The Florida "Swamp-Ape"

Not to be outdone by other communities worldwide, South Florida has for some time been touting it's own version of the famous "Bigfoot" critter that so captures the imagination of the incautious. They call their variety of the species "the Florida Swamp-Ape." Now, as you probably know, the Bigfoot (yeti, Sasquatch, Abominable Snowman, Meh-Teh, are other names) is a subject of the quite respectable science of cryptozoology, which deals with creatures about which the identity or even the existence, is unproven. And this discipline has had several startling victories in recent years, showing clearly that we would be unwise to dismiss claims of previously-unknown species. Indeed, literally thousands of species are both discovered and become extinct, every year.

Up until 1929, most biologists had assumed that the Giant Panda "bear" of China had become extinct, following the earlier production of several dead specimens. Then a pair of the animals was captured alive and produced for inspection. Cryptozoology had scored, and big.

A fish that had been thought extinct for at least 60 million years, since it had not shown up in the fossil record for at least that long, was brought in by some fishermen and we once more had evidence that our presumption was premature. This was the coelacanth, which has since that time been shown to be quite abundant, but merely unrecognized. Cryptozoology has had many, many such successes, though not all of them have been so spectacular.

The feature that distinguishes the Bigfoot matter is the purported resemblance of this hairy creature to humans. We are naturally much more interested in animals that resemble us, since they obviously could be competition. And, of course, any new species should be of interest to us.

This specific phenomenon, which spawned a commercial culture in America that includes Bigfoot pizzas, movies, TV series, and even special snow skis, began in late 1958, when road builders took a plaster cast of a footprint they claimed was found at Bluff Creek, twenty miles north of Klamath, California. Photographs were published around the world and block the immediate attention of cryptozoologists.

This proof for the existence of Bigfoot was probably an elaborate hoax, since the tracks, measuring 7" by 16", could easily have been made by a foot-shape carved from wood, and pressed into the mud. Professor Loren Coleman claimed that the Bluff Creek footprint was a prank played on the construction with men by their boss, Ray Wallace. In a paper in 1995, he said previously unpublished letters from researchers threw doubt on the theory a Bigfoot ever walked in Bluff Creek.

Another Bigfoot hoax was revealed in 1982, when a retired Washington State logger named Rant Mullens claimed he had spurred the legend of the Bigfoot of Mt. St. Helens by carving wooden feet to leave large footprints -- and he showed the carvings that he had used. Other researchers said that the circumstances of the Bluff Creek "discovery" had never been seriously examined before.

Zoologist Ivan T. Sanderson, who spent much of his time researching Bigfoot, and wrote extensively on the subject, interviewed all parties concerned in the find. While never publicly expressing doubts about the authenticity of the footprints, he did so in private letters, and to me personally. I knew Sanderson well. Ivan was a "character" in every way, a man who kept an odiferous cheetah named "Baby" in his New York apartment for weeks on end when he felt like it, and even slept with the beast. He had the claw marks to show for it. He was in the business of writing books about strange subjects, and he would never allow ugly facts to interfere with an otherwise attractive story. In person, he left no question about his doubts; in print he successfully resisted expressing any really serious reservations he had.

The Bigfoot legend had been born when construction worker Jerry Crew discovered the footprint and took a plaster cast to his local newspaper office. Men working at nearby Mad River said that they, too, had seen the prints. Later, it was discovered that these workers were also employed by Mr. Wallace. Hair and droppings found in the area and purportedly from Bigfoot were later proved to be from a moose.

To return to Florida: a popular legend here has a traditionally hairy humanoid-configured critter wandering about in the swamps -- of which there are many in this state -- and of course occasionally showing up to the wondering eyes of lone citizens, usually out late after a few hours at the local bar. Last year, there were reports of an early-morning sighting alongside a swamp traversed by a narrow dirt road, and even a photograph was taken by a respected public official, a Fire Chief, and published in local papers. He'd seen the figure ahead of him on the road, then saw it head off the road into the swamp, and he snapped the photo from the road, rather than plunging off the gravel into the muck in pursuit.

Click for full-size Click for full-size

Take a look at the two photographs that accompany this article. (The Bigfoot figure is found at the center, right below the identifying letter.) One of them is the "official" photo, the other one was made by a photographer working for a local TV station, standing in exactly the same position where the other photograph had been made some weeks previously. Can you guess which photograph is which? Hint: one tree was knocked down between the times when the two photos were taken. The "fake" photograph was taken of a volunteer who donned a "Chewbacca" costume obtained from a local rental shop. Yes, I agree. It's really difficult to decide which photograph is of the "real" Bigfoot. And remember, that costume was available to anyone who knew that the Fire Chief regularly took that route to work, at that exact time, every morning....

I provide this account as a warning. While the skeptical attitude is all well and good, but there's always the baby-in-the-bathwater problem hanging over us. Mind you, I don't expect any baby ape about to be found in the Florida swamps, but I'm willing to be shown. Always. And I would not be at all surprised to see another major animal, heretofore only legendary, walk out of the wilds and into the record books. In Viet Nam, not long ago, just such a thing happened when a completely "new" species of antelope -- with very distinctive features -- was discovered. So, they're out there....!