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Tracking Florida’s Skunk Ape

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 23.3, Fall 2013

Combining myths of the American Sasquatch—better known since 1958 as “Bigfoot”—and various swamp monsters, Florida’s “Skunk Ape” is reportedly a large, shaggy, man-beast that haunts, especially, Florida’s wilderness areas (Coleman and Huyghe 1999, 56–57). On a trip to the state’s Panhandle region in October 2011, I was able to begin to look into the various legends and sightings—first, with a day’s excursion into the remote Tate’s Hell1 wilderness area (Figure 1) and part of a night in the Apalachicola National Forest with Dr. Gary A. Stillwell as guide, and, second, research trips to the state’s Wildlife Commission offices and State Library and Archives of Florida in Tallahassee.

Joe Nickell with a camera in FloridaFigure 1. The author looking for Skunk Apes in Florida’s Tate’s Hell region. (Author’s photo by Dr. Gary A. Stillwell)

I have since conducted much additional re­search on the fabled creature, which is essentially only a regional variant of the North American Bigfoot itself—see my “Bigfoot Lookalikes” (Nickell 2013). (After the Pacific Northwest, Florida and Pennsyl­vania are the most Bigfoot-reported regions of North America—at least through 1980 [Nickell 2011, 225].) In addition to Skunk Ape, it has been called Stink Ape, Skunk Man, Skunk Monkey, Swamp Man, The Swamp Monster, and, among many others, the Bardin Booger. (The latter beast—reported in the region around the logging community of Bardin—is a sub-variant, itself having such names as Wooly Booger, Bardin Goomer, and several others, including even The Boogie Man, a name that reveals something of its status as a folk monster [Jenkins 2010, 80, 102].) Here is some of what I discovered about the Skunk Ape.

Skunk Ape Portrait

I studied a wealth of hairy man-beast en­counters, selecting—from a pro-Bigfoot data base of 1,002 reports (1818–1980 [Bord and Bord 2006, 213–310)—all forty-two entries for Florida, to which I added thirty-five more from another such source (1818–2008 [Jenkins 2010, 77–128]) for a total of seventy-seven case studies. I then extracted data to determine the averages for the following characteristics of the Skunk Ape.

Physical description. The Florida Skunk Ape has generally black or “dark” long hair or fur—one report described it as seemingly “covered in fur, as if wearing a fur coat” (Jenkins 2010, 114). It may also be brown, or—in one 1848 instance—white. It has a large, round head with big, shining eyes, no appreciable neck, and broad, rounded shoulders. When standing upright, it has “long dangling arms,” in one case being ob­served “swinging its arms as dogs yapped at it” (Bord and Bord 2006, 244).

However, it is seen in various positions: one creature was “close to the ground, as if kneeling,” while another “stood up in a half crouch,” then took a “huge stance with hunched shoulders”; still another was “a huge shape” that “stood up,” while often the creatures were first seen standing, watching people. Estimates of its height vary greatly, from as short as four feet to as tall as ten, but the average is 7.45 feet (slightly smaller than the overall North American Bigfoot average of 7.57, determined from the 1,002 cases cited previously). Limited estimates of its weight yield an average of 508.3 pounds.2 Its gait is sometimes said to be unusual—for instance, “exaggerated.” One witness said the creature “wobbled” as it walked (Jenkins 2010, 96, 105).

Odor. The Skunk Ape is supposedly distinguished as “smelly,” occasionally likened to its namesake, but more often it is characterized descriptively as having a “rancid, putrid odor,” like “that of rotten food and dead animal” (Bord and Bord 2006, 245; Jenkins 2010, 898), or having “the usual scent of cabbage and rotten eggs” (Jenkins 2010, 99). In fact, however, similar Bigfoot creatures across North America are also commonly described as “smelly,” “strong-smelling,” having a “strong animal smell,” “nauseating odor,” or a smell as of a “sewer” or “rotten eggs,” and the like (Bord and Bord 2006, 23, 234, 247, 249, 270, 272).

