The Wild Man of the Swamps

The Return of the Skunk Ape

Everglades - courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Everglades – courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

He is not alone in his belief in the skunk ape. There was a wave of sightings in the 1970’s, all describing the creature as about seven feet tall, weighing about 300 pounds (136 kgs), and bringing a foul odor as it emerged from the swamp. – Nick Carey, Reuters, March 2, 2007

The Florida Everglades is a mysterious place, a vast, unique ecosystem, nearly impenetrable due to flooding, mosquitoes, heat, and tangles of vegetation. The first Spanish surveyors of the area called it Laguna del Espiritu Santo, The Lake of the Holy Spirit.  Deep in this green labyrinth lurks Florida’s own native Bigfoot.  Called the Skunk Ape, because of its alleged pungent odor, also known as the Swamp Ape, the majority of witness encounters with the creature in recent years has been in the Everglades area.

After the 1970’s, sightings were infrequent until a new wave of encounters in the 2000’s brought the Skunk Ape back into the public consciousness. (Considering the pop culture obsession with zombies and vampires that started around the same time, I think someone needs to do some research on possible correlations.)

The Skunk Ape Research Center

I don’t want to get into any big conspiracy theories but there’s a lot going on down here. – Dave Shealy

Dave Shealy has a kitschy roadside store and research center in Ochopee, Florida, a small town bordering Big Cypress National Preserve on Highway 41, on the Everglades’ western side. I was travelling through a few years ago and it was a fun place to stop; the small zoo of local critters he had out back was pretty good as those things go. (I was allowed to hold a baby alligator, and satisfied myself that it does in fact feel just like a cold, clammy handbag.) He wanted $20 for the Skunk Ape documentary of his research, though, and I couldn’t justify coughing up the money at the time, but I did buy a few Skunk Ape koozies.

Skunk Ape Koozie

Skunk Ape Koozie

According to Dave’s website, http://www.skunkape.info, the Skunk Ape has reddish-black fur, a strong unpleasant odor, and travels in small groups. He claims to have analyzed scat which reveals an omnivorous diet somewhat like a bear’s, although he also says the apeman will hunt animals as large as the wild pig, and even deer.

Dave is one of the dedicated believers in the physical reality of the Skunk Ape. Most folks like him think the Skunk Ape is some sort of primate survival from earlier epochs of evolution, like perhaps a Gigantopithecus or even a Neanderthal. This theory has become increasingly popular as anthropologists find more evidence worldwide of species and subspecies of Homo that are thought to have existed as recently as 12,000 years ago. But this is the same argument that claims the Loch Ness Monster is a pleisiosaur.

To me, the whole beauty of such folklore lies in its mysteriousness. Giving it a “scientific rationale” ruins the whole thing. I don’t like zombie films that use the “viral pandemic” plot for the same reason. Give me real dead people coming back to life! Anyway, the science is always shoddy.  Dave Shealy’s natural history of the Skunk Ape is not compelling because he has no evidence to back up his claims. I don’t mean that no one has really seen a Skunk Ape. A lot of people have. But discussing the life cycle, group structure, diet and habits of a creature you have no familiarity with is stretching it too far.

History of the Skunk Ape

Skunk Ape seen in 2000 (Wikipedia)

Skunk Ape seen in 2000 (Wikipedia)

The Skunk Ape is said to be a regional variant of the Bigfoot of the Pacific Northwest. This is an interesting parallel, actually. The Everglades is a wilderness, as are the temperate rainforests of the Northwest. The redwood tree of the Pacific Northwest and the cypress tree of the Florida Everglades are actually botanical cousins and have similar characteristics. However, one difference which is obvious, climate, has a striking effect on animals who live in these two different ecosystems.

Nearly all variants of animals found elsewhere on the American continent are smaller in Florida. The Key deer are no larger than dogs. The Florida panther is smaller than the mountain lion. The red wolf was smaller than the gray wolf. Cracker cattle are smaller than other cattle breeds. The bears are smaller in Florida. Florida even has a pygmy rattlesnake. So why do witnesses say the Skunk Ape is a seven foot giant? He should be no bigger than us, a Pygmy Bigfoot, or Pygfoot. How come no on has ever seen Pygfoot? I might be a believer, then.

Well, as it turns out, Robert Carr, Executive Director of a contracting company that performs archaeological surveys and excavations in South Florida, has often put himself on record discussing Skunk Ape sightings. He says the Skunk Ape is actually usually reported to be smaller than the sighting reports of Bigfoot. I couldn’t find any data on the exact difference in size, but I’m encouraged that some reports are making the kind of sense I’m expecting.

