Deep in the Everglades of south Florida, off a nondescript sun-bleached ribbon of highway and surrounded on all sides by lushly impenetrable greenery, toothy, man-eating lizards, and swarms of insects that loom like whining thunderheads in the thick air, sits a one-of-a-kind roadside attraction. Buildings along this highway look like either a ramshackle collaboration between a hoarder and a drunken structural engineer or a cinder-block bunker slung low and ready to withstand an invasion or bombing run. The Skunk Ape Headquarters is the former, shack-like, surrounded by ephemera that may be functional or, just as likely, be there for effect, such as a Jeep and rusty, fan-backed swamp boat.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it was just another tourist trap in a long run of tourist traps, sun-scorched locals doing their best to make it in a region that attracts decidedly fewer tourism dollars than the Kardashian-endorsed pastel and palms of Miami or theme parks of Orlando. T-shirts and shot glasses and hats bearing a bigfoot-like beast are for sale, as well as the regionally appropriate piles of preserved alligator parts. There’s a “petting zoo” of types out back, a fenced-off area containing snapping turtles and baby gators and spiders and snakes, some of which are captive and some of which come with the territory. In a giant Tupperware container a 21-plus-foot snake sleeps away a confined existence, though if you’re nice and marginally lucky the animal’s warden will show you that it’s alive by tickling it, sending shuddering twitches through the thick scaly coils.
It’s quaintly crazy and even a little sinister, but in that it’s not unique, not in the Everglades. What makes it unique is Dave Shealy. Shealy is the character that owns this outpost, the mastermind behind not just a well-executed low-budget road trip pit stop but a self-described icon of the Sunshine State’s admittedly limited cryptozoology scene.
Whether Shealy is, as he claims, the world’s expert on Florida’s version of the Sasquatch is a point that is as impossible to prove as the existence of Bigfoot itself. It is true that if you Google search the skunk ape you’re going to come across his name almost immediately because, for decades, Shealy has made it his business to make damn sure it does. Whether this is due, as he tells us, to the fact that he’s been lucky enough to spot the creature multiple times and has dedicated his life to finding it or simply because he’s taken the time to construct a wildly elaborate series of hoaxes boxed in to a dizzying latticework of lies doesn’t, frankly, matter much. For many who set out to find the skunk ape, finding Shealy and his Research Center is just as good. Better, even, since the wildly animated man isn’t going to surprise them in putrid, multimillion-acre swamp full of potentially dangerous flora and fauna, instead smiling from behind an air-conditioned counter and with fresh cold bottles of water for sale.
We caught up with Shealy not at the Skunk Ape Research Center but at his backyard Tiki bar in nearby Fort Myers, where he was kind enough to spend a couple hours with us dishing on his obsession with Florida’s Bigfoot relative, the rise in popularity with all things Sasquatch, and his long term goals for his little piece of the Everglades.