The Southernmost Skunk Ape Society was established in 1977. CONTRIBUTED

When you write a book about a local cryptid called the Skunk Ape, stories find you. 

The Skunk Ape is Florida’s Bigfoot and a legendary presence in South Florida and the Everglades. Occasionally, it makes an appearance in the Florida Keys, too. My book, “The Florida Keys Skunk Ape Files,” is based on a 1977 event that occurred on Key Largo in July. The sighting garnered local and national attention and scared one family out of the Keys. After a particularly terrifying incident, the police interviewed the wife of the family experiencing the phenomenon. She was awakened at 3 a.m. when she “could hear limbs ‘snapping and breaking’ as if something big was walking through them. Through a gap in the jalousie window, from where I was lying in bed, I saw these bright, colorless eyes. They must have been reflecting the backyard light, like a cat’s would. They were evil-staring. I could see the silhouette of its huge shoulder and head above an 8-foot bush, 30 feet from the bedroom window.”

Deputy Bill Haase from the sheriff’s substation on Plantation Key was the first to respond to the bizarre call. After arriving on the scene and investigating, Haase reported no sign of the creature. 

It may have been hiding; it had not disappeared, as Haase was not the only officer who investigated what became a series of sightings. Sgt. Rondoll Chinn of the sheriff’s office and Capt. Jack Gillan from the marine patrol also arrived at the family’s home when the creature was seen again. “There is definitely a problem there,” reported Chinn. “These people are truly scared to death. It’s unlikely that someone is pulling a practical joke because it would require a great deal of effort. If it is a joke, someone’s liable to get hurt.”

Beyond the Key Largo sighting, which occurred in the area of what is today Snappers Restaurant, the book I wrote is primarily fiction. Whether or not you believe in this sort of thing, strange things happen all over the world all the time — they certainly do in the Florida Keys. However, in the last several months, people have told me a few unusual stories. Shared as personal experiences, they smell a little like Skunk Ape events. 

One occurred at Jewfish Creek. Two men from Miami were fishing in the creek one day when they observed something large, bipedal and covered in fur come out of the mangroves. They called it la criatura, the creature. When I heard the story, my wife and I were standing in line at a local fish market, waiting to buy some hogfish filets. When it happened, the person who told us was living on a houseboat at a marina on Jewfish Creek.

La criatura reportedly walked through the shallows before stepping back up into the mangroves and out of sight. When more closely examined, reportedly, there were signs that something large had moved through the area — broken branches, for instance, were observed.

Another interesting story I recently heard dates back to the 1990s. The strange and interesting event occurred on Key Largo, too, and not too far from where the Jewfish Creek story is said to have played out. This time, it was night, and inside the stilt house bordering the mangroves between Dusenbury Creek and Blackwater Sound, the family dog was barking. It was not a small dog, not a terrier or a collie, but 135 pounds of riled-up dog. When the owner of the house opened up the back door, two things happened. First, the dog raced out, but quickly had a change of heart and hid beneath the house. The second thing that happened was that the owner was hit with a pungent and overwhelming smell described as extreme body odor and dead fish.

My initial response was what I usually say when the topic of the cryptid’s smell comes up. “If you lived in a swamp, wore a fur coat, and never bathed, you’d smell, too!”

The third story I wanted to share I cannot because I don’t know it. Some time ago, someone left a comment about the Skunk Ape on one of my social media posts. I don’t remember his name or what he was commenting on, but he said that if I ever wrote another Skunk Ape book, he had a story about something that happened in the Lower Keys. I responded immediately because I love so many facets of the local history. I never heard anything else. Maybe, when he reads this, he will reach back out and share his story.

Trust me when I say that I have heard 100 stories about the Skunk Ape, and most come with a punch line about some late night at the Caribbean Club, Brass Monkey or any number of drinking establishments in Key West. 

Truthfully, some things I hear are more interesting than others and perhaps more interesting to me than others. The thing is, at least for me, I embrace them all because all of them, the stories about wrecking, sponges, the railroad, Key lime pie or even the Skunk Ape are all threads in this glorious fabric that is Florida Keys history. 

Brad Bertelli
Brad Bertelli is an author, speaker, Florida Keys historian, and Honorary Conch who has been writing about the local history for two decades. Brad has called the Florida Keys home since 2001. He is the author of eight books, including The Florida Keys Skunk Ape Files, a book of historical fiction that blends two of his favorite subjects, the local history and Florida’s Bigfoot, the Skunk Ape. His latest book, Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli, Volume 1, shares fascinating glimpses into the rich and sometimes surprising histories of the Florida Keys. To satisfy your daily history fix, join his Facebook group Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli.