By Bob Davidsson
Special to Caloosa Belle
During the 1970s, more than a dozen sightings of the elusive “Skunk Ape,” the Everglades version of the Himalayan “Yeti” and Oregon’s “Sasquatch” (Bigfoot), were reported in suburban Palm Beach County.
Why the legendary creature was observed in such large numbers during the decade of the 1970s is a mystery. However, not unlike the rash of reported UFO encounters in the 1960s, one Skunk Ape sighting tends to fuel the overactive imaginations of other observers. Another factor contributing to the upswing in Skunk Ape encounters was the widespread news coverage of the sightings by The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and especially in Lantana’s National Enquirer and Weekly World News tabloids.
The decade also was a period of rapid population growth in Palm Beach County, with developers creating many communities west of Military Trail and in the then-new Village of Wellington. Loss of natural habitat confines wildlife to smaller green spaces and increases human contacts.
The Everglades Skunk Ape has many nicknames — Swamp Cabbage Man, Swampsquatch and the Florida Bigfoot. Eyewitnesses claim the creature measures 6 to 8 feet in height and weighs an estimated 500 pounds. It has a shaggy coat of fur ranging from rust color to dark brown.
Unlike Florida’s black bears, the Skunk Ape walks upright on two legs. Observers say it could move rapidly when frightened or pursued. As its name implies, the Skunk Ape is best known for its rank odor. Eyewitnesses describe the stench as a cross between a skunk and aged road kill.
The Skunk Ape is classified as a “cryptid.” A cryptid is “an animal where its existence or survival to the present day is disputed or unsubstantiated by the scientific community,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
As such, the Skunk Ape joins the company of such cryptid celebrities as the Loch Ness Monster, the Florida Keys Devil Men and the recently observed Lake Worth Lagoon Muck Monster.
Eyewitnesses who have encountered a Skunk Ape disagree with the scientific experts. So do “crypto-zoologists” — alternative pseudoscientists and adventurers whose aim it is to prove the existence of entities from the folklore records and evidence reported about the Skunk Ape.
In 1977, a bill was introduced in the Legislature that would have made it illegal to “take, possess, harm or molest anthropoids or humanoid animals.” It failed to pass.
Reports of Skunk Ape sightings were so common statewide in the 1970s that even our Florida lawmakers took notice. Palm Beach County had more than its share of alleged close encounters with the Everglades creature. For example, in 1972 a Skunk Ape sighting was reported in the Meadowbrook subdivision of West Palm Beach. The same year, a Pahokee resident said he and his dog fled from a “hairy 8-foot monster” in western Palm Beach County.
In June 1974, farmer Buddy Sterrett reported a Skunk Ape picked up one of his 110-pound hogs and attacked it. He said, “It had the smell that would make the hair on the back of your head stand up.”
Three months later, security guard Cary Kantor said he shot at a Skunk Ape in the Wellington construction site where he was posted. “It smelled like it had taken a bath in rotten eggs,” he reported. In the autumn of 1974, a Greenacres family reported seeing strange footprints outside of their home left by the Skunk Ape. Two workers reported seeing a “7-foot-tall hairy creature” in 1977 as it was drinking from a lake at a suburban Delray Beach golf course. They notified the Palm Beach County Animal Control Division of their sighting. No report was filed.
In 1978, a Lantana resident said he spotted a creature at 5 a.m. in his back yard. He was alerted by the barking of his dogs. The same year, two Boca Raton youths reported to police “a creature resembling the notorious Skunk Ape” stalking in the woods by the Hillsboro Canal. The prestigious “Smithsonian” journal published a feature article in March 2014 entitled “On the Trail of Florida’s Bigfoot.” The story highlighted the “Skunk Ape Research Center,” established in 1999 by Dave Shealy, an eyewitness and true believer in the Skunk Ape, near the tiny Everglades community of Ochopee.
His collection of artifacts includes alleged photographs of the Skunk Ape, which many cryptid critics believe look more like a fugitive orangutan than an Everglades monster. Whether fact or fiction, the legend lives on in Florida today.
Key Largo: Island paradise for Cryptids
Without question, the most famous and widely investigated Skunk Ape encounter was the monthlong ordeal experienced by the Charles Stoeckman family of Key Largo. Among those investigating the bizarre series of encounters were the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Marine Patrol, a team from the Florida Technical Institute, photographers from the National Enquirer, and interested news media from Palm Beach County to Key West.
The island of Key Largo forms the southeastern tip of the so-called Bermuda Triangle, which may help explain preternatural sightings of the “Devil Men,” seen floating over Florida Bay prior to electrical storms, or visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto near the St. Justin Martyr Catholic Church.
One enthusiastic resident in 1978 even claimed to have discovered the lost city of Atlantis just offshore of Key Largo. However, upon close inspection at low tide, his “Atlantis” turned out to be an ancient reef consisting of fossilized brain coral.
Charles Stoeckman, his wife and three children lived in a home at mile marker 94.5 oceanside on Key Largo. On July 14, 1977, Stoeckman and his son saw what he said was an 8- or 9-foot-tall Skunk Ape while they were collecting rare bottles in the mangroves near his home.
“It had a huge head and shoulders,” he later reported, “long fur all over, and he stank like a dirty wet dog. The noise he made was a high-pitched wailing.”
Stoeckman cleared 30 feet of brush from around his home to discourage a return visit by the Skunk Ape. It didn’t work. The Skunk Ape returned for several night visits. Mrs. Stoeckman and her children fled to Homestead after seeing the creature outside her window.
Responding to terrorized pleas for help were Monroe County Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Haase and Sgt. Randall Chinn. Florida Marine Patrol Capt. Jack Gillen also inspected the Stoeckman property. No trace of the Skunk Ape was found.
Charles Stoeckman remained at his home for about a month, armed with a shotgun. He later joined his family in south Dade County. A short time after the Stoeckman encounter, four Tavernier residents formed a Skunk Ape posse. Armed with flashlights, lanterns, a camera and snake bite medication, they began what a local newspaper called a “Skunk Ape Safari.” The posse met at Harry Harris Park in Tavernier and followed the shoreline north to the Dove Creek Estates.
As with all Skunk Ape adventures, the Everglades monster eluded its pursuers.
NOTE: The “Origins & History of the Palm Beaches” information site is a retrospective look at the history of Palm Beach County, and how its past has influenced the present. This blog is a companion site to “Palm Beach County Issues & Views.” Both sites are edited by Robert I. Davidsson, retired manager of the Palm Beach County Library System’s Government Research Service (GRS) and author of the book “Indian River: A History of the Ais Indians in Spanish Florida” and related articles about Florida’s past. For more, go online to pbchistory.blogspot.com.