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A Nocturnal Attack in Southeastern Wisconsin

 A Nocturnal Attack in Southeastern Wisconsin

The residents of rural Watertown Township at the top of Jefferson County were alarmed late in January 2009 when an unidentified predator killed a horse on the Saxby farm. The township, a mixture of gentle rolling glacial hills, farmland, and marsh, was on high alert. The farm, three miles southwest of the City of Watertown, was home to Florence “Grannie” Saxby, her great-grandson, James (Jim) Saxby Jr., his wife Amanda, and three of Jim’s children.

I heard about the depredation first hand on Wednesday morning, January 28. I was informed that a cougar had killed one of Amanda’s horses on Monday and was urged to come out to the 80 acre farm located at W5707 County Trunk T.

The horse pasture is in front of the barn. The Saxby farmhouse is to the far left. The small creek is visible in the foreground.

When my wife, Stacie, and I arrived around noon, three DNR wardens had already been to the farm and had just left. When I asked to see the carcass to take photographs, I was informed that Jim had buried the animal that morning with a skid loader before the DNR had arrived. The DNR had been unable to examine the horse because the ground had already frozen solid. I was disappointed, but still eager to check out the premises and inspect another horse injured in the attack. We all walked 50 yards west from the farmhouse down to the barn as a group, and entered the pasture through a gate at the back of the barn. It was around 15 degrees outside, and the air was crisp, a typical Wisconsin winter day. There was a herd of nine Quarter horses in the snow-covered paddock and steam was puffing out of their noses. Out in the fields, the snow was running five inches deep with a semi-hard crust. It was much deeper in the drifts.

Big Mama survived the nocturnal assault.

The Pre-Dawn Attack Revisited

Amanda brought us up to speed as I took photographs with my digital camera. My wife’s niece related that she fed her horses at 5:00 a.m., on Monday, January 26 before she went to work. It was still dark with a new moon, and also bitterly cold, a numbing minus 6 degrees. We’d been in a cold snap since New Year’s Day and the cold spell would not be broken until February. Nothing was unusual that morning. The horses were not agitated or spooked. Before sunrise at 7:15 a.m., 93-year-old Grannie Saxby heard a commotion in the horse pasture but was unable to wake Jim who was a second shifter. He went down to the 10-acre pasture at 11:00 a.m. and discovered that Ginger had been killed. Ginger was a young horse, a yearling, 14 hands high, weighing 450 pounds. She was laying 20 feet from the barn. Blood was spread across about a third of an acre.        Ginger had suffered wounds to the right side, including deep puncture wounds at the jawline of the neck and mid-neck. She also had a two-foot long gash on the right flank extending down to the forelimb. In addition, her face around the eyes and muzzle were raked with claws. Big Mama, a 1,400 pound mare, had also been attacked, but survived. She had injuries to the inner pastern of her hind legs, characteristic of a canine attack. Big Mama had also been raked on the hindquarters with claws that had stripped approximately two, one-foot square patches of hair off her hide. Her throat area had also sustained injuries in the attack. None of the other horses were injured.

Big Mama showed her injuries to us.

Close up of Big Mama’s injuries. Of special interest is the amount of missing hair.

Big Mama’s injuries included lacerations to her hide.

Deep and quite large puncture wounds to her left hind leg.

Big Mama also received injuries underneath her neck to the throat.

The DNR Arrives

Dr. Robb of the Jefferson Veterinary Clinic came out soon after and stated that he had never seen an attack like it. He instructed the family to notify the Department of Natural Resources. Dr. Robb said that there had been other livestock killed in the area recently.

DNR warden Dave Walz came out that day and viewed Ginger. It was now a balmy 12 degrees outside. He saw four big punctures half way down the right side of her neck. She was also missing a double fist size chunk of meat at the jawline of the neck. Walz told them that it looked like a big cat attack, as felines characteristically attack the head and throat region of its prey. Canines, on the other hand, tended to bring down prey from behind. He warned the family to stay indoors at night. The family changed the animal feeding schedules, doing everything during the daylight with multiple people. The area received .01 of precipitation that night in the form of snow.

The Saxbys learned that their neighbors to the west had also recently had a strange occurrence. Dave and Kathy Steindorf told them that on Friday, January 23, something had run their horses through a fence. They believed that the prints they had found were from a big cat. They owned 40 acres adjacent to the Saxby farm.

On Tuesday, January 27, the DNR warden returned to the farm. The temperature was hovering around 7 degrees. He looked at the lone set of tracks that were on the far side of a 3-foot wide creek, adjacent to a pasture, 100 yards west of the barn. There was a dusting of snow in the prints but the prints measured 3 ½ inches wide and 3 inches long. At one point, the tracks showed that the animal leaped 8 feet from a slow walk.

The Predator Stalks the Family

Activity ratcheted up that evening for the Saxbys. Turbo, the Bull Mastiff inside the house, began barking furiously at the living room window at 10:30 p.m. Phillip Saxby, 15, Amanda, 28, looked outside along with family friends Jason and his wife, Danielle. In the mercury vapor light, they saw a shadow by Porterhouse’s shed, which moved down toward the barn. The 10 by 15 foot shed was 70 feet west of the house and housed Porterhouse, a steer that was being raised for butchering. At 11:00 p.m., Amanda, Phillip, Jason, and another friend Jim Harshburger, saw something move at the fence line by the barn.

Jim Saxby, 39, and his oldest son Justin came home from work at 1:30 a.m. They heard growling north of the barn coming from in the brush between the barn, Highway T, and the creek. The pair pursued it and heard it enter a stand of woods 250 yards west of the barn but growls kept them from entering the tree line. Without visual contact, they broke off the chase in the minus 7-degree weather. Prints were found leading up to the living room window, which must have caused Turbo’s outburst. I found that the prints leading right up to within one foot of the house, were canine in nature.

That morning, January 28, three DNR wardens came out to the farm and wearing snowshoes, followed the lone set of predator tracks. They also set out four traps in the area, two in the woods. Unfortunately, they walked all over the tracks, possibly on purpose, obliterating most of them. 

Jim and Justin Saxby followed the animal to the edge of these woods on Monday night.

APHIS Investigates the Depredation

After I examined the horses I followed the same path the wardens took. Jason, 24, volunteered to accompany me. We walked to the back of the property, careful not to walk in the remaining tracks. I found some tracks made by a large lone canine. Shortly after we returned to the farmhouse. Around 2:00 p.m. the USDA agent showed up. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had taken over the investigation.

Despite the degradation, this track still gives an idea of the size of the animal.

Jason looks south at the tracks and DNR snowshoe prints. Of special note is the wandering gait of the predator.

Biologist Dave Terrell was a wildlife specialist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Inspection Services. He had not been notified about the depredation until that morning. The APHIS specialist was upset that Ginger had been buried making an investigation of her death impossible. He looked at Big Mama, however, and suggested that the several large punctures in her upper left hind leg indicated a canine attack. Characteristics of canine attacks, such as coyote, he was quick to point out. But he did not rule out a cat attack at that point, without more information.

 I volunteered to accompany Terrell to look at the tracks along the creek. He became increasingly and visibly nervous as we walked farther from the highway and kept looking over his shoulder. Many of the tracks were obscured by the wardens’ snowshoes, but numerous tracks were still visible, although degraded, by two days of blowing snow. Terrell complained about the DNR. Their snowshoes had wrecked the print path characteristics. Suddenly, Terrell exclaimed, “I’ve seen enough.” As we walked back at a brisk pace, he explained that he had concluded that the prints were canine, a large canine. A large coyote, dog, or wolf, the dusting of snow had made exact identification impossible. The prints were made by a large canine with a staggering gait, more representative of a domestic dog than of a wild predator such as a wolf. He mentioned that it was possible that several coyotes or even dogs had caused the attack. Terrell mentioned that wolves were tremendously powerful predators and that few people realized the strength of their jaws. He stressed that wolves were capable of great feats of strength and mentioned a few cases he had investigated to me.

The cougar print is exhibited on the left and a wolf on the right. The cougar print is more circular and the toe pads are more teardrop-shaped. The wolf print, besides showing claw marks, has quite a different shape to the heel pad. The two leading toes of the wolf also are in line, unlike the staggered feline toe pads.

“Horse attacks were very rare,” Terrell said, “and when a big predator is killing livestock, they want to know what it is.” He also stated, “When something has a pattern of killing livestock in an area and is not consuming the prey, it’s of great concern.” The APHIS specialist could not reach a conclusion but suggested that another agent would possibly come out to verify the evidence. He also stated that Ginger might possibly be exhumed for examination.

Failed Attempt to Bait the Predator

Stacie and I returned before dusk. Justin and Jason had already set out some raw chicken, butchered on the farm, near the barn, opposite of the horses. Justin and his dad had tried baiting the predator on Monday night and we were going to attempt it again. Jason and I had selected our hides around 3:20 p.m. I hunkered down behind a pile of scrap lumber with a Mossberg 500 riot gun loaded with #4 buck. The others had 12 gauges as I recall. Twilight ended at 5:33 p.m. The temperature dipped below zero. The others were optimistic but I knew that predators were more intelligent and wary than deer. They were also sure that we were looking for a cougar. I was skeptical. I had seen the prints. I was concerned, however, that the wolf-size prints had shown a domestic dog-like gait. I recalled the odd gait that witnesses had used to describe the beast of Bray Road. In the numbing cold, the mercury vapor light continually played tricks on the eyes. Many times I appeared to see movement in the shadows. Nothing took the bait.

