Messin’ with Sasquatch — Skunk Ape ‘Godfather’ howling mad over Florida Bigfoot conference snub
WHEREVER BIGFOOT ROAMS, controversy seems to follow.
It’s usually manifested in the never-ending debates between skeptics and believers of the mythical creature also known as Sasquatch, Yeti and, in Florida, the Skunk Ape.
But the upcoming Great Florida Bigfoot Conference is entangled in a controversy of its own, a sasquatch squabble as hair-raising as the Bigfoot erotica uproar that made tracks in a bitter Virginia congressional race a few years ago.
Weeks before the July 10 show, a chest-pounding debate has erupted over the conference’s decision to not include Dave Shealy, a native Florida Gladesman regarded by many as the ‘godfather’ of Skunk Ape research, as a guest speaker.
Some Shealy supporters are threatening to stomp out to the RP Funding Center in Lakeland, where cryptid fans and experts will gather, just to protest what they consider a disrespectful snub of the man most responsible for promoting Florida’s Bigfoot cousin.
“What is a Bigfoot Conference in Florida without the number one resource on Skunk Apes, Dave Shealy?’’ Paul Kemp wrote last week on the conference’s Facebook page.
Kemp’s post was removed a few days ago, but not before another dozen or so Shealy supporters went ape$#!+ with comments.
“Complete idiots for not having my friend Dave there!!’’ wrote Katy Elizabeth, a Vermont woman who has made headlines searching Lake Champlain for a water monster called Champ, America’s Loch Ness monster.
“Without David Shealy and his research at this conference, you might as well not even have it,’’ wrote Joe Thurber IV.
“Great Florida Bigfoot conference shame on you… I hope you reconsider and reach out right away with an apology and invitation!” wrote Stephanie Henderson.
For conference organizers, the uproar was as startling as a bigfoot encounter in the woods.
“It’s ridiculous the kind of negativity we are getting right now,’’ Martin Pippen of Gather Up Event Management, the Tennessee-based company hosting the conference, said last week.
“It almost feels like (Shealy) told every friend he knows to go (on social media) and complain. It’s just crazy. I mean, come on. It’s a conference about people interested in bigfoot.’’
Like a flashlight in the forest, the commotion is illuminating how competing cryptid experts with colorful personalities and bigfoot-size egos don't always get along.
“I was counted out and I was counted out purposely and intentionally because they, bigfoot researchers in general, do not like me,” Shealy said in an interview.
Pippin, whose company has hosted a Bigfoot conference in Tennessee since 2019, said Shealy was not intentionally left off the Florida lineup, which will feature three national bigfoot television personalities and three Florida researchers.
The goal, he said, is to build the Great Florida Bigfoot Conference into an annual event, rotating Shealy and other A-list names such as Dr. Jeff Meldrum and Loren Coleman as guest speakers in coming years.
For the inaugural Florida lineup, Pippin said he and company founder Nikki Beaty, a Vero Beach native, consulted national and state bigfoot experts for recommendations.
He wouldn’t identify the people he consulted, but he said they ranked Shealy fourth after the three top recommendations, all of whom accepted the invitation: Stacy Brown, David Sidoti and Robert Robinson.
They will join headliners Cliff Barackman and James "Bobo" Fay from the Animal Planet series Finding Bigfoot and Master of Ceremonies Ryan "RPG" Golembeske from Finding Bigfoot and the Travel Channel's Expedition Bigfoot.
Shealy’s announcement earlier this year that he’d retired from skunk ape research probably factored into his ranking in the recommendations, Pippin said.
But contrary to what Shealy and his supporters might think, Pippin said, no one at Gather Up Event Management was messin’ with Sasquatch’s Sunshine State svengali.
“I think all of us recognize him as being a big name in the skunk ape field, but it’s year one (for the conference),’’ Pippin said.
“If this goes like it should for the next few years, he should have an opportunity to take the stage, unless this negativity persists, at which point Nikki will probably never invite him to come.’’
Shealy, 57, acknowledged that some of his friends wrote Facebook comments supporting him, but he said he didn’t orchestrate the online backlash.
Lobbing F-bombs, he strongly suggested that Gather Up Event Management needn’t bother inviting him to any future bigfoot events.
“It’ll be a cold day in hell before I ever attend anything they put on,’’ he said.
“They’ve made up a thousand excuses why I’m not there and of course it’s all my fault.”
PART P.T. BARNUM AND part Jane Goodall, Shealy is a proud and passionate Gladesman who doesn’t care if he ruffles feathers in his unwavering defense of the Skunk Ape, a creature he claims he first saw as a boy and later captured on video.
He’s a fixture at his Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, an exhibit and gift shop, where lifesize Skunk Ape statues stand in the grass next to the parking lot on Tamiami Trail in Big Cypress National Preserve.
Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, devoted a chapter to Shealy in his 2016 book "Best. State. Ever. A Florida Man Defends His Homeland."
