| OCHOPEE, Fla.
OCHOPEE, Fla. (Reuters Life!) - North America's Pacific Northwest has Bigfoot. The Himalaya region of Nepal and Tibet has the Yeti.
But in Florida's swamps, Dave Shealy is on the lookout for the skunk ape, hoping to prove the smelly creature does actually exist and win it government protection.
Shealy, 43, claims he saw his first skunk ape -- a creature similar to an orangutan or gorilla but with a foul odor -- in 1974 and has been searching for more ever since.
"All of a sudden there was this big, hairy creature walking like a man through the marsh," said Shealy while on a cigarette break from fixing a water pump at his Trail Lakes Campground, some 70 miles west of Miami.
"I didn't see another one until the summer of 1997."
Shealy claims three sightings of the skunk ape and boasts to be the world's leading researcher of the mystery creature. He also runs a small roadside shop stocking skunk ape memorabilia like T-shirts, rudimentary clay models, and a DVD film he has made about his work.
He is not alone in his belief in the skunk ape. There was a wave of sightings in the 1970s, all describing the creature as about seven feet tall, weighing about 300 pounds (136 kgs), and bringing a foul odor as it emerged from the swamp.
But the U.S. National Park Service, which runs the 720,000 acre Big Cypress National Preserve where Ochopee is located, says there is no evidence that any such animal exists.
Big Cypress spokesman Bob DeGross said there had been no confirmed sightings.
"Many years back someone left a note for us claiming to have spotted one of these creatures," DeGross said. "But we were unable to verify it."
SHY AND SMELLY
Shealy said he aims to prove skunk apes do exist and get them government protection, partly to atone for crimes committed in his youth. He spent three years in prison after being caught in 1987 in the swamp acting as a lookout on a $13 million shipment of Columbian marijuana.
His second sighting of a skunk ape was in July 1997 after he had waited day and night for five months in a 20-foot high tower in the swamp to see a skunk ape.
Not long before sunset, something appeared about 75 feet away moving fast that was "exactly like what I saw when I was a kid.".
Shealy shows a photograph he took that day of swamp land with a distant, reddish-brown speck. When magnified, it appears to be a blurry hairy creature that could be an ape walking upright -- but it is too unclear to be positive.
Shealy said his third and most recent sighting was in 1999 when he spotted a smaller animal than the first two which he caught on video. He said skunk apes are very shy and the name comes from its strong, unpleasant odor.
"The smell is like rotten eggs," said Shealy. "There's a lot of methane in the swamp, which could explain the stink."
But critics claim Shealy's photos are fake and question his sanity -- and motivation.
"I get a lot of nasty e-mails," Shealy said. "But I don't see my critics spending months in the swamp proving me wrong.
"People think I do this to make money, but what I raise is not enough to cover my research."
He estimates he needs $250,000 to complete that research.
"With that, I can prove skunk apes are out there," Shealy said. "Then I can get them the protection they deserve."