You may have heard of unique animals of the Everglades such as the manatee, bottlenose dolphin and Florida panther, but few have heard about the legendary Skunk Ape.
The legend of this creature dates back hundreds of years to the stories told by both the indigenous peoples and the early Everglades settlers. Although many legends stay legends, this one proves to be a mystery when it comes to reality, as many people in recent years have noted that they have witnessed the creature with their own eyes. It wasn’t until Dave Shealy captured a photo of the Skunk Ape in 1997 that made the legend surface into the media and the photograph rocked the world. A few people that I know personally have claimed to have seen the beast. When my cousin Corey was ten years old and lived on Plantation Island, one of the small islands connected to Everglades City, he was fishing in the back country with his friend when they saw a large, tall, hairy figure in the mangroves. It stood up and looked at them, and afraid of the unknown being, they quickly left and never told a soul until their later years because they presumed no one would believe them or believe what they saw. Previously, a tour bus from Naples filled with people even have noted that a Skunk Ape ran across the road in front of them while touring Birdon Road. These testimonies have really stimulated the idea that this legend is in fact real.
The Shealy family own and operate the Skunk Ape Headquarters located in Ochopee, Florida, which is about a 10-minute drive from Everglades City, and it is one of the most fascinating roadside attractions the Everglades has to offer. You can’t miss the building. Outside in the grass and trees are lifelike statues of the Skunk Ape as well as the largest panther statue you will ever witness. Inside is a giftshop, filled with alligator skulls, Skunk Ape merchandise and information regarding the creature. They also have an exhibit behind the giftshop home to alligators, birds, and the famously invasive pythons. In fact, the Skunk Ape Headquarters is home to one of the biggest snakes in captivity in the world, Goldie who weighs over 350 pounds and is 22 feet long! I had the opportunity to visit the headquarters this past weekend and was absolutely captivated by their exhibit. I have never seen a python in person, only on television and in photographs, so my first time seeing one was both exciting and astounding. The pattern of their skin is so mesmerizing and beautiful, when one is coiled up you get lost as if you’re looking into a kaleidoscope. Little Jack Shealy, Dave Shealy’s son, gave me a tour of the exhibit and I got to interact with a few of the reptiles they have. He showed me their newly hatched alligators and I held one that was just three months. The baby alligator was just as long as my hand and had the softest skin that shined in the sunlight. His little snout was not even an inch long and when he looked at me in the eyes my heart melted. Jack then took me outside in the pin where the larger alligators are that he rescued from being killed and sold for their meat. He walked over to the biggest one, both him and the alligator completely unbothered by each other’s presence, as Jack crouched down behind the reptile. Next was my absolute favorite yet nerve-wracking part of the tour. Jack brought out one of the pythons in his exhibit and wrapped it around a tree so I could get a picture. I have never been so close to one before and it was one of the coolest things I have ever experienced in my life. This Everglades girl finally has a picture with one of the most popular invasive species of the glades. After the tour ended my parents and I talked outside with Jack, Dave, and little Jack Shealy about pictures of the Skunk Ape that people have taken in the past. One of them that was the most shocking to locals was the photograph taken in the 90’s by the previous fire chief of the Ochopee Fire Department of the Skunk Ape walking in the sawgrass. My dad was actually the first person to see this photo after the fire chief had it developed, and he was in awe at what he saw and now is a firm believer of the legend. We’ve been family friends with the Shealy’s for years and they are some of the kindest and well-respected people in the Everglades. I am so grateful to have been able to sit down and talk to the Shealy family about the legend.
I highly recommend that you come and experience this unique treasure of the Everglades. You’ll definitely leave with and memory that will last a lifetime.
University of Florida student Savannah Oglesby has lived in Everglades City her entire life. A lover of nature; some of her favorite things are sunsets, night lightning and mountains. She enjoys adventures and spending time with family, friends and two orange tabby cats. She also enjoys travelling, taking photos of nature, learning about extreme weather and seeing the world in different perspectives. Savannah’s love for Everglades City, and its history, is endless.