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By Deirdra Funcheon
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It's most easily recognized from the Trail by the giant fiberglass statue of a panther out front. The twenty-foot-long cat poses as if about to dash across the highway, his huge head turned to look east toward Miami, 65 miles away. Nearby a sign in front of a metal building invites tourists to "See Alligators Turtles Snakes Bird Fish." Until recently those animals were the stars here, the main draw for busloads of customers brought in by Everglades tour guides. Now, though, the concrete patio outside the gift shop bears the painted tracks of a new heavyweight.
Along with a nearby store/restaurant called Joe's Quick Stop and a post office distinguished as the smallest in the United States (approximately seven by eight feet), the Shealy brothers' place is about all there is to Ochopee. The brothers' father, Jack Sr., started the family campground in the early '60s, and their mother Evelyn ran the closet-size Ochopee post office for years. David and Jack grew up in the family business, descendants of a clan that, like the Miccosukee tribe to the east, had gone from living directly off the land to marketing its natural surroundings and traditional culture to outsiders.
Unlike the Miccosukee, the Shealys and their neighbors in Ochopee and Everglades City were unable to set up casinos and bring in big money, although they have tried other, somewhat shadier alternatives. Bird-plume hunting, moonshining, and alligator poaching have all had their days as semihonorable occupations in the southwest Florida outback.
The Shealys and the Skunk Ape go way back. According to David the brothers got their one and only glimpse of the creature while out hunting in 1973. The location of their sighting south of the Tamiami Trail is pinpointed on a map that hangs in the gift shop's back room, which David has turned into a dollar-a-head minimuseum he calls the "Skunk Ape Research Headquarters." Above the map hangs a two-page spread from the Weekly World News headlined "Rampaging Bigfoot Threatens South Florida!" Other mount-ed clippings prominently feature both Vince Doerr's enigmatic photo and shots of local Skunk Ape experts David and Jack Shealy.
Below this print-media montage is the exhibit's centerpiece: a locked glass case containing the plaster casts David made from footprints he found with a crew from WBBH-TV (Channel 2) in Fort Myers. The casts, both taken from prints made by a left foot, measure fourteen inches long and about five and a half inches across. They seem lumpish and crude, and appear to be missing one toe -- perhaps a product of the muddy medium where they were formed. But primitive as they may appear, they mark a critical point in the evolution of the Ochopee Skunk Ape phenomenon. For it was on July 24, when he discovered these footprints with WBBH reporter Grant Stinchfield, that the world of television and radio discovered David Shealy.
It was, at least in part, a fluke. "I think there was an article in the [Fort Myers] paper about these German tourists that had seen it, and they took a picture at Dave Shealy's tourist shop," Stinchfield recalls. "He didn't know we were coming out. I just stopped in there, and he was like, 'Yeah, I'll take you out. I was just going out to look for it.' To tell you the truth, the whole time he took us out to look for it, I thought that this thing was gonna be a setup and maybe he had somebody out there in a suit." Although no hairy-suited hoaxster showed up, Stinchfield got something almost as good. Shealy found the footprints near Turner River Road. And a little way back in the woods, on camera, he came across something more: a clump of light-brownish hair on a broken Brazilian pepper bush. "I think it was luck on his part," says Stinchfield. "As soon as he saw it, he goes, 'Oh, this is hair! Shaggy hair! Oh, this thing must be big!' He was perfect for television."
Within days after the WBBH report ran, Shealy was fielding calls from radio and TV stations all over the country. Unlike Doerr, who worried that, as fire chief, he might be lending official sanction to a hoax, Shealy had no misgiving whatsoever about talking to the press. He saw it, he says, as the perfect chance to promote the Big Cypress -- and like any good performer, he clearly relished the chance to show off for a big audience.
"I had four solid months of interviews and reporters and questions, and my estimate is that the news has spread to over 300 million people," Shealy says. "One [U.S.] radio show that I did went out to 130 radio stations. I was on [the] BBC four times, which was big news. It built and it built and it built, and it went completely around the world."
Without hesitation Shealy identified what the witnesses had seen as the Skunk Ape, and he went on to issue authoritative pronouncements about it. It was so visible this year, he opined, because the summer mosquitoes, even worse than usual, had driven it from its hiding places. It was not dangerous, although approaching it too closely was probably a bad idea. It was an Earth animal, not an alien, despite what some flying-saucer buffs might claim. It had a special fondness for lima beans, attested to by old Big Cypress hunters' tales in which beans left to soak overnight mysteriously disappeared.