Looking north at the tracks made by the DNR following the predator, the staggered gait is quite visible.

Later, I went out alone.  I walked southeast of the farmhouse near the crest of a gentle undulating hill in a snow covered alfalfa field. I was downwind of a slight 8-10 m.p.h. breeze out of the north-northwest, armed with a 110 lumen Surefire light, a rifle, and a big-bore revolver. A few years earlier in 2006, I had spent two evenings with Tom Biscardi, his son C. J., Wild Bill, and the team Searching for Bigfoot. We had both starlight scopes and thermal imaging then. Now I only had Jena-made Zeiss-roof prism binoculars. A sliver of waxing crescent moon appeared at a 7:43 p.m. and I continually panned 360 degrees, well aware that hunted predators could circle and hunt the hunters. Two hours of watching produced no results.

DNR Calls It a Cougar

That evening DNR warden Dave Walz called the Saxby residence at 8:00 p.m. He told them that he knew it was the work of a cat and knew of other sightings in the area. A deer cam shot had been taken of a cougar in Lake Mills, 6 miles to the southwest, in December. On January 18, there had been a visual sighting of a cougar in Waterloo, 4 miles northwest of the farm. Early that morning a horse owned by Ron Smith had been killed in Hubbleton, 4 miles northwest.

The DNR had varied from their normally neutral and silent position, to uncharacteristically state that a large feline predator was the cause of the attacks. It was leaked that there had been several livestock depredations in the area. At least four wardens were engaged in investigating the attacks, concurrent with the ongoing federal USDA investigation into the slayings. The attacks displayed characteristics of both feline and canine attacks, and additional characteristics that were neither.

Interestingly, Walz told the Watertown Daily Times in a Friday January 30 article, that the DNR had not confirmed any cougar sightings in Wisconsin. He said that he believed that there were cougars in the area and there had been many supposed sightings. A cougar had been spotted in Milton, to the southwest, and in the Lima marsh in 2008. That animal, which had come from the Dakotas, was shot and killed by law enforcement in Illinois. The USDA countered that there had been no legitimate sightings of cats in the area.

APHIS Declares It Canine

On Monday, February 2, Charles Lovell, the APHIS district supervisor, stated that the attack was not carried out by a cougar, but by a canine. Oval, rather than round tracks indicated to them that the animal was not a cougar. Lovell commented, “Coyotes could have done this but so could a pack of dogs running around, or it could have died from self-inflicted wounds caused from running into a gate or fence.” He suggested that the attack could have been inflicted by a wolf, but that there had been no confirmed sightings of a wolf in the area that year.

Typically, however, a herd of horses would tend to attack and even kill coyotes foolish enough to enter their pasture. Horses are strong animals that can flail with their forefeet. Blows from their hard hooves, especially delivered by kicks from their hind legs are quite devastating. Many local farmers in the past, have been killed by their own horses. Lovell’s comment also failed to mention that only one lone set of predator tracks had been found at the farm. He mentioned that someone had wrecked the tracks with snowshoes.

Deadly Wolf and Cougar Attacks

A year earlier, in 2008, DNR warden supervisor Chuck Horn had stated that virtually all 11 counties that comprised the DNR’s South Central Region, had confirmed sightings of wolves. Jefferson, as well as nearby Dane and Dodge counties, were in that region. Wolf depredations were prevalent in northern Wisconsin. In 2007, 36 cattle, 2 sheep, 1 horse, and 12 dogs were killed. Between 1985 and 2007, the state had paid out $653,136.28 in tax dollars to cover depredation losses.

Just how dangerous are cougars and wolves? Cougars had killed 18 people in the U.S. between 1890 and 2005. Since 1830, 26 people had been killed by wolves in North America. Kenton Joel Carnegie, 22, had been killed by wolves in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada on November 8, 2005. The bones of Ben Cochrum were found on April 17, 1922 in Ontario along with the remains of 11 wolves that he had killed in self-defense. Cochrum had shot 7 and clubbed 4 until he was overwhelmed when his rifle stock was broken. James Smith was killed by wolves near Waterloo, Iowa on March 4, 1910. His bones were found with 5 wolves that he had killed before his rifle was emptied. The last wolf shot in Jefferson County, had attacked 30-year-old George Miller in Koshkonong Township. He had chased it for two miles with his dog on the afternoon of February 17, 1917. The wolf turned on him when he shot it twice and Miller struck it with his gun butt, killing the wolf.

Lovell’s word probably reassured many with his warm and fuzzy explanations of the event, but the DNR and APHIS, left the locals hanging. The identity of the predator was never established nor did it reappear. The excitement has now subsided. The Saxbys are divorced, Grannie is dead, and the horses have gone from the farm.

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