Beans, the Magical Fruit

Unmistakably the best baits available are dry beans. Black eye peas, pinto and kidney beans all work well, however large lima beans are the recommended bait and should be considered your first choice. – Dave Shealy

It is well known to Skunk Ape enthusiasts, who set out bait to attract the elusive cryptid, that the creature loves beans, particularly lima beans. Huh? No doubt it is a good caloric food source, with protein and carbohydrates, but doesn’t it strike you as a bit of an odd preference? What’s wrong with bananas?

I found some interesting facts. The lima bean contains the trace mineral molybdenum, which breaks down sulfites that are added as preservatives in foods. So people who have a bad reaction to sulfites are advised to eat lima beans. I didn’t think a Skunk Ape would be eating too much store-bought food, so sulfites shouldn’t be a problem, but, it turns out, the Everglades does have a problem with sulfates from fertilizers in surrounding agricultural lands contaminating the surface water. Hmm. I thought about this awhile, and decided this is a major clue to the whole Skunk Ape phenomenon.

lima-beans

In old European folklore, beans were associated with the spirit world. Remember the little ditty from when you were a kid: beans, beans, the magical fruit. . . ? Yes? Well, it turns out people used to think that because beans caused intestinal gas, that meant there were spirits in the bean, and when you ate beans the spirits possessed you. At least, until they found a way back out your other end. This is the reason the folktale Jack and the Beanstaulk is about a bean plant, not any other kind of plant. The bean plant would be expected to traverse this world and into the spirit world. So, naturally, some supernatural creature running around the Everglades could be expected to enjoy spirit food, right?

Roman Evil Spirit - Barbara McManus

Roman Evil Spirit – Barbara McManus

There’s more to it than that. The ancient Romans has a festival called Lemuria that was roughly like our Halloween. It was a day when the spirits of the dead were acknowledged and then banished from the home so they wouldn’t cause any mischief. The head of the household had to get up at midnight and circumambulate the house nine times, walking backwards and barefoot, and throwing beans back over his shoulder the whole time, reciting, “I send these: with these beans I redeem me and mine.” This  meant he was feeding beans to the lemures, or spirits of the dead, and in return they were to leave the family alone.

Just as a strange aside, or coincidence if you will, small primates distantly related to monkeys (and thus apes) were named lemurs when they were discovered on Madagascar. They were deliberately named after the Roman lemures because lemurs, like Skunk Apes, are nocturnal and make frightening vocalizations in the dark. The lima bean is also sometimes called the Madagascar bean. The word for lima bean in Spanish is pallar, which could be loosely translated to mean “for the lar.” Some of the spirits the Romans called lemures were also called lares (lar in the singular). Are you tripping yet?

It’s Not Nice To Fool With Mother Nature

This is my theory. When the industrialists of the early 20th century got hip to the fact that Florida was an untapped gold mine of natural resources, the rush was on to consume every plant, animal and mineral they could lay their hands on in the Sunshine State. The original plan was to drain the entire Everglades and turn it into farmland. They never succeeded, but the damage they did cause is still being felt today. Most of the growth in South Florida over the last few decades has been away from the overdeveloped coast and into the swamp interior, so that subdivisions that are new are likely recently reclaimed. This has precipitated a psychological crisis of Jungian proportions. Some people worry about ecological damage, but everyone, subconsciously, has a deep fear of Pissed Off Mother Nature. And I think the parallels to the redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest where Bigfoot dwells is no accident. (The cypress tree was logged nearly to extinction, as was the redwood).

Unknown Primate - Deering Estate at Cutler, Miami

Unknown Primate – Deering Estate at Cutler, Miami

So, in the 2000’s, when the real estate/development boom in South Florida was in full swing, the Skunk Ape began to appear again, ambling down lonely roads at night, frightening passers-by with glowing red eyes and a terrible stench. He’s us, after all. That side we don’t want to remember. The one who still belongs to Nature. He’s coming around to remind us that what we took can always be taken back, if we aren’t careful. (Ovid claimed that the Roman holiday Lemuria had its origin in Romulus’ guilt over killing his brother Remus, and that the original name was Remuria).

And so, instinctively, some people wander off into the Everglades, a handful of lima beans in their sweaty hands, perhaps intoning as they walk, “I send these: with these beans I redeem me and mine.”

And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field. . . or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. . . At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone. – Chief Seattle

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2 responses to “The Wild Man of the Swamps

  1. Atreyu Crimmins

    What a tour de force! Fascinating stuff; from the botany and smaller-creatures of Florida to the mythos around beans. Very much enjoyed reading this.

    Like

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