Behavior. The Skunk Ape’s behavior is typically similar to that of Bigfoot everywhere. It is frequently seen standing among trees, crossing a road (and occasionally being hit by a car), rummaging in garbage, drinking water or catching fish from a lake or stream, visiting campsites, standing to peer into windows, and so on. It typically vocalizes by growling, grunting, grumbling, or producing “stressed breathing” and, at least once, “clicking sounds,” among others (although at times there is no sighting and so no certainty that the sound was that of a Skunk Ape) (Jenkins 2010, 111, 117, 123).

Habitat. Skunk Apes are encountered generally in remote areas, notably forests and swamps, including the Everglades, as well as other national and state parks. They are attracted to human habitations—campsites, cabins and other outlying homes, and garbage dumps—in search of food (Jenkins 2010, 77–128).

Sign. Any evidence that a certain type of animal has been in a given area is called its sign. This can include tracks, indications of feeding (such as food remnants), scat (fecal matter), and the like. In the seventy-seven cases studied, the Skunk Ape’s signs include large tracks, typically up to 17.5 inches and with five toes (Bord and Bord 2006, 257, 262). Other on-site indicators were broken branches, a puddle of apparent urine, and uprooted plants (Jenkins 2010, 88, 95, 101).

Suspects

As it happens, there is a known animal that actually has the foregoing characteristics: the black bear (Ursus americanus). It is typically covered with shiny black fur and has a tan or grizzled snout. Black bears can also be other colors, including cinnamon and even white (Herrero 2002, 131–32). A large one can stand seven feet tall (Yosemite 2013), weighing in the range of 203–587 pounds (Whitaker 1996, 703). When it stands, its “arms” dangle. It has a big head, large shining eyes, “no neck” (as is said of the Skunk Ape), and rounded shoulders.

Bears can be malodorous, and some people claim they can smell them when they are nearby (Herrero 2002, 115). Since bears often scavenge on dead animals and rummage in garbage bins and open dumps (Herrero 2002, 43, 156; Whitaker 1996, 706), they might be expected sometimes to be “smelly.”

Bears stand on their hind legs for various reasons, such as when necessary to peer in a window or when trying to sense something, sniffing the air. They can walk in ungainly fashion this way. States one expert, “No doubt the ability of bears to stand on two feet has influenced some people’s perception of them as being humanlike . . .” (Herrero 2002, 139). Indeed, the bear’s hind footprint is “remarkably human-like,” especially when, in late summer, the claws are worn and “may not show up at all” in its tracks. At moderate speeds the hind and fore feet may superimpose to “give the appearance of a single track made by a bipedal creature” (Napier 1973, 150–51).

Bears behave like Bigfoot often does. They stand and watch people, visit their camps and homes, wade in streams seeking fish, climb trees for protection, and so on. They vocalize with growls, snorts, and loud huffing noises; common defensive display is “blowing with clacking teeth” (Whitaker 1996, 703–706; Herrero 2002, 15, 16, 115; Rogers 1992, 3–4).

Black bear habitat is similar to that of Bigfoot, since it consists of “primarily forests and swamps” (Whitaker 1996, 704). The big mammals once occupied all of Florida’s mainland, as well as some coastal islands and the larger Keys, but settlement reduced their range to scattered core areas now designated as primary range (containing core bear population) and secondary range (where bear movement is also significant although the range is less optimal) (“Black Bears” 2013). In addition to tracks, scat, and other signs, bears leave feeding signs that include broken vegetation (mangled berry patches, broken fruit-true branches, uprooted plants) and remnants of carrion and large prey.

Some Brief Case Studies

Here are a few reports of Florida Skunk Ape encounters that could be explained as misidentifications of bears:

• In 1957, in the Everglades in late afternoon, a wild-boar hunter encountered “What looked like a bear squatting,” but then “the thing slowly stood up to a staggering height of about eight feet.” As he backed away out of the dark thicket, he glimpsed sunlight on the eyes yielding “a yellow-orange glow like the eyes of a wild animal,” and the hunter ran to his truck (Jenkins 2010, 89–90.). Apparently the only thing that made him think the bearlike creature was not a bear was his mistaken belief that bears do not stand upright.

• In 1960, in a sparsely populated area near Hollywood (near the outskirts of the Everglades), an “adolescent skunk ape” walked out of a drainage ditch after midnight, then stood in the center of the road. From fifty yards away, the driver of a car saw that the creature was no more than five feet tall, had long arms and a round head. It was “covered in dark fur and had no observable facial features” (Jenkins 2010, 91–92).

