Ever since some wide-eyed Neanderthal stumbled upon the first mammoth, man has been a shivering moth drawn with fascination to a monster's flame. Buried in most of us is the urge to seek out some hairy, two-headed beast—perhaps breathing fire and just waiting to leap forth and pour icy chills down our spines—and then, when the beast turns to flee, on trembling legs to follow. Beautiful. Unfortunately, the Top 10 of Weirdo Creatures has dwindled to a few Abominable Snowmen, several sea serpents in Scotland, a handful of hairy humanoids in Oregon and an occasional huge, undefined blob that washes up on some distant shore. But monster fans need not give up the game, not when the Great Skunk Ape of South Florida is emerging. And never mind if it is a five-foot, skinny-armed, otherwise overweight monster, one apparently racked by mange and smelling like an old garbage dump.
At the moment no one knows from where the skunk ape came; whether it is an overgrown chimp that escaped from an old Tarzan movie set, or an orangutan that fled a bankrupt Wild West show near Fort Lauderdale, or perhaps just a little monkey greatly magnified by imagination.
Homer C. Osbon, an amateur archaeologist, claims he and four others first spotted the odorous beast somewhere in the Everglades some time ago. The five, all members of the Peninsula Archaeological Society, were out exploring ancient ruins, just where they don't care to pinpoint. They have asked for Government funds to capture the beast.
But there have been previous reports. Last year a young man and his girl were enjoying the late-night view while parked a few miles west of Fort Lauderdale. The young man left the car, strolled 100 yards—and was belted unconscious. "I'm almost six feet tall," he later told police, "and the last thing I remember is looking up at this great shadowy thing." Later, an 18-year-old youth also reported spotting a large hairy beast in the general area, and recently Sergeant Harry Rose, a Davies, Fla. policeman, said he had seen a similar beast a long time back but had remained silent lest everyone think he was crazy.
And then two weeks ago Connie Hughes, age six and minus her top front teeth, was sitting on the steps of her family's mobile home in the King's Manor Estates trailer park on State Road 84, a two-lane, high-speed death trap, part of which is called Alligator Alley. The trailer park is bounded to the north and south by thick orange groves, and to the east and west by woods and pastureland. The eastern edge of the park ends at a 30-foot-wide murky canal. The compact collection of 200 mobile homes is roughly nine miles west of Fort Lauderdale in the middle of nowhere.
Except for her 11-year-old brother, Stephen, who was inside the trailer, Connie was alone. It was just a little after six. Connie looked up, saw the beast on all fours near several garbage cans, and screamed. When she screamed the animal stood up, and then she saw a smaller one.
Stephen opened the door and hauled his sister inside. Then he yelled and clapped his hands. The beast and the little one nonchalantly turned and headed south into the underbrush just a few yards away.
"It was bigger than daddy," said Connie. "One was white and one was black."
"One was brown and one was gray with splotches," said Stephen. "And they smelled so bad they made us sick."
Daddy, six-foot Stephen Hughes Sr., told a trailer-park guard, who called the Florida Highway Patrol.
Sighing, Patrol Dispatcher Karen Jones passed on the information to the Broward County sheriff's office, which passed it on to the county's Rabies Control unit. Having no one to pass it on to, that agency gave it to Officer Henry Ring, a 34-year-old Air Force veteran from New Jersey. South Jersey most likely. There is a rebel flag tattoo on his right forearm. While Ring was heading for the park, Lee Garen, Broward County bureau chief of Miami radio station WGBS, was calling Mrs. Jones. "What's happening?" asked Garen.
"Nothing's happening," replied Mrs. Jones. "They're all out chasing a big monkey."
"A big what?" Then Garen grabbed his .38 revolver and a camera and jumped into his car, heading it toward the trailer park.
"When I arrived," said Officer Ring, "half the park was running around carrying guns. They were going to start a war, I think. Garen and I and four others—one of them packing a .44 Magnum on each hip—searched the area. We found nothing but a bunch of strange tracks, like someone was walking around on his knuckles. The next night we stayed out until six a.m. Again, nothing. Then I talked to a Mrs. King, and she said she not only saw the critter but had fed, petted and been scratched by the smaller one."
Mrs. Elda King, her husband Bob and their two toy poodles live in an $18,000, custom-built trailer on the eastern edge of the park. She drives a catering truck; he drives a freight truck. She is excited by the apes; he is bored with them. "Every time I come home there's some kind of jazz," he says. "Now it's apes and orangutans. I'll get a gun and shoot the bums."
