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Not everyone, of course, accepted Shealy's version of the phenomenon. "I think we're safe in assuming that there are probably no previously unclassified primates roaming the Big Cypress," preserve resource management chief Ron Clark told the Miami Herald. "We think somebody's playing a prank on our tourists." The Echo's Cindy Hackney lent support to the hoax theory by reporting -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- that a Naples costume shop called Cynthia's Party World had sold a black ape suit around the time the sightings began. And rumors about the purchaser's identity focused, quite naturally, on the person now most identified with the Skunk Ape: David Shealy. It all seemed just a little too convenient, after all. Shealy owned a gift shop, business had fallen off, and then, lo and behold! The Skunk Ape returned to bring the Big Cypress its biggest publicity bonanza in years.
Shealy's denials did little to quash the rumors. And his bizarre explanation for the disappearance of the ape hair he found with Stinchfield made matters even more confusing. According to the story Shealy tells -- the story he has told dozens of times, with a completely straight face, to everyone from the Collier County Commission to a reporter for Inside Edition -- four nights after he collected the hair, black-clad representatives of an unknown agency barged into his house and confiscated it. "Two men dressed in, like, suits, and long-type black coats," he says, punctuating his description with pantomime. "They said, 'Are you David Shealy?' I said, "Yes," and they said, 'We want to know about the tracks, and we want to know about the hair. Where are they?' The hair was on the table. I picked it up in the bag to show it to them, and they took it. The guy opens up his jacket, and he puts it inside his jacket. And I'm thinking, this ain't right. But then he said, 'We're gonna take this, and we're gonna have it analyzed, and then we're gonna be back to talk to you, Mr. Shealy.' And then, boom, they were out the door."
Whenever Shealy recounts this unlikely tale, he pointedly avoids referring to Men in Black, the summer blockbuster that opened shortly after the mysterious hair confiscation supposedly occurred. But when Inside Edition aired his interview, a three-second clip from the movie was edited in, MTV-style -- like a little nudge, to reassure the viewers that it was all just a joke after all.
Some people other than David Shealy do take the Skunk Ape seriously, of course. In the weeks after word of Vince Doerr's encounter got out, he received visits from several of those people at the fire station in Everglades City. One made a particularly favorable impression.
"Bob Carr, the archaeologist, he was looking at it like, if it's true, it's true, and if it ain't, it ain't," Doerr says. "What was neat was when Bob came, he was sitting there in my office, and I was telling him about what happened years ago in Davie on Flamingo Road, when it ripped a calf's head off, and on U.S. 27, where a driver almost hit it. And when I mentioned these [stories from] back in the '70s, Bob had 'em documented. That amazed me."
If you ask archaeologist Bob Carr -- the director of Miami-Dade County's historic preservation division -- what he makes of the Skunk Ape and the latest rash of sightings in Big Cypress, he'll give you an answer that combines personal history with scientific detachment. Carr dates his interest in the subject to 1971, when Miami adventurer Robert Morgan invited him to join his American Yeti Expedition in the Pacific Northwest. "Having my way paid for a great adventure, I was certainly open to that, but I had absolutely no belief that there was anything like a Bigfoot," Carr says, sitting at the dinner table in his Davie home -- a table half-covered by folders filled with Skunk Ape-related newspaper clippings and eyewitness interviews. "I was even more incredulous when people began to tell me that there were Florida sightings," Carr goes on. "If I was leaning even slightly toward the phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest, I had no expectation of anything in Florida. But I discovered through time that these events in Florida have occurred over a long period. And then I began to interview a number of people relative to the Davie episodes, and those were very credible stories from people who had no reason to lie. As I collected these stories and began to organize them, I began to realize that we were talking about a phenomenon that had a pattern, that had geographic locations that were repetitive. In that sense I think it became a valid subject to investigate."
The Skunk Ape phenomenon's patterns, Carr says, are most easily seen if the sightings are plotted on a map. Doing so reveals definite clusters of activity with common elements that suggest what's going on is more than just witnesses jumping on the Bigfoot bandwagon. "You would expect that if there were no flesh-and-blood reality to these reports that the distribution would be more random," he points out. "But instead we see these clusters across the state of Florida. The most important clusters include ones in Davie, South Miami-Dade, and the Big Cypress. And there are several on the west coast -- at Charlotte Harbor, the Peace River, and Brooksville."