Florida Skunk Ape
YouTube: Smithsonian Magazine

Florida Skunk Ape: The Southern Bigfoot's Possible Explanation

Forget Florida man, what about Florida bigfoot?

When most people think of the cryptid known as bigfoot, that might immediately conjure up images in the mind of the heavily forested mountains of the Pacific Northwest in places like Washington, Oregon, California, and British Columbia. For many people, the last place they would associate with sasquatch is the swamps of Florida. Or they think of the snowy peaks of the Himalayas where the Yeti supposedly roams.

However, people have been reporting mysterious, hairy, humanoid-type creatures running around the Florida Everglades and other parts of the state for decades now. Skeptics dismiss the stories as a hoax. Something conjured up by bored locals or to increase T-shirt sales to tourists.

One thing is for sure. Florida bigfoot stories have taken on a mystique all their own in the world of cryptozoology. To the point the alleged unknown primates have their own unique nickname. This is the story of the Florida skunk ape.

What is the Florida skunk ape?

While the name "skunk ape" has only become mainstream in the last 30 years or so, reported sightings date back hundreds of years of unknown hominids roaming the alligator-infested swamps. Like many other sasquatch stories in North America, there is some basis in Native American legend. The Seminole often spoke of a creature they called "Esti Capcaki." Which roughly translates to "tall man," or "forest cannibal" depending on who you ask. The Seminole considered the Esti Capcaki to be a protector of the forest. A key link to the modern-day legend is the description of the beast having a strong, unpleasant odor.

Skunk ape sightings usually describe a creature that is somewhat shorter than what is usually reported in other parts of the country. The height is usually described as five to seven feet tall. The hair of the skunk ape is usually described as being brown or reddish brown in coloration. Although there have also been reports of a creature with black hair. Some eyewitnesses claim the creature makes a high-pitched, haunting vocalization before disappearing back into the swamps. One thing that is almost universal across the reports is the creature's smell, which is reportedly like a mixture between a skunk and a batch of rotten eggs. Hence the name.

The creature is usually described as having long arms and a face that has features that are both human and primate in nature. According to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, sightings are scattered across the sunshine state. Most sightings seem to be centered around South Florida with, Broward, Miami-Dade, Collier, Lee, and Palm Beach County standing out as true hotspots. Especially around the Big Cypress National Preserve where the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters in Ochopee and the Fort Myers area. (More on that later.)

There have also been many sightings in the northcentral part of the state. Especially Marion, Lake, Osceola, Volusia, Pasco, and Orange County just outside Orlando. Basically, anywhere you go in the state, from Tampa to Naples to Sarasota, you can probably find at least one story of someone claiming they saw something.

The evidence for Skunk Ape

Florida Skunk Ape

Wikimedia Commons: Tarbtano35

According to noted cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, the term "skunk ape" was first coined sometime back in the 1960s when the number of reported sightings was starting to pick up. Most of the evidence consists of eyewitness encounters. As is usually the case with this kind of thing, some of them are more convincing than others. For instance, in 1985, a psychology teacher and expert in human body language claimed to have seen one crossing a road one morning in Alachua County. Interestingly, this eyewitness also claimed it looked like the beast was covered in green vegetation, almost as if it was wearing makeshift clothing. The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization later interviewed the eyewitness and got some tidbits that are interesting coming from an expert in human movement.

"It was not holding its head the way a human holds its head, even with bad posture," the eyewitness claimed.

Another extremely famous sighting happened over the course of a few days in the Big Cypress National Preserve in 1997 and made Associated Press headlines nationwide. The interesting thing about this one is that there were dozens of eyewitnesses on multiple tour buses who saw an approximately seven-foot-tall creature with long, reddish brown hair near the road. It is worth noting some of the witnesses felt it could have been a prankster in a gorilla suit, but it seems these people really did see something.

Just a few days after the tourists saw the beast, a man named Vince Doerr sighted a creature matching the same description cross the road in front of him in the same general area. He had a camera on hand and stopped his vehicle to snap a photo of it standing in the swamp. The photo is shown above. It generated a lot of controversy mostly because of how the subject is far away and there is not much detail to be gleaned from whatever is standing in the woods.

We cannot talk about skunk ape without mentioning Dave Shealy. He runs the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters we mentioned earlier. It is located at his family's Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee. Shealy claims he first saw skunk ape in 1974 while hunting deer with his brother in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Shealy was only 10 years old at the time and the sighting started a lifelong obsession with the beast. He has spent decades investigating the creature and has claimed to have had dozens of encounters.

Skeptics claim Shealy's claims are a stunt to sell souvenirs to tourists who use his campground or take his swamp tours. We can kind of see where they are coming from on that. Shealy was profiled by Smithsonian Magazine in 2014, and from his interview, he does not seem to be a fan of the National Park Service opening their own campgrounds when the Big Cypress preserve was created in the early 1970s. However, Shealy has remained steadfast in his insistence of the creature's existence. He still goes out hunting for the skunk ape it in the swamps behind his home today. Make of that what you will.

His two most notable sightings happened in 1998 and 2000. In the first sighting he managed to get several grainy photos of something crossing a swamp from his treestand. Then, in 2000, he captured what some people consider the ultimate piece of skunk ape evidence, approximately two minutes of video of a mysterious figure crossing a swamp. You can see that footage above. Skeptics have dismissed it as nothing more than a guy in a gorilla suit, but Shealy stands behind his photographic and plaster cast footprint evidence to this day.

Natural explanations for the skunk ape.

Florida Skunk Ape

Wikimedia Commons: Tarbtano35

We do not know for sure if the skunk ape exists or not. We do feel we should mention some of the possible explanations for what people are encountering in the Everglades of Fla. Most wildlife officials dismiss the sightings as the misidentification of a black bear. Bruins are common throughout Florida. However, it is notable that the areas with the greatest concentrations of skunk ape sightings seem to line up well with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission's black bear distribution maps. It is probably plausible to assume at least a few sightings can be attributed to misaken identity.

Another explanation often touted by wildlife officials are escaped orangutans or other primates. Unfortunately, Florida has been besieged by a plethora of invasive species over the last 30 years. Many animals like feral hogs, Burmese pythons, green iguanas, and more have taken a real liking to Florida's climate and their numbers have surged into breeding populations.

It is not out of the question for a variety of primates to live and thrive in the warm climate of places like the Everglades. In fact, there may be evidence to show it has happened here already near Myakka River State Park. Two of the most famous alleged skunk ape photos were taken near there in December 2000 and were forwarded to the Sarasota Sheriff's Office. The photos appear to show an ape-like beast with glowing eyes standing behind a stand of palm fronds.

Many believers immediately seized upon these photos as the proof investigators had long been looking for. However, several biologists and cryptozoologists who have analyzed the photos believe they show nothing more than an escaped orangutan. Smithsonian Magazine notes the letter included with the photos also suggested this possibility.

One thing is for sure. It is not likely we will see the skeptics and the true believers agree on an explanation anytime soon. And really, we kind of hope there is never one. After all, the mystery of what may be wandering the wild areas of Florida may be more fun than the truth of what is really out there.

Products featured on Wide Open Spaces are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels