Hunting the Florida Skunk Ape
Of all the world's Bigfoot-type cryptids, one stands alone as being the absolute stinkiest. It smells so bad that it's called the skunk ape, and you'd probably smell that bad too if you lived in the swamps of southern Florida. For that's where the Florida skunk ape is said to dwell, hidden deep in the wetlands, well protected by terrain nearly impossible to traverse, countless twisting miles of alligator-infested waterways, and tangled cypress roots. If ever there was a place where a large animal could hide and never be spotted, Florida's swamplands are it. Today we're going to see if the skunk ape has successfully done just that.
You've probably heard that the skunk ape has been known in Florida for hundreds of years, but in fact it first appeared in August, 1971 when the Associated Press released a story that was syndicated in newspapers everywhere. It was the report of an H.C. Osbon, described as an electrical engineer and amateur archaeologist. This was Henry Clay Osbon (1930-1978) who went by "Buzz," according to his obituary. Buzz Osbon and four friends were digging in Native American mounds looking for relics in Big Cypress Swamp in the south of Florida. AP quoted his story:
And that's it. He also speculated on what it might eat and where it might live, and said that he hoped to go back to capture or photograph one.
As far as earlier accounts go, Osbon stated he had learned the skunk ape "was known to trappers and fishermen who penetrated the Big Cypress in the 1920s," but if they did, they seem to have told no stories that were ever set down in print, at least not that I could find. I found exactly one other mention of a "swamp ape" in newspapers of the era, and it was another AP story from March 1926. However this told only of a paleontological find, not a living ape:
Everything is wrong about this little clip. The Seminole were not the first Native American tribe in Florida; it's Smithsonian Institution, not Institute; and there has never been any evidence that non-human primates of any kind ever lived in Florida (discounting those imported by modern humans). And there being no actual publication about this by the Smithsonian — at least, not that I was able to find — I'm going to dismiss this one as either satire or yellow journalism, both of which were common in the day.
So, it does indeed appear that Buzz Osbon is the original creator of the skunk ape legend, and then only as recently as 1971. This tracks well with other sources. In the comprehensive 1999 encyclopedia Cryptozoology A to Z by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark, the skunk ape does get a chapter, but it mentions sightings beginning only in the 1970s. Conversely, Bernard Heuvelmans' 1958 magnum opus On the Track of Unknown Animals covers primate cryptids throughout the Americas, but makes no mention of the skunk ape's existence at all.
By 1971, Florida was thoroughly populated and fully explored; the great swamps of its southern half perhaps only partially so. Generally, when there are stories or general knowledge about something, or even just rumors, they usually make it into print somewhere. The fact that the skunk ape never did shows a lack of documentary evidence that almost certainly would exist if there actually were any stories.
However, like so many other case studies in cryptozoology, there are claims of earlier accounts — accounts which nobody ever manages to actually produce. The source for most of these seems to be the 2007 book Florida's Unexpected Wildlife by Michael Newton. He gives no contemporary sources at all. In his 2009 book Hidden Animals, he summarized an astonishing number of early skunk ape accounts from Florida:
And yet, if you actually search all the newspapers from any of those dates, you'll find no such cases at all, until Buzz Osbon's 1971 account which the newspapers reported as a new thing. We see this time and time and time again in cryptozoology. Authors merely assert the existence of early cases; they provide no evidence that those reports ever actually existed; and then they themselves become the primary references upon which many subsequent authors base the same repeated claims. It nearly always turns out that some author is just making these up.
And we also have an example of that other old stand-by of cryptozoologists: claims that the local native population has long had legends of it. This we also find to be false nearly every time we dig into it. Michael Newton also seems to be the original source of this familiar claim in this case, stating that esti capcaki is the Seminole word for "tall man." Here is the red flag in this case. I searched all the literature I could, but esti capcaki appears only in cryptozoology texts, and in no Seminole texts at all. I also asked a Seminole language group on Facebook if anyone knew what it meant, and nobody recognized the words. The fact is that sometimes cryptozoologists will make this up, because they understand its persuasive power.
I personally find it disrespectful and more than a little distasteful when cryptozoologists habitually exploit a First Nations culture in an effort to lend nativist credibility to their pseudoscientific claim.
It's worth pointing out that in Buzz Osbon's 1971 account, he said:
Even Buzz understood the marketing value of nativist credibility.
So as apocryphal as the earlier accounts are — at best — the skunk ape post-1971 has been as popular as any other cryptid. Its biggest boost came in 2001, when a letter with two photographs was received by the Sarasota County Sheriff's Department. The letter, which was anonymous, read in part:
The two photos are widely reproduced online and easy to find if you search for "Myakka skunk ape photos," Myakka referring to Myakka River State Park near where the photos may have been taken. They show a dark gray apelike creature illuminated in a flash at night, partially obscured by palm fronds. It doesn't really look at all like an orangutan; in fact, it's quite different from any known ape. It has at least three specific features that are unknown among the great apes.
First, its coloration. It's black but with a gray chin and gray fur on its upper chest; that would be a pattern never seen before on an ape. Second, it has prominent lower fangs visible in its open mouth that are long, straight, and of a uniform thinness making them appear fragile. In apes with lower fangs, like gorillas, those fangs are thick and triangular for strength. And third, its most noticeable feature is its eye shine, like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Eye shine is found in some animals that have a layer behind their retina called the tapetum lucidum. No monkeys or apes have this layer, though some small primates like lemurs do — on a completely different phylogenetic branch which separated from the great apes 65 million years ago.
As the creature's position is slightly different in the two photographs, it's definitely an articulated three dimensional object. It could be a real animal — albeit a remarkably inconsistent one; it could be a person in a suit, though it would have to be a custom suit as many have looked for a matching commercially available suit and never found one; or it could be some kind of model. The Myakka skunk ape photos starkly illustrate the unfortunate nature of photos as anecdotal evidence. We cannot test them or derive anything empirical from them — we don't even know whether what's shown in these photos is biological or not.
A local cryptozoologist, David Barkasy, used the processing numbers visible on the photos to verify that they had been processed right there in Sarasota, and that they'd been taken in the fall of 2000 and processed in December, the same month they were sent in to the sheriff's office. So if the photos are a hoax, they were at least hoaxed in the time and place claimed. And they would also be, obviously, among the most rewarding hoaxes ever perpetrated upon the cryptozoology community, considering how successful and popular they continue to be, even a quarter century after they were put forward.
The alternative to a hoax — that the photos show a genuine animal — is that a creature unafraid of humans, so big that it's two meters tall when kneeling, and that makes deep "whoop" noises, would have escaped all notice prior to 1971, and all cameras forever except for once — all while uniquely managing to avoid the paleontological record as well. That's a bit too much of a stretch for me; your mileage may vary.
And so, my official Skeptoid conclusion on the subject of the Florida skunk ape is that its existence — even its plausibility — has yet to be convincingly established. It's a case where our best bet is to stick with the null hypothesis, meaning our default position pending evidence that compels us to move away from it. And that default position — pending that elusive new evidence — is that no especially extraordinary, undiscovered megafauna exist in the depths of Florida's swamp country.
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