Does a Bigfoot type of monster stalk Florida's Everglades?
Tourists, campers, seasoned guides and wildlife experts have reported run-ins with giant, smelly, apelike creatures similar to the legendary beast of the Pacific Northwest.
Most encounters were near the Big Cypress National Preserve, a remote area inhabited by alligators, bears and poisonous snakes.
Tour guide Dow Rowland was leading an expedition near the hamlet of Ochopee in 1997 when his group saw a "giant, furry monster" crouched in the shadows about 100 yards away.
Mr. Rowland, a veteran outdoorsman, thought the tourists were joking. But when he turned to look, he saw a "manlike creature" lumber across the road and disappear in the woods.
"It looked like Bigfoot or someone in a big gorilla suit," Mr. Rowland told newspaper reporters.
Mr. Rowland doubted it was human. "Most humans would have better sense than to dress up in a hot gorilla suit in this kind of hot weather and go walking through these bug and snake-infested woods."
Ochopee Fire Chief Vince Doer said he saw a similar creature running across another road two days later. He described it as large and hairy and running on two legs.
"I don't know if it's somebody playing a game or what," he told the News-Press in Fort Myers. "I just looked at it and laughed, but I know a lot of old-timers that used to be serious about it."
Such sightings have made believers of many locals, but most regional wildlife officials are skeptical.
"I think somebody's playing a trick at the tourists' expense," Ron Clark, chief of natural resources at the park, told the Associated Press. "If an animal like that existed for as many years as people have been studying the swamp, it would have been found. I hardly believe something like that would go unnoticed."
Longtime residents say the creature has been around for generations.
"I believe that there's something out there," said David Shealy, owner of the Florida Panther Gift Shop and Big Cypress Trail Lakes Campground. "It's been around now for a long time, but it's been hidden."
Mr. Shealy, 33, said he grew up listening to skunk ape stories. He said he saw one when he was a young boy hunting with his brother.
"I'll never forget it, especially the smell," he said.
Some researchers believe skunk apes were common before settlers moved into the swamp and disturbed the ecological system. Indian legends tell of frequent encounters with the creature.
"Sometimes they'd wake up in the middle of the night when they heard a horrible noise," Mr. Shealy said. "One story says a skunk ape broke into a camp and ripped the place apart. His eyes glowed red."
A skunk ape reportedly smells like a combination of rotten eggs, moldy cheese and goat dung. "It smells that bad because it spends most of its time underground in alligator caves," Mr. Shealy said.
Chief Doer and Pelican Tours operator Steve Goodbread, who also recently saw a hairy creature, are almost embarrassed to talk about it.
"It just looked like something that didn't look human," Mr. Goodbread said. "It was big and black, but it didn't look like a bear."
Mr. Shealy said he is unashamed to talk about the skunk ape. "There's no mystery left in the world anymore," he said. "We've become so smart as a civilization that we tend to discount things not based on facts. People like mysteries."
Author and syndicated columnist Randall Floyd can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.