And in a 1998 Comedy Central interview, Shealy obliged host Stephen Colbert's request to remove his shoes to prove his feet weren't the ones being used to lay the four-toed tracks that Shealy has preserved in plaster casts.
Those plaster casts have been a bone of contention for Pacific Northwest bigfoot researchers who wonder how the skunk ape can have just four toes while bigfoot has five.
“I know these people. They have been hateful to me from the very beginning when I first found my tracks,’’ Shealy said.
Shealy suspects some of those critics may have influenced Gather Up Event Management’s decision to not offer him an invitation to the inaugural Great Florida Bigfoot Conference.
He said he had “a falling out” earlier this month with some of the scheduled speakers, to whom he later apologized.
Shealy said he has volunteered thousands of hours of his time with students, Boy Scouts and media. But he said he resents for-profit companies that try to cash in on his hard work, which includes decades of field research while dodging rattlesnakes and alligators.
‘I’m not anybody's sucker and I'm certainly not a fool,’’ he said.
Stacy Brown Jr., one of the three Florida-based researchers who will speak at the Lakeland conference, said he was surprised Shealy isn’t on the panel.
“To me, he’s the godfather of skunk ape research,’’ he said. “I figure he couldn't come and that's why he wasn't (included).’’
It was Shealy who helped nurture Brown’s interest in the skunk ape. Brown, 37, won Spike TV’s “Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty,” made the documentary Skunk Ape Lives about what he says was his encounter with the creature and was featured on Animal Planet’s “Finding Bigfoot.”
“Without David, there ain’t no me,’’ he said. “I would never have thought I could look for bigfoot in Florida without David.’’
Brown said he suspects Shealy would’ve been invited if the conference’s Tennessee-based organizers had done better due diligence.
“They’re not from here. I think it was an honest mistake and they didn't mean any disrespect by it,’’ Brown said. “I understand David getting upset, because how can you think of Skunk Ape and not think of David?''
Brown continued, “The other guys (on the conference's Florida-based panel), while they are researchers, they haven't been in the game like David has. You have to give David his props. He’s been doing this shit forever.’’
Pippin said Gather Up Event Management knew enough about Shealy and that the company based its decision on the recommendations of other bigfoot experts.
“I asked who would be good local people in Florida to round out the lineup. I got a lot of feedback,’’ he said. “Unanimously, Stacy (Brown Jr.), David (Sidoti) and Robert (Robinson) came across as, ‘these guys would be good, they won't cause any problems, they get along with everybody else, they’re nice people.’ I did not get that (reaction) with Dave (Shealy). Not unanimously.’’
Pippin said he was also told Shealy had retired. “Being retired and also not being the most highly recommended person, that’s what happened.’’
It wasn’t long before the fur started flying on social media.
Shealy supporters said he should have been included, especially for an inaugural event in his own backyard.
“How can you have a Bigfoot Skunk Ape conference in the motherland and you don't invite the father?’’ asked Shealy supporter Eric Breuer, a martial arts black belt who has worked with Chuck Norris.
“At the inaugural conference you don't have the guy who coined the Skunk Ape? It’s crazy.’’
Shealy said he has been told “there will be people going to the conference on my behalf just to protest that I wasn't invited. I’ve asked everybody to be peaceful and respectful of everybody and not cause any problems.’’
Pippin said he won’t mind if the protesters show up.
“If they do, that’s fine,’’ he said. “We have a bacon festival every year. PETA showed up one year to protest and we gave them a booth.’’
Aside from the Bacon festival, Stand Up also puts on a Beard and Stache Fest and a beer festival, both in Tennessee, along with its marquee event, the Smoky Mountain Bigfoot Conference.
The success of the Smoky Mountain bigfoot shows convinced the company to consider launching a similar conference in Florida.
Initially scheduled for January 2021, the Lakeland conference was postponed until July because of the pandemic.
While the first Smoky Mountain Bigfoot Conference at the Gatlinburg Convention Center sold out days in advance, ticket sales for the inaugural Florida show haven’t been as brisk.
About 500 tickets have been sold so far. Pippin said he’s hoping to sell at least another 500 before the show starts July 10.
Shealy wondered why it’s not being held in Naples, the largest city close to Big Cypress, which he says is the number one Skunk Ape hotspot.
These days, Shealy is working in the Florida Keys with Bronze Cannon Corp. on a search for lost Spanish galleons. But the skunk ape will always be a part of him.
Earlier this month, his book “On The Tracks of the Skunk Ape” went on sale on Amazon. While the release should’ve been a cause for celebration, it was stained somewhat by the bigfoot conference snub.
“I’m a person. I have feelings and my feelings were hurt,’’ he said. “I am not happy about it and there are a lot of people not happy about it.’’
Still, as angry as he is, he’s trying to keep a sense of humor about the uproar.
“Who’d have thought a little skunk ape could cause all these problems,” he said with a laugh.
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