I was twelve at the time, as were many of the boy scouts. As their guest, I was seated front row and center in a natural horseshoe amphitheater where I surveyed the nocturnal scene around me. Tiers of earthen benches rose up behind me and around me, covered by the huddled masses of scouts who had descended from their tents to listen to the evening presentation. In front of us, a six foot deep chasm separated us from the speaker, my father, who stood in front of a blazing bonfire. We listened nervously as his gargantuan, fire-lit shadow danced among the oaks, pines and palms all around us. The night’s topic was the mythological Skunk Ape.
I grew up on the Florida Monkey Sanctuary in Venice. My parents owned the refuge for unwanted primates, where over a 20 year span, more than 450 individual monkeys and apes called the sanctuary home. As the local expert on primates, my father was often called to investigate reports of a big-footed, ape-like creature that caused disturbances in the rural areas of south Florida. I had the good fortune of going on ride-alongs to help search for hair samples and create plaster casts of footprints.
The creature blamed for chicken-coop raids and other mischief was Bigfoot – know locally as the Skunk Ape. Standing over 7-feet tall with the appearance of a primate and smell of a skunk, the hairy, mythological giant was said to live in alligator dens and roam the swamps of the Everglades at night. The creature is theorized to be an omnivore and potentially the descendant of Neanderthal Man. My father never said he believed such a creature existed but we investigated anyway. Recent DNA analysis of an old Skunk Ape hair sample points to the Florida Black Bear (Ursus americanus floridanus), an omnivorous, hairy mammal that could resemble a large hominoid when they stand on their hind legs.
Back at the boy scout bonfire, my father concluded his tale of headless, bloodless chickens, destroyed chicken coops, clumps of hair on barb wire fences and massive footprints that eclipsed his size 13 shoe. The embers dimmed and the talk ended. The boys were now tasked with finding their way back through the darkness to their tents and for at least that one night, I’d bet those boys believed in the Skunk Ape.