Ape Sighting Draws Interest
If the Green Swamp ape actually does exist, its ears must be burning.
Lakeland resident Jennifer Ward went public in November, sharing her description and drawings of a hairy, human-shaped creature she claimed to have seen on the edge of the Green Swamp in August. Ward’s tale has reverberated through cyberspace, with links to the original Ledger story and a subsequent Orlando Sentinel article showing up on such sites as Paranormal News, Dr. Mysterian and American Monsters.
Ward has drawn attention from groups that probe the existence of unconfirmed creatures, and she has appeared on three radio shows to discuss what she saw.
“I’m not real surprised people are interested in it,” Ward says.
Ward, 30, has discussed her experience with radio hosts at stations in West Palm Beach, Iowa and Jacksonville. She was joined by Scott Marlowe, an instructor with the Winter Haven-based Pangea Institute, which offers classes in archaeology and other areas. The mother of two says disc jockeys at one station treated her story as comedy, and one at the Iowa station questioned her sanity.
“I’d probably think it was real funny, too, if I just heard about it,” Ward says. “I just said I can’t help what I saw and I can’t help what other people think, either.”
Marlowe says the disc jockeys seemed prepared to ridicule Ward but seemed impressed by the obvious sincerity in her voice.
“When Jennifer begins to talk, you can tell she’s not fabricating this,” Marlowe says.
Ward was driving along Tom Moore Road north of Lakeland a few days after Hurricane Charley in August when she saw something in a ditch beside the road. She describes a two-legged creature about eight feet tall and covered in dark fur with light rings around its eyes. She says it seemed to be foraging.
Ward, who had her two daughters in her car, says she watched the creature for 30 seconds or so before driving on. She examined the scene later but found no conclusive evidence of any beast’s presence.
Since Ward’s story appeared, several neighbors have told her they have seen or heard something strange in the Green Swamp, and she has learned people living along Rock Ridge Road talk about a “gray ape.” But none were willing to speak publicly about their experiences.
Several readers also contacted The Ledger with descriptions of unfamiliar creatures, though only one agreed to be identified.
Carol Gill of Davenport says reading about Ward’s experience evoked memories of a night nearly two decades ago when she and her ex-husband were fishing and rabbit hunting at night in northeast Polk County. Driving in their truck, they came across what Gill recalls as a fleshtoned animal about 5 feet long that raced before them at great speed.
Gill, 48, says she first thought it was a hog but noticed it loped more like a kangaroo.
“I just freaked out, telling my husband, `Let’s leave,’ ” Gill recalls. “He was just trying to maneuver the truck and get a good spotlight n it. . . . It wasn’t my imagination or anything.”
Gill says she hasn’t told many people about the experience, and her ex-husband now lives out of state. She drew comfort from hearing about Ward’s sighting.
“There’s somebody else that’s seen something too out there,” Gill says.
Ward’s claimed sighting has boosted interest in an online cryptozoology class Marlowe is scheduled to teach next semester for Florida Keys Community College. Marlowe says he has received inquiries from as far away as New Jersey and Australia for the course, which will explore rumored or unconfirmed species.
Not everyone, though, is encouraging Marlowe’s pursuit of what he considers scientific truth. Marlowe says he has received “hate mail” both from creationists and evolutionists who question the existence of an unconfirmed species of hominid.
The story also has drawn attention from the nation’s foremost cryptozoologist, Loren Coleman. The Maine-based author of such books as “Cryptozoology A to Z” has discussed the matter with Marlowe and says he hopes to explore the area and interview Ward during a visit next spring.
Coleman says creatures identified as skunk apes or swamp apes have been spotted in Florida at least since 1960. He estimates there are 20 legitimate sightings a year, though he says most remain unreported because the witnesses fear ridicule.
“It certainly sounds like it goes within the context of other stories from Florida,” Coleman says of Ward’s claim. “I find this a credible story. It needs more investigating. I’m hoping the article will bring forth people who are seeing these things because they fail to report them.”
Marlowe prepared a map of swamp ape sightings in Florida since 1982 that shows Polk County among seven counties with three or more observations. He says the map suggests Polk could be the final stop in a southward winter migration for the creature.
While Marlowe hopes to conduct an academic survey of the southern Green Swamp some time next year, he says others have been searching the area in a less rigorous way.
“I’ve noticed the number of people cruising up and down Moore Road seems to be higher,” Marlowe says.
Could the rumor of a swamp ape some day draw people to Polk County just as the legendary Loch Ness monster provides a tourism draw for northern Scotland? Jackie Johnson of the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce says she hasn’t received any calls about the creature and doesn’t anticipate a marketing campaign.
“I don’t know that anybody is seriously considering it from a Lakeland standpoint,” Johnson says. “The idea of Lakeland being associated with swamps -I’m not sure how we could use it.”