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The Skunk ape, also known as the swamp ape and Florida Bigfoot, in American folklore, is an ape-like creature that is purported to inhabit the forests and swamps of some southeastern United States, most notably in Florida where sightings have been reported from as far north as the Georgian border, south to the Florida Keys. Supposed evidence of the creature's existence is based on a number of anecdotal sightings as well as disputed photographs, audio and video recordings, and footprints, etc. The majority of mainstream scientists have historically discounted the existence of the Skunk ape, considering it to be the result of a combination of folklore, misidentification, and hoax, rather than a living animal. Regardless of its authenticity as a living animal, the Skunk Ape has permeated into the culture of the southern United States, especially in Florida, appearing often in newspapers articles, advertising, festivals, film, and books; and can be considered part of cultural folklore.
The Skunk ape is said to resemble Bigfoot of the Pacific Northwest, often reported as a bipedal ape-like creature, approximately 1.5–2.1 metres (5–7 ft) tall, and covered in mottled reddish-brown hair. Typically reports describe an animal somewhat shorter than the Pacific Northwest Sasquatch. It is named for its foul odor, often described as being similar to a skunk, however the name "Skunk Ape" itself does originate from early reports describing pale patches of fur on the face in contrast with the dark skin or body coat color.
The Skunk ape has been a part of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama folklore since the European settler period. Seminole myth speaks of a similar foul-smelling, physically powerful, and secretive creature called Esti Capcaki, a name which roughly translates as "cannibal giant".
The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization has archived 333 sightings in Florida, with an additional 137 from Georgia and 100 from Alabama. Most sightings reported ranged from the 1960s into the modern day, though folklore of ape-like monsters has existed in the regions for decades long and some reports are much older. Many more reports have been catalogued in local newspapers, especially in Florida. One of the first reports of a large ape-like creature in Florida came from 1818, when a report from what is now Apalachicola, Florida, spoke of a man-sized monkey or ape raiding food stores and stalking fishermen along the shore. In 1942, a man in Suwanee County, Florida, reported a similar animal rushing out from the brush line while he was driving down an isolated road. It grabbed onto his vehicle and beat on the running board and door for half a mile before departing.
Reports of the skunk ape were particularly common in the 1950s into the 1970s. By 1974, sightings of a large, foul-smelling, hairy, ape-like creature, which ran upright on two legs were reported in suburban neighborhoods of Dade County, Florida that bordered large wilderness expanses such as the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve. Many of these sightings were reported by both layman observers as well as credible sources such as law enforcement officers, national park staff, and wildlife tour operations. Several infamous sightings happened from the years of 1972 to 1974, including a corroborated account by two Palm Beach County Sheriff deputies Marvin Lewis and Ernie Milner; whom reported a very tall, ape-like animal stalked them through a grove before it was fired upon to ward it off. Following a footprint trail, the pair recovered hair snagged on a barbwire fence line that had been pushed down.
In 1977, after a rash of sightings by dozens of eyewitnesses across several Florida counties, a failed-to-pass bill was seriously proposed to the state legislature to make it illegal to "take, possess, harm or molest anthropoids or humanoid animals" in the state of Florida. More reports continued into the 1980s, including a report investigated by the Bigfoot Field Research Organization where a college psychology teacher familiar with body language sighted an upright, ape-like animal with what was reported as "non-human body language" and movements in Alachua County, Florida during 1985.
Sightings became more common again in the 1990s, many by motorists going down various rural roads that ran through the Big Cypress National Preserve. Several reports were made by wildlife tour bus operators, many times with multiple guests corroborating the sighting of an upright ape darting across the road or moving from the tall grasses into the cypress forests. In July of 1997, David Shealy, the operator of a local wildlife center and tour group who had heard stories of the Skunk Ape in his youth, noticed wildlife bait stands laden with Lima bean had been raided with a large number of tracks resembling an anthropoid's around them. Curious as to the truth of the legend or not, he baited several locations along the preserve during a time of high waters driving many large animals to drier land. Shealy and some associates reported sightings soon after, with two tour group reports occurring within days of each other. Everglades Day Safari tour operators Steve Goodbread and Dow Rowland reported separate instances of seeing the creature roaming the area of Turner Road, statements corroborated by their attending safari guests. In both instances the creature was sighted for several minutes at a time. Both were skeptical it could have been a hoax, as the operators were well familiar with wildlife and cited the over 100 °F (38 °C) weather, high humidity, and rural location would make a hoax unfeasible. One of the first pictures of the alleged Skunk Ape was photographed days later by then Ochopee Fire Control District Chief, Vince Doerr. After sighting the creature moving across a road, Doerr stopped his car and observed it walking off into the cypresses. Having a camera on hand, he snapped a photograph of a large, rusty colored figure walking away from him. In total, within two weeks upwards of fifty persons reported seeing an animal with a consistent description within a 10-mile stretch of the Big Cypress National Preserve.
In the year 2000, the Sarasota Sheriff's Office received two anonymous photos depicting what appears to be a large, hairy ape-like creature near the Myakka River State Park. The author of the letter was an elderly woman whom had noticed a creature had been stealing fruit from the trees in her backyard bordering the park, and upon surprising it with a camera she was afraid it was an escaped Orangutan that might harm her family. The scrutinized photos, dubbed the "Myakka Skunk ape", remain a polarizing topic. No known ape-suit or statue of similar design is known for which a hoax might be carried out with, but skeptics have noted the dubious nature of the letter's story and the lack of clarity with the photographs making a hoax impossible to rule out.
Sightings have continued into current years. In 2015 a video was submitted to HuffPost by kayaker Matthew McKamey. The video, taken at Lettuce Lake Park in Hillsborough County, Florida, shows an upright, ape-like creature wading through a cypress marsh. The movements and hair of the creature were remarked as realistic and the location would have made a hoax difficult. However, frequent reviewer of supposed Bigfoot and UFO footage, Ben Hansen, remarked that the sighting happened shortly after a known Skunk Ape hoax in nearby Tampa Bay and could be a copycat hoax. The quality was deemed insufficient to prove or disprove the footage as an actor in a suit.
Skeptical investigator Joe Nickell has written that some of the reports may represent sightings of the black bear (Ursus americanus) and it is likely that other sightings are hoaxes or misidentification of wildlife. It is notable that bears with mange often appear very different than a bear would be expected to look. The United States National Park Service considers the skunk ape to be a hoax.
In folklore and popular culture
The skunk ape has been widely adopted across South and Central Florida as a mascot for the Florida wilderness and rural culture. The cryptid has appeared in numerous roadside businesses and attractions, television commercials, and signs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, several Florida businesses have used the Skunk Ape's reported foul smell giving incentive to remain at a distance and evasive nature to promote social distancing.
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