Florida’s Monster

By Kathleen Laufenberg, DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER August 14, 2005

It’s big. It’s hairy. It stinks. It lurks in the woods – and it’s been spotted near Tate’s Hell.

It’s Florida’s own monster: the Skunk Ape, known in other parts of the world as Bigfoot, Yeti, the Abominable Snowman and Sasquatch.

True believers say the Skunk Ape is real (stop rolling your eyes!). Files at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission confirm that many people say they’ve seen one.

A few freethinkers hope to spot the legendary creature themselves this fall. That’s when Scott Marlowe – a manly man, unafraid to hike into the swamps during the wee hours, when alligators bellow and owls cry – leads an expedition in search of the Skunk Ape, somewhere in the wilds of Florida.

“We will definitely be roughing it,” the 51-year-old from Winter Haven said. “We will be in the wild, and we will be camping…, but we’ll also have an RV headquarters to work out of.”

Marlowe says he has had two close encounters with Skunk Apes, said to be 7 feet tall and outrageously stinky.

“I was actually beaned by one,” he said of his latest encounter, in June.

It happened while he and two Discovery Channel filmmakers were tracking a family of Skunk Apes. (A film about the Skunk Ape later aired as “Animal X” on Discovery.) Marlowe says one of the creatures threw a stick and whopped him on the head, drawing blood.

Such are the perils of monster hunting – or, to use a gentler term, cryptozoology: the study of, and search for, creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Marlowe – who has held various jobs, including schoolteacher and computer technician, and is working on a bachelor’s degree in computer science – teaches a cryptozoology class at the Florida Keys Community College. Anyone with an Internet connection can take the class, which includes a deep-woods expedition.

But before you join a crew of Skunk Ape hunters, know that you risk encountering ticks, snakes and worse – the antics of snorting friends (“You’re doing what?”) who hoist imaginary glasses to their lips, implying that your judgment is sadly clouded.

If you’re like Marlowe, you shrug, smile and forge onward. If you’re more of a ham, you could borrow a line from the Bard: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Or you could wisely choose to tell no one of your plans.

The ape files

Before “The X-Files,” there were the Skunk Ape files: two fat folders at the state’s Wildlife Commission offices in Tallahassee. Not surprisingly, the files (which go back to the 1960s) are full of strange accounts and requests.

One man wrote to say he’d lived with a family of Skunk Apes for six months. Others asked whether they needed special permits to bag one. (The official answer: No, because they don’t EXIST! And surely if they did, some wildlife officer would’ve slapped a radio collar around one’s neck by now.)

Perhaps the saddest story in the file, though, is the saga of the Green Swamp creature. A wild man was spotted in the swamps of Sumter County in 1990 and 1991. He was finally tracked down and caught by Sheriff Don Page. The swamp man’s name was Hu Tu Mei. He was a 39-year-old Taiwanese mariner.

He had wandered off unnoticed from Tampa General Hospital’s psychiatric ward eight months before his capture in the swamps. According to news reports, he’d apparently survived by eating small wild animals raw and occasionally stealing food and other items from barns and mobile homes.

After they treated him to plates of food at the jail, the deputies told the man he’d soon be able to go home to Taiwan. Later that evening, he killed himself by wrapping a belt around his neck.

Such a sad ending to the tale of the Green Swamp creature. But it’s the only tale in the files that has an ending. The story of the Skunk Ape goes on and on.

Why?

“That’s one of those things that’s always going to be around. I think people need those myths and legends,” said Robert Daniels, a recently retired Florida wildlife officer of 27 years.

He’s seen some strange things in the Panhandle woods, the 52-year-old said, but never a Skunk Ape (also called a Swamp Ape).

So, what is the strangest thing he’s seen in the woods?

That would be a ghost. Daniels said he saw it many years ago, at the Lake Jackson Indian Mounds.

But that’s another story.

What the … ?

Bill Arnold, on the other hand, has never seen a ghost. But he says he has gotten a good, unexpected look at a Skunk Ape.

The longtime owner of Arnold Bicycle Sales & Service Shop in Columbus, Ga., has property in Wakulla County and plans to retire here. So he’s often in the area and enjoys going to the beach on St. George Island.

He saw the Skunk Ape, he said, on his way to St. George. (And no, he said, he had not been drinking or doing anything else to impair his faculties.)

He was on County Road 67, a long, lonely stretch of road that winds near Tate’s Hell and cuts through acres of undeveloped land. It was one day about this time last summer, he said, around 6:30 p.m., when he spotted something large and dark crossing the road on two legs.

“When I first saw it, I thought it must be a bear,” the 52-year-old said. “As I got closer and closer, … I thought it might be a hunter. A big, hairy hunter.”

But then he realized it couldn’t be a human, either. It was too big – “probably 8 feet tall” – and it had furry hair “pretty much from top to bottom.” He couldn’t tell if it was male or female. It had no neck. When it turned to look at his approaching truck, its upper torso turned rather than just its head.

It was a big, hairy ape, he said. And then it was gone, disappearing into the woods on the other side.

And although he’s willing to have his name in the newspaper, he said, “I don’t tell a lot of people.”

He learned quickly it was best not to.

“I got a kind of guarded reaction. ‘Oh yeah, sure, uh-huh.’”

He’d heard the story of the Florida Skunk Ape before his sighting, he said, but never thought much of it. But now, “I believe it more because I feel like I really did see it.”

Whenever he takes that same road, he’s always on the lookout. He keeps a camera ready, just in case.

(Which may not help, even if he snaps one. Photos of Skunk Apes abound, from blurry snapshots in grocery tabloids to clear photos of what looks suspiciously like Chewbacca, the Wookiee in the “Star Wars” movies. Wait – maybe what Arnold saw was a Wookiee!)

Making a monkey

If you stop in at J.R.’s Aucilla River Store on U.S. Highway 98, across from the Aucilla River Wildlife Management Area, you’ll see something that owner Lester Walker Jr. – known to all in this remote area as J.R. – calls a swamp monkey.

You’ll find the mysterious stuffed creature along with other stuffed wild animals, such as wild boar, bobcats, turkeys and quail.

Walker, 54, will spin a yarn to inquiring newcomers that the swamp monkey is a creature he shot after it fell from tall trees into his boat. (“I always keep a 9millimeter with me,” he said matter-of-factly, “’cause down here 911 is a long distance.”)

But before his patrons leave, he tells them the truth: It’s just something he rigged up using “a deer tail turned upside down.”

Still, his pseudo swamp monkey has sparked plenty of tales about the legendary Skunk Ape. Walker’s not a believer: “I’ve never seen anything like that. Just bears. There’s a lot of bears around here.” But he just smiles and nods. If he’s in the mood, he might share his tale of the strangest creature (other than the humans) he’s ever encountered in the Aucilla River woods.

It happened, he said, back in about 1970.

“I thought I saw two hogs, and I got out of my truck. I had a 45 with me, and I thought I was (“Gunsmoke” TV Marshal) Matt Dillon with it. I snuck out there to the edge of the bushes.”

But what he found wasn’t a wild boar.

“It was a big black cat. This thing was about 60, 70 pounds. I knew not to be messing with something like that.”

So, quietly, he climbed back in his truck and left.

Today, he’s still not sure what he saw. And though it may not be a yowzer of a tale, as many Skunk Ape stories are, it’s his. And he has a simple but wise philosophy when it comes to swapping tales of Things I Saw in the Swamps: “I don’t mess with your stories, and you don’t mess with mine.”

That’s sage advice to all who seek the Florida Skunk Ape.

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