Dave Shealy has spent chunks of his life trudging through the muck of the Everglades’ Big Cypress Swamp in search of a monster — a hairy, 450-pound one that can stand seven feet tall and reeks of rotten eggs. Most people think Shealy’s either crazy or a shameless publicity hound, but he couldn’t care less. As the proud founder of the world’s only skunk-ape research center, the inveterate tracker says he plans to study this elusive animal until the day he dies — even if he never does get to see one up close. He’s even called for the state of Florida to pass a law to make it illegal to hunt his apes.

The truth is out there.

Photos: iStockphoto.

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Shealy may seem like an eccentric, but he’s not alone in seeking protection for an animal that most think doesn’t exist. Throughout the country — and the world — individuals, politicians, and organizations have fought to gain legal protection for imaginary monsters of all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’ve even been successful.

Why do people fight for such laws? In some cases, it’s simply to attract tourists, to have an excuse to hold kitschy annual festivals and sell souvenirs. But in others, the laws are a serious effort by devoted, though perhaps deluded, individuals who want to protect something they have never seen.

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Better Left Untouched

Shealy’s Skunk Ape Research Headquarters is part of the Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee, Fla. The campground, which he co-owns, is ideally situated for skunk-ape sighting, Shealy says. It butts against a wild area of thick trees, forbidding swamps, and dark waters that provide a perfect hiding place for the creatures, which are said to be as reclusive as their more famous brethren, the Sasquatch, or Bigfoot.

Most people, if they’ve heard of skunk apes at all, think the creatures are about as real as the tooth fairy. But that didn’t stop one Florida state representative from trying to pass a law in the late 1970s — twice — to make it illegal to molest a skunk ape. Shealy is still disappointed that the proposal never passed. “Everyone thought the law was a joke. They shot it down,” he says. “What harm would it have done to pass a law like that? Is the skunk ape in harm’s way? Yes. No doubt about it.”

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Shealy estimates that eight or nine skunk apes roam the nearby swamp, and claims the beasts have lived quietly in the Everglades since the days when the Seminole tribe ruled the region. He believes the skunk apes actually helped the Seminoles in their frequent battles with the U.S. Army in the late 1830s and early 1840s — something that explains why the military had so much trouble evicting the Seminoles from the area, he says.

“Florida is an interesting place, no doubt,” Shealy says. “Park officials know that there are all sorts of things in the Everglades that aren’t supposed to be there, things that are better left untouched. There have been exotic pets that have gotten away from their owners and taken hold. And that’s just the beginning. Florida has a deep, deep history in evolution. We had dinosaurs here and the big animals, like the woolly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger. It’s awfully easy to hide in the Everglades.”

Floridians may have come up short in their quest for protection, but similar laws do exist elsewhere. In the 1980s, the states of Vermont and New York passed resolutions making it illegal to harm or molest in any way Champ, a serpent-like creature that some claim lives deep under the surface of their shared waterway, Lake Champlain. Port Henry, N.Y., officials are so proud of their monster that they hold “Champ Day” each summer, a festival in the monster’s honor. T-shirts, as you can imagine, are sold.

Nessie? Champy? Whitey? Is that you?

Peter Jewett, founder of a website devoted to Champ, is a dedicated fan. And while he’s not naive enough to think that local officials actually believe Champ exists — he believes the laws are simply intended to separate tourists from their dollars — Jewett is glad that such mysterious monsters are getting at least some protection. “I think people wanted tourists in the lake hunting for Champ with their cameras,” Jewett said. “I don’t think they wanted hunters here with their guns.”

A similar creature is protected in Arkansas, where, in 1973, the state Senate passed a resolution declaring portions of the White River a protected refuge for the fabled water monster Whitey. And in 1969, Washington’s Skamania County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance setting out a $10,000 fine and five years in prison for anyone who killed a Bigfoot in the county. Both are still on the books.

This trend isn’t limited to the United States. There’s the well-known obsession with Scotland’s Loch Ness monster, of course. But perhaps the most amazing example is the case of the migoi in Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist country bordered by Tibet, China, and India.

