I sidle up to a ranger hanging out near the bathrooms at the Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Fla. “When’s the last time you’ve seen skunk ape?” I ask nonchalantly.
“What’s that?” asks the ranger, a friendly grandfather type in a Smokey Bear hat.
“It’s a Sasquatch that stinks. It was last photographed here.”
“Sorry,” the ranger says with an earnest shrug, forming an “O” with his mouth and tossing in some popcorn. “I’ve never heard of it.”
The skunk ape is the Rodney Dangerfield of mythical creatures. It’s been around for decades, but it gets no respect.
I’ve sojourned to the Gulf Coast from my home in Miami on a cryptozoological assignment.
“Garcia-Roberts!” my American Way editor barked at me, pounding his desk and guzzling scotch. “Get your hyphen out there and bring me that skunk ape!” (Editor’s note: That didn’t happen. And I prefer bourbon, but not during business hours.)
This park is Florida’s Loch Ness. In December 2000, Sarasota cops received an anonymous packet of photos showing a Harry and the ?Hendersons-type giant ape flashing a dim-witted underbite from behind some tropical reeds. An enclosed letter asked: “Is someone missing an orangutan?”
But to conspiracy theorists — or as I like to call them, reality perceivers — it was clear what was stalking one of the country’s most elderly cities: a skunk ape. Basically a bipedal primate who smells like rotten eggs (hey, I roomed with that guy freshman year!), the mystical species has allegedly curdled local noses for decades.
The 8-foot primate rampaged through suburban Miami-Dade County in the 1970s, reportedly peeping through windows and scurrying off after having been hit by a car. In each instance, the strange stench was reported, although that could have just been the general aroma of the disco era.
I have a special affinity for the skunk ape and his mates in the bush leagues of mystical creatures. I’m tired of the headline-hogging antics of Sasquatch — a notorious sellout now pitching beef jerky — the overhyped Scottish sea dinosaur and the swaggering Latin-American bloodsucking Chupacabra.
Who among us isn’t more like the Ozark Howler, the Murphysboro Mud Monster, Old Yellow Top or Lizard Man? Who among us doesn’t scurry, mostly unnoticed, through our local brush — perhaps every so often devouring a chicken or a windowsill pie — waiting for that tantalizingly blurry photo that will be our big break on the nightly news?
So after staring down the tight-lipped park ranger, I hop on a bicycle and head through Myakka, nostrils wide open. But all I smell are leaves and, like, squirrels. It’s a 75-degree day. Kids fish from a bridge. Older couples bike past, waving and ringing their bells. It’s nefariously pleasant.
Undeterred, I leave the park and continue my investigation. I head to the CVS at the intersection of Fruitville and Tuttle — would it kill Sarasota to have some more ominous-sounding street names? — where the anonymous sender of the photos is said to have gotten the film developed.
I purchase a bag of sour-cream–and-onion Ruffles. Tastes like conspiracy.
Driving east through the Everglades, I stop at a small aluminum-sided building. A sign reads “Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters.” On the porch, a burly fella is preparing chicken on a George Foreman Grill.
Inside, I meet Dave Shealy, the world’s foremost skunk ape expert — a sort of good-ol’-boy Jane Goodall. A weathered dude who wears sunglasses atop his head and camouflage swamp boots, Shealy tells me that he recently saw a family of skunk apes enjoying a meal of a bunch of palmetto berries.
Then he shows me low-res video he took of a skunk ape apparently taking a leisurely stroll through a valley. The thing walks completely upright. To be honest, it looks like somebody’s uncle in a gorilla suit.
Shealy sells skunk ape T-shirts and beer koozies, and a hot sauce he’s labeled Skunk Ape Repellent. He also peddles a hand-illustrated yellow booklet called the Everglades Skunk Ape Research Field Guide, which instructs researchers on how to properly bait the creatures with lima beans.
I dutifully scan the sawgrass as I head back to Miami. If I did see the pungent primate, I wouldn’t reveal it here. Call me selfish, but I don’t want to see my favorite obscure monster in a jerky commercial.
I get the feeling Shealy also treasures his sole ownership of the skunk ape–related industry. “Unfortunately, there are people who would like nothing better than to shoot one of these magnificent creatures,” the expert wrote in his research guide. “If your attempts at baiting are successful, wait at least five days before telling anyone. This will allow enough time for the skunk ape to leave the area.”