Describing the encounter, Mrs. King said she thought someone was at the door of the trailer early one evening. She opened it and found herself confronting a large, hairy beast. It was three feet away. She closed the door. "Then I rolled open the window and looked at it. It was about six feet tall; gray, with splotches and sores all over it. Wow." Arming herself with a plate of food and a .22 revolver, Mrs. King decided to lure the animal within range. About 7:45 p.m. the small one showed up.
"It was cute," she said. "I sat down beside it while it was eating and petted it. But the third time I touched it, there was this deep growl, like a big bullfrog, from the bushes. It made the little one mad. It reached over and dug its nails into my ankle and took off. I was thinking about grabbing it and running for the trailer—but I figured no trailer would stop its mommy or daddy."
One night last week a new posse formed. There was a writer from New York, a photographer from Atlanta, a Davies cop named Ben and his wife, Officer Ring and Garen, plus assorted friends. Ring, who was off the ape hunt officially but now out on his own, borrowed Mrs. King's .22 and climbed a tree near her trailer.
"He's nuts," said Mrs. King. "If that ape heads up the tree, he had better get off six quick shots. That thing'll tear him up."
Meanwhile, Officer Ring was thinking: "What am I doing up here with only a .22?"
In the trailer, Bob King—armed only with a glass of bourbon—laughed. "That ape won't show. There's enough people out there to eat the rascal. He's off in the woods worrying about getting himself barbecued."
Indeed, none of the apes showed.
The next night, Mrs. King set up a trap by the canal. Not at all sure what monsters might eat, she put out a platter containing three pounds of raw hamburger, some sour plums, lettuce, cantaloupe, avocado and, as a final attraction, a dash of Cool Whip dessert topping. The area around the bait was raked clean and the photographer rigged a triggering device. A few hours later, something snapped the shutter. There—frozen in the camera's flash—was a pussycat. The cat stalked off in disgust.
But cat or no cat, Sergeant Carl Holden, who is in charge of the Burns Detective Agency unit which patrols the park, said he was by now a believer. "We heard him early one morning. And it ain't what you think. What kind of animal pounds its chest? I put it in my log book. The damn thing sent ice cubes down my back."
The next night the posse, steadily growing, was back at the King trailer. Garen came armed with his wife and the .38 in a shoulder holster. "I don't like all this darkness," he said. "My mother used to jump out of the dark at me with a sheet over her head. I've been afraid of it ever since. You know, Mrs. King, you remind me of my mother."
"Yeah," said Mrs. Garen. "She's nuts."
"Cut that out," protested Mrs. King. "I've been trying to stop stories like that. Did you hear that guy on the radio? He made me sound like some kind of a yo-yo. Like I had been playing too much football without my helmet. Where's Henry Ring? Henry, you bounder, you stop growling up there like an ape or I'll really fix you."
Then Robert Musser, an ambulance driver until he totaled out a new ambulance a few months ago and became a Burns patrolman, came to the Kings' trailer to report that he had almost shot their ape at sunup that morning.
"And, man, did he stink! Phew," said Musser.
"That's the mange," said Ring. "The vet at the Miami zoo told me that."
"Yeah," said Musser. "Well, if it's gonna hang around here, I hope it takes a bath."
About 11 p.m. Musser was investigating an overturned garbage can when he spotted something at the southern edge of the woods. He pulled out his .38 and headed into the dark thicket of trees and underbrush. Mrs. King grabbed her .22 and went after him. Bob King yawned and climbed atop his trailer to adjust the TV antenna. The writer from New York sighed and followed Musser and Mrs. King into the woods. Garen drew his .38 and stayed under a street light.
"There's something!" said Musser, dropping to one knee, aiming the .38 into the inky night and touching it off. A few moments later Mrs. King's .22 popped. "That does it," said the writer from New York. "Goodby." And unlike the Great Skunk Ape, he hasn't been seen in the area since.
SNEAKING UP ON A SNACK SET OUT FOR A MONSTER, A PUSSYCAT TRIPS OFF THE SHUTTER AND SNAPS A SELF-PORTRAIT
TAPING MONSTER TALES: RABIES OFFICER HENRY RING AND GUN-TOTING LEE GAREN