The migoi is a version of the Yeti, or abominable snowman, with more quirks. Reported to stand eight feet tall, the reddish-brown creatures are said to walk backwards and even turn invisible to trick trackers. They have been part of the area’s legends for centuries, and even show up in ancient Bhutanese and Tibetan texts. Generations of locals have reported sightings of the elusive beasts, though no one has ever captured one.

In 2001, the government of Bhutan created the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, 253 square miles of land designed to serve as protected habitat for the migoi. The preserve features other wildlife, too, including pandas, snow leopards, and tigers, but was created specifically for the mythical creature in their midst.

But What If …

What would happen if a creature of Bigfoot’s status really were discovered? Are there adequate federal or state laws to protect something like the skunk ape from fame-hungry poachers and hunters? It sounds goofy, but the question isn’t actually all that far-fetched.

Nicole Paquette, director of legal and governmental affairs with the Sacramento-based Animal Protection Institute, which is dedicated to protecting animals across the globe, says that newly discovered species — even ones as fantastical as sea monsters and skunk apes — would more than likely be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Such animals, if they’ve managed to avoid detection even with an army of hunters trying desperately to find them, would certainly exist in small numbers, she says. They would then qualify as either threatened or endangered.

True believers always keep a

“We are seeing new animals being discovered these days,” Paquette says. “It isn’t that unusual anymore. They are finding different subspecies of animals, so it’s not that far-fetched to worry about new animals needing protection. They are not monsters, just animals that have not yet been discovered.”

The only problem may be timing. Under normal circumstances, when a new species is discovered in the U.S., its boosters have to petition the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to list it as protected. That process can be lengthy, and must include a public comment period. “Once listed, no one could hunt or kill these animals,” Paquette says. “But up until they are listed, essentially, that animal has no protection.”

Christine Nolin, branch chief for endangered species conservation with Fish and Wildlife, admits that the process of declaring a species endangered is lengthy. (It’s especially laborious now, she says, with the department facing a large backlog.) But if a newly discovered creature is found to be facing an immediate threat — and surely Bigfoot would qualify — there is a provision for emergency protection. Under the rule, the agency has 240 days to finalize the creature’s inclusion in the Endangered Species Act. During that time, the animal is protected as if it were endangered.

Tales From the Crypto

Loren Coleman, a Portland, Maine, cryptozoologist — one who studies creatures that may not exist — says he has mixed feelings about the laws protecting some of the country’s legendary monsters. Too many, he says, are publicity ploys. But he recognizes that people do want to protect creatures that may exist but haven’t yet been discovered, while others want to keep hunters and poachers out of wildlife areas. Both intentions are good, Coleman says, talking quickly as he rattles off facts about a subject he’s spent the majority of his adult years studying. (His other specialty is suicides among baseball players.)

“Cryptozoology deals with monsters that have yet to be discovered,” Coleman says. “But that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. They usually just don’t exist in as fantastical a nature as people think. The gorilla, you know, isn’t a giant animal that squeezes native women to death. There are some serious individuals out there who feel that animals like Champ are really an endangered species that haven’t yet been discovered. They want to protect them, and think that the best way is to pass laws protecting them before they’re discovered. That’s usually not the way we go about it, but it does seem to be a way to offer immediate protection.”

Coleman isn’t worried that a creature like Bigfoot would really face any serious danger if discovered. Proof of its existence would create loads of publicity, he says, and would undoubtedly spur federal and state officials to act quickly — within 24 hours, Coleman predicts — to enact protective legislation.

The actions of an adventurer, though, out to make a name for himself? There isn’t much protection against that, even from Congress. That’s why, back in the swampy Everglades, Shealy hopes his skunk apes one day receive the same consideration as Champ, Whitey, Bigfoot, and other legendary creatures.

He even has an idea of how simple the regulation should be: “I’d like a law passed that says if something out there looks like a man covered in hair, don’t shoot it.”