass and the Skunk Ape remains without legislative protection.

A Note on Ontologies

The Skunk Ape is a complex tangle of Native American legend and non-indigenous experience. But a problem of two ontological origins cannot be solved by applying the logic of just one. From a Western scientific perspective, the way in which we discuss sasquatch legends/myths/stories of different cultures may inherently flaw our analysis of their cultural significance.

For example, it is crucial to clarify the term “legend” when discussing Salishan traditional narrative, or sptékwɬ. Most Salish narratives are set in the Myth Age, a time before the transformer—a Salishan culture hero—had set the world in order for humans. Rather than a specific time or place, this represents a “dimension, another reality” in which animals, landscape elements, and natural phenomena were anthropomorphized. Contrary to the myths and legends of Western literature, all of these stories are distinguished by the fact that “they really happened.”

Similarly, no meaningful distinction exists between ‘real’ and ‘mythical’ or ‘supernatural’ beings in the Coast Salish world. In his study on the cultural associations of Sasquatch creatures, Wayne Suttles, a prominent Northwest Coast anthropologist, argued:

“a description of Coast Salish culture that is truly “emic”—that is, organized by Native categories—should describe whales and bears, sasquatches and two-headed serpents, all under the same heading as part of the “real” world of the Coast Salish.”

The concept of Sasquatch hails from lands that were/are inhabited by cultures that do not see meaningful distinctions between real and mythical or natural and supernatural.

Perhaps, then, the greatest hurdle in the Skunk Ape debate is not one that forces us to find a “smoking gun” that proves that a Skunk Ape frolicked through your yard one night, but in fact encourages us to reckon with the idea that non-Western ontologies—the ones which gifted us with these myth/legends in the first place—are fundamentally different than our own, such that the idea of the Sasquatch will never be proven or disproven by Western scientific terms.

Perhaps, fellow Florida-based Squatchers, what we need to realize is that while the Skunk Ape may not live out there, it still lives in here.

Yes.

I’m pointing to my heart.

Sources

BBC News. The Abominable Swampman. March 6, 1998.

Bertelli, Brad. The Skunk Ape Lives… in the Florida Keys. Florida Keys News, December 16, 2016.

Bigfoot Field Research Organization. Reports for Florida. BFRO.net, 2017.

Daegling, David J. Bigfoot Exposed: An Anthropologist Examines America’s Enduring Legend. Alta Mira Press, 2004.

Douglas, Christopher Reciting America: Culture and Cliché in Contemporary U.S. Fiction, University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Eberheart, George M. Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology. ABC-CLIO,Inc. 2002.

Fallon, Aaron. Skunk Ape: Stories and Poems. A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of Bachelor of Arts in English, The College of William and Mary. April 16, 2010.

Florida Memory. A Bill to Protect Skunk Apes. The Florida Memory Blog, October 21, 2013.

Markotic, Vladimir and Grover Krantz (editors). The Sasquatch and Other Unknown Hominoids. Western Publishers, 1984.

Muncy, Mark and Kari Schultz. Freaky Florida: The Wonderhouse, the Devil’s Tree, the Shaman of Philippe Park and More. The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2018.

Pohlen, Jerome. Oddball Florida: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places. Chicago Review Press, 2004.

Poling, Dean. Planet of the Skunk Apes. Valdosta Daily Times. April 28, 2010.

Rafter, Dan. A Handful of Imaginary Species are Protected by Real Laws. May 24, 2006.

Sha a wanoki. Bigfootencounters.com.

Stromberg, Joseph. On the Trail of Florida’s Bigfoot—the Skunk Ape. Smithsonian Magazine, March 6, 2014

Suttles, Wayne P. On the Cultural Track of the Sasquatch. In Coast Salish Essays, edited by Wayne P. Suttles, pp. 73–99. Talonbooks; University of Washington Press, Vancouver; Seattle, 1987.

The Cryptozoologist. Skunk Apes: Hairy Humanoids of North America’s Southern Swamps and Elsewhere. July 4, 2011.

Thom, Brian. Sxwoxwiyám Xéyt te Xwélmexw (Central Coast Salish Transformation Stories): Connecting Humans and Non-humans through Kinship and Place. Draft, 1997.

Thompson, M. Terry, and Steven M. Egesdal. Salish Myths and Legends: One People’s Stories. University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Unknown Explorers. Skunk Ape.

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