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In the mid-'80s, a period when the Skunk Ape seemed to have vanished from the public consciousness, Carr's investigative methods underwent a significant change. He began working with a retired surveyor and expert animal tracker named T.L. Riggs. Riggs was a complete skeptic, but he went along out of curiosity. Soon he was seeing things that didn't seem to make sense unless there really were a creature out there -- although, he, like Carr, maintains that nothing he's seen so far truly proves the existence of an unknown animal.
Two days after my experience in the Big Cypress, Riggs visited the Burns Road site to check out the scene David Shealy and I had found. Where Shealy and I had seen one footprint, Riggs was able to detect eight full prints in the mud. Some were nearly identical to the fourteen-inch casts in Shealy's display case; others were smaller, about eleven or twelve inches long. Riggs also managed to locate an incoming trail through the sawgrass. He traced it back for roughly twenty feet and continued another twenty feet or so, where he discovered lima beans on the ground. Then, returning to the raked area, he broke out plaster of Paris and proceeded to cast the most obvious print.
The results were surprising. What I had taken for a single right footprint was apparently two prints, the mark of a left foot stepping in a right footprint. Carr was impressed but still cautious. "The problem is that the tracks still beg for scientific authentication," he says. "That is not resolved simply by the fact that there are cast prints."
Carr has another reason to be hesitant about the bean-set prints. "What makes this particularly difficult is David Shealy," he says. "Not that anything he's saying is incorrect or dishonest. It's just that it is so incredibly coincidental. He certainly was in the right place at the right time many, many times. And obviously, he has an agenda in terms of his business."
Other investigators have expressed similar reservations with regard to Shealy. One such skeptic is Richard Greenwell, secretary of the International Society of Cryptozoology, a group that takes a scholarly approach to claims about scientifically unproven species. Greenwell traveled to Big Cypress in November and stayed at Shealy's campground for a week while checking into last summer's Skunk Ape reports.
He remembers Shealy fondly but warily. "We really didn't spend too much time with him," Greenwell says. "He was helpful, but most of his stuff is too insubstantial to get anything out of. We found tracks similar to those casts Dave has on a trail where he had found tracks in July, and I think they were hoaxed, actually. I'm not saying Dave did it. but you know, I'm not saying he didn't, either."
In Greenwell's view, Shealy was just a little too enthusiastic and specific in his advice. The cryptozoologist wanted to see just how hard Shealy would push, so he played along.
"Dave kept telling us, 'Go up that trail, I found tracks there,'" Greenwell recalls. "We purposely didn't go, and every time he saw us, he'd say, 'Have you been up the trail yet?' I said no, no, we hadn't. Then we went up the trail, and sure enough, there were the tracks. But we didn't say anything to him. And he kept saying, 'Have you gone up the trail yet?' It was too good to be true. If we'd found tracks out in an isolated spot, that would have been different."
What Greenwell does think has value is the evidence not directly connected to Shealy -- in particular, Vince Doerr's photo. During his Florida visit, Greenwell obtained Doerr's negative, and he is now having it analyzed by specialists in computerized image-processing techniques. "It's some really sophisticated stuff with a military lab," Greenwell says. "I'm waiting to hear from them. They say they may be able to tell if it's actually real hair -- I can't believe that. But at least we'll get something out of it. It's too bad he didn't take more than one picture."
The lack of other photos is one aspect of the case that both baffles and frustrates Greenwell. "With all these tour buses, with all these tourists who photograph alligators and birds, how come no one took a picture of it?" he asks. "That's totally puzzling to me. One of the bus drivers tried to get a woman to get out to take a picture, and she wouldn't. But why do you have to get out of the bus to take a picture?"
According to Greenwell the only thing more unlikely than four vanloads of camera-toting tourists spotting the creature without getting one snapshot is the proposition that they were all in on a hoax: "These tourists didn't even know each other. They were from all over the world. But it's still something that debunkers will seize upon, even if it doesn't make sense, just to sort of denigrate the whole business."
The possibility of a hoax, with or without the involvement of David Shealy, is one that both Greenwell and Carr have considered since the beginning of the Ochopee Skunk Ape flap. It presented itself immediately in Doerr's doubts about what he had photographed. But Greenwell believes he understands Doerr's hesitance. "I think Doerr is basically trying to protect his reputation, to the point where he just keeps repeating, 'Oh it was a man in a gorilla suit,'" the cryptozoologist says. "That way his reputation is untarnished."