Our Own Loch Ness Monster?
Published Saturday, November 13, 2004
Woman's Sighting of Ape-Like Green Swamp Creature Among the Theories Studied by Cryptozoologists
By GARY WHITE
When Jennifer Ward drives through the Green Swamp these days, she makes sure she has a camera in her car. She hopes she'll get the chance to capture for others an image is already seared into her memory, and she knows only a picture will persuade others that she really did see something bizarre one evening a few months ago.
"I've heard about Big Foot and stuff," Ward says. "I didn't really think it existed, but I'm convinced now."
Ward, 30, was driving on Moore Road in northern Polk County a few days after Hurricane Charley's passage through the area when she glanced to her left and saw something she says has haunted her ever since. She describes it as a creature with a human form that was covered in dark hair or fur and had whitish rings around its eyes.
Ward says the mysterious animal stood erect in a drainage ditch along the road, and she estimates its height at 8 feet. Based on her description, it might have been foraging in the ditch when she surprised it.
"It looked like it was doing something; it was focused on something," Ward says. "Whenever it saw me, it probably took on the facial expression I had on because I was dumbfounded. It just watched me as I drove by." Asked if it might have been a bear, she replied, "No chance at all."
Ward says she didn't stop because her two daughters were sleeping in the back seat and she feared the animal might attack her Toyota 4Runner if given the chance. She went back to the scene later to search for hair or footprints, but she didn't find any conclusive evidence.
Since the fleeting observation, Ward has obsessively tried to convey to others what she saw. She has filled a drawing pad with sketches of the animal, though she says she lacks the skill to depict it precisely.
"I can't seem to get it off my mind," Ward says. "I hope to see it again some time."Ward doesn't seem surprised that others, including family members and friends, have received her story dubiously. She says her daughters make jokes about the sighting even as they tell her they believe her. Ward's husband, Richard Furnari, an amateur archaeologist who has accumulated bones of prehistoric animals, would like more evidence to support his wife's claim.
"She swears to it," Furnari says. "I was skeptical at first, but . . . I'm certain she saw something. I don't know what."
Ward found an enthusiastic ally in Scott Marlowe, an archaeologist and instructor with the Pangea Institute, an educational entity based in Winter Haven. Marlowe already knew Furnari, who donated a collection of fossils to Pangea Institute earlier this year.
Marlowe has long had an interest in cryptozoology, the study of legendary or unconfirmed species. Upon hearing of Ward's experience, he told her about a long-rumored creature known variously as the Florida swamp ape or Florida skunk ape.
Reported sightings of swamp apes have been arising for years, and in 2000 someone anonymously mailed photos to the Sarasota County Sheriff's Department purportedly of the creature taken in the Myakka River area. But Ward says those pictures and other sketches Marlowe showed her didn't match the animal she saw. Marlowe, for his part, suspects some claimed swamp ape sightings actually involved escaped or released orangutans.
Marlowe will teach a class in cryptozoology for Florida Keys Community College next year. He says he would welcome any confirmation of Ward's claim.
"At this point there's been a single sighting," Marlowe says. "I would be really interested to hear from anybody (else) who had a sighting of that. One of the things I will be doing with my class next summer is taking them out on a field study where we actually try to go after a cryptid (unrecognized) animal."
A few animals have made the transition from fabled to confirmed status — perhaps most notably the coelacanth, a fish thought to have been extinct for 60 million years before one was found alive in 1938. Marlowe says it's conceivable a mystery animal could live deep in the Green Swamp and might have been driven from its normal range by a hurricane.
"We haven't seen anything conclusive to substantiate this sighting, although I do believe the individual (Ward)," Marlowe says. "These things have to be approached very, very carefully."
Gary White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 863-802-7518.