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Area residents share cougar sightings
Reports from past and present suggest Hillsboro area is Ground Zero for a zoological mystery

There are many good reasons to stop for a meal at Beezer’s Bar & Grill:  great food, great atmosphere, and maybe a mountain lion for dessert.

That’s what Elroy dentist Chris Karas and his associate Dan Winn got for their money when they stopped at the Hillsboro restaurant for lunch one day in the winter of 2013.  The pair were seated at a table near windows facing a steep, wooded embankment at the north end of the building.

“I saw what I at first assumed was a dog walking through the deep snow,” Karas reported.

Soon the dentist became more attentive towards the beast.

“I began to realize just what I was seeing,”  he said.  “Dan had his back to the window, so I asked him to take a look.  He said, ‘Sure enough, that’s a cougar!’

Karas says the animal was larger than most dogs.  “It was tan,” he said, “and had a long tail that hung down into the snow and curled back up.”

The two men watched in amazement as the cougar climbed up into a tree that rose above the steep bank and out of their line of sight.

In a radius of about 20 miles around Hillsboro, and from all four directions, area residents shared the details of nearly 20 previously unpublished sightings recently.  Some are from the past, and some are from as recent as four months ago.  Each is interesting in its own right, but collectively they add to a body of evidence that suggests our area is Ground Zero for one of the great zoological mysteries of our time.

Three Amish girls were frightened by a large light brown cougar on Fox Ridge in the fall of 2011.  Katie Yoder and her sisters Edith and Arlene were walking to school about 8 a.m.

“It ran across the road about 100 yards in front of us,” Katie recalled.

Katie says the trio quickened their pace to reach the safety of some nearby buildings.  Meanwhile, the cougar disappeared into a grove of pine trees.

Not far from this incident, on his farm off Co. C, Francis Haugh has had several encouters with similar creatures.  The most dramatic occurred in 1993 while feeding his cattle.  He initially mistook the odd sound he heard as a bull mating a cow.

“I looked around,” he said, “and in the field above me, about 300 yards away, was this big cat.  It was as big as a German shepherd and had a tail about three feet long.”

Haugh had a rifle with a scope handy and fired three shots at the lion before it fled.  “It must have decided I couldn’t miss it every time,” he laughed.

Several years later, in nearby Chicken Hollow, an Amish farmer sighted an entirely different animal.  The man, who asked his name not be used, said that, glancing up at a hillside on his property, he noticed a large black cat bounding across an open field and into the neighboring woods.

“From a distance, it appeared to be a match for my border collie in size,” he remarked.  “It was bigger than a farm cat, that’s for sure!”

Since that incident the farmer has not allowed his cows to freshen in that woods.  He further stated that his son, who lives over the hill from him, sighted a large “tawny-colored” cougar lying across a log three or four years ago.

Around Thanksgiving in 2012, Ulla Olson, who lives with her husband Jim near Valley, was having coffee with a guest one morning, when she noticed something odd through the window.

“I saw two deer acting crazy,” she said, “running back and forth across our property.”

Moments later, Ulla observed the reason for the animals’ behavior, as a light complected cougar with a noticeable limp came into view.

“It had a long tail, and was bigger than a coyote or a large dog,” she reported.

Ulla watched as the cat scampered onto nearby Eastman Road and vanished into some cedars on the hill above.  Olson added that several days prior to the incident, as she and Jim were outside enjoying the evening air, they were startled by a shrill cry.

“We heard a noise like a woman in distress,” she related, “really screaming loudly.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has often implied that witnesses have been provided with only fleeting glimpes of common animals, and are mistaken when identifying them as mountain lions. The following report by an Elroy woman seems to make that theory untenable.

Katherine Rick, who lives near the Baraboo River, revealed that she and her aunt kept a “golden-brown” mountain lion in view for over an hour one day in the summer of 2012.  What’s more, the cat was close, only feet away.

Rick says her aunt first spotted the animal as it napped between a pair of pine trees in Katherine’s yard.  “It looked like he was tired and needed some rest,” Rick reported. “It was about as big as a Lab or a little bigger. It had a really long tail that curled up at the end.

“He was really prettty to look look at, but also kind of scary.”

Rick says she became uncomfortable with the animal remaining on her lawn, so she shouted at it.  “I yelled, ‘You get out of here’!  she laughed.

After about 45 minutes of rest, the animal eventually rose to its feet and slowly strolled about Rick’s property, before reclining on a nearby roadway for another 20 minutes of beauty sleep.  Consequently the cougar did exit the area, leaving Katherine and her aunt somewhat shaken by the experience.

“I was just stunned,” said Rick.  “I lived here 35 years and never seen one of those things before.”

Two years earlier, Rick’s neighbor Helen McDonald received a similar visitation, but from something altogether different.

Early one summer morning in 2010, McDonald glanced out of her window to see an enormous black cat sipping from the artificial pond in her yard.  “I don’t recall the specifics of its tail,” she related, “but it was big and black, and it walked like a cat.  It was bigger than a Great Dane.”

McDonald, who was hosting guests at the time, tried to summon additional witnesses.  By the time she returned to her window, however, the cat had disappeared over a nearby hill.

That same summer, Kathy Kolowrat encountered a dark tan cougar near Hillsboro on her way to work.  Kolowrat was traveling along Co. FF and approaching the interesection with Thew Road, when something emerged from the brush fronting the abandoned schoolhouse on Don Santas’ farm.

“Its body was about three and a half feet long,” she revealed, “with this long rope rope of a tail that sort if floated behind it as it moved.  It had a small head with pointy ears.”

As the cougar stepped onto the highway, Kathy says the cat paused and momentarily stared at her.

“It looked me right in the eyes,” she reported, “and then leapt through the barbed wire on the opposite bank.”

Though there have been reports of mountain lions this year, not all encounters have been recent.  The following help to illustrate the historic nature of this phenomenon in our area.

Bob Jackson of Mt. Tabor was approaching the Henry Schmidt farm about dusk one fall evening in 1987, when something bounded across the road in front of his car. Bob says the animal was clearly illuminated in his headlights.

“It was black,” he stated, “about the size of a black Lab and had a long tail.”

Jackson had read reports of sightings by other area residents and, though surprised by his encounter, had accepted the fact cougars existed hereabouts.

“There’s no doubt in my mind they’re around,”  he insisted.  “Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not here.”

Lester Degner of Wonewoc shares that conviction.  Lester grew up on a farm near Valton and, along with his brother David, was often required to feed the heifers on a remote barn on their property.  Occasionally the two young men were not alone.

“In 1958, we sometimes saw a black panther across the valley from us,”  Lester related.  “It was about the size of a beagle, with long legs. It wasn’t pure black but kind of brownish-black.

“There was a rock nearby that had an opening in it that we thought was its den.  We kept our distance and he kept his.”

Although seen infrequently, Lester believes the animal remained in the area for at least 16 years.  “From time to time we’d hear him screaming at night,” he says.  “It made your hair stand on end.”

Degner’s last meeting with the cat was also his closest.

“I was checking the fence on my parents’ farm in 1974 and was walking down a rough trail,” he reported.  “As I walked under this huge oak tree, I happened to look up, and I saw its long tail hanging down.  He saw me and jumped down.  He ran one way, and I ran the other!”

NEXT WEEK:  Area residents tell of cougars’ attacks on livestock.

Stanek is a former Hillsboro Sentry Enterprise reporter.