• In 1966, near the Andote River, a man reported seeing Bigfoot “standing in trees” and having a “rancid, putrid odor” (Bord and Bord 2006, 245).

• In 1969, near Davie, Florida, a man encountered a “smelly, growling Bigfoot” in an abandoned guava orchard, and another man saw a “huge black Bigfoot treed by dogs” in an orange grove; “it swung away through the trees,” then dived into a canal (Bord and Bord 2006, 256). Black bears feed on various fruit and even climb trees for food, with broken fruit-tree branches being among the common signs of black-bear activity (Whitaker 1996, 703, 705). I suspect the phrase swung away through the trees in the account crept in because of the notion that Skunk Apes are apelike; I suggest the man misperceived how the bear made its mad scramble through the branches to the canal.

• In 1971, at Crystal River, four men saw four manlike animals on an embankment outside “a massive forest.” They were picking at some plants (later found “pulled away from the earth”). The creatures were furry “from head to toe” and had “long arms and large heads that were not proportionate to their bodies” (Jenkins 2010, 100). The description is quite similar to bears, among whose feeding signs is “ground pawed up for roots” (Whitaker 1996, 703).

Conclusions

Of course not all Skunk Ape reports represent sightings of bears. Some are the product of folklore (as Jenkins [2010, 79–81] readily admits), or the misidentification of other wildlife (especially those “encounters” consisting of northing more than sounds or eyeshine), and many could well be outright hoaxes. In fact, Bigsuit-style pranks were common regarding north-central Florida’s Skunk Ape known as the Bardin Booger (Daegling 2004, 237–45).

However, considerable evidence suggests that bears, which are known to exist, can be mistaken for the Skunk Ape as well as Big­foot in general, the existence of which lacks proof. We must recall the principle of Occam’s razor (named for fourteenth-century philosopher William of Ockham), which holds that the simplest tenable explanation—the one with the fewest assumptions—is most likely to be correct.


Acknowledgments

In addition to Dr. Gary A. Stillwell, to whom I am most indebted, I am also grateful to the staff of the State Library and Archives of Florida in Tallahassee, to CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga, and CFI Librarian Lisa Nolan.

Notes

1. Tate’s Hell State Park is said to be “One of the prime habitats for the swamp-dwelling Sasquatch” (Hinson 2010).

2. For two of the cases in Bord and Bord (2006, 246, 262), I found weight data from another source (“Skunk Ape” 2013), thus making a total of six estimates of weight for all of my seventy-seven cases.

References

Black Bears Distribution Map. 2013. Available at http://myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/wildlife/black-bears/distribution-map/; accessed April 22, 2013.

Bord, Janet, and Colin Bord. 2006. Bigfoot Casebook Updated: Sightings and Encounters from 1818 to 2004. N.p.: Pine Winds Press.

Coleman, Loren, and Patrick Huyghe. 1999. The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide. New York: Avon Books.

Daegling, David J. 2004. Bigfoot Exposed. NY: Alta­Mira Press.

Herrero, Stephen. 2002. Bear Attacks, rev. ed. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.

Hinson, Mark. 2010. Florida is a haven for vampires, Skunk Apes and Pig Men. Tallahassee Democrat (October 31).

Jenkins, Greg. 2010. Chronicles of the Strange and Uncanny in Florida. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press.

Napier, John. 1973. Bigfoot. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Nickell, Joe. 2011. Tracking the Man-Beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies, and More. Amherst, NY: Prome­theus Books.

———. 2013. Bigfoot lookalikes. Skeptical Inquirer 37(5) (September/October): 12–15.

Rogers, Lynn L. 1992. Watchable Wildlife: The Black Bear. Madison, WI: USDA Forest Service, North Central Station Distribution Center.

Skunk Ape. 2013. Available at http://www.weirdus.com/states/florida/bizarre_beasts/skunk_ape/; ac­cessed April 22, 2013.

Whitaker, John O., Jr. 1996. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals, rev. ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Yosemite Black Bears. 2013. Available at http://www.yosemitepark.com/bear-facts.aspx; accessed March 25, 2013.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.