The wacky history of kangaroos in Wisconsin

Bethanie Gengler, News Reporter

Last June, a motorist reported seeing a kangaroo hopping across an Interstate 41 pedestrian bridge in Grand Chute, according to Grand Chute police.

The caller reported the sighting just before 7 a.m., but officers were unable to locate the elusive marsupial.
The Grand Chute police described the curious kangaroo call on Twitter.

“Just dispatched to a possible kangaroo (yes, you read that correctly) crossing the footbridge over I-41,” a tweet by Grand Chute police said. “Yup. It’s Monday.”

With no kangaroo in sight, was the call a case of misidentification? An escaped pet? A mistake made by an over tired motorist? Or is there a secret population of wild kangaroos living in Wisconsin?

Surprisingly, Wisconsin kangaroo sightings date back to 1899 according to the book “Unexplained!: Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena.”

According to the book, a woman in New Richmond, Wisconsin reported a kangaroo running through her neighbor’s yard in 1899. The book said the kangaroo was thought to have escaped from a circus that had recently been in town, but the circus said they did not have a kangaroo.

In October 1974, police officers in Chicago spotted a kangaroo which they spent five days trying to capture, according to an article in the Vidette. The Vidette described the kangaroo as “between four and six feet tall, gray and carrying a pouch.”

The Vidette reported that the kangaroo “gave a solid kangaroo punch to Patrolman Michael Byrne’s shin when Byrne and another officer wrestled with it Friday.”

After eluding police, the kangaroo apparently escaped, but a sighting was reported in Indiana, according to the Chicago Tribune, with additional sightings later being reported in Illinois.

Another kangaroo sighting was reported just 100 miles from Chicago in April 1978 in Waukesha. The Waukesha Freeman reported that a school bus driver named Patricia Wilcox called to report the sighting of two kangaroos.

“I’m sane, sober and I saw kangaroos,” Wilcox told the Freeman. “I thought they were deer at first. People were honking and slamming on their brakes, and finally, one guy hit one. But it just got up and hopped off.”

Within a week of Wilcox’s sighting, another kangaroo sighting was reported in the nearby town of Pewaukee. The Waukesha Freeman reported that 12 additional people reported kangaroo sightings within a month of Wilcox’s report.

The Freeman reported that a local tavern even organized a kangaroo hunt, but no kangaroos were found.

Two brothers, Richard and Jack Schmitt, along with their friend Craig Rittershaus, eventually came forward and admitted to “creating” the kangaroo as a prank, according to the Freeman.

“”I made a kangaroo cutout in my garage from plywood,”” Richard told the Freeman. “”Then I showed Craig and we decided it looked too wooden so we smeared some mud on it and used toothpaste for the eye.””

Janet Napientek reported seeing a kangaroo in Waukesha just 12 days after Wilcox’s sighting.

“”I know what I saw, and I know it was a kangaroo,”” Napientek told the Freeman. “”What those kids were doing was a separate issue. We have a small farm and I know animals.””

The kangaroo sightings were serious enough for the Wisconsin Agriculture Department to issue a press release on April 27, 1978, urging Wisconsin residents to beware of kangaroos and to keep pets away from them as they could carry diseases.

More recently, a kangaroo was spotted about 100 miles away from the 1978 sightings in Iowa County, Wisconsin on Jan. 3, 2005, according to an article in the Dodgeville Chronicle. The 150-lb red kangaroo was captured and, when no one came forward to claim it, the marsupial was sent to Madison’s Henry Vilas zoo.

About 75 miles from the Iowa County kangaroo capture, a Mausten man hit and killed a kangaroo with his truck on December 7, 2005, according to an article in the Free Republic. The Free Republic reported the kangaroo was apparently living in a culvert on the man’s property.

Former Juneau County DNR Warden Tom Jodarski told the Free Republic that in more than 20 years working in Juneau County, he never saw a kangaroo.

“I would assume somebody had acquired an exotic animal and it got away from them,” he told the Free Republic. “Bears and wolf sightings were a big deal a few years back, and somebody had an alligator for a pet, but a kangaroo? That’s a first.”

In September 2017, a kangaroo was found wandering in Kenosha County and was returned to a nearby farm, according to a Milwaukee Journal article.

A family’s pet kangaroo escaped in Shawano County and was killed two days later in a hit-and-run, according to a November 2018 Facebook post by the Shawano County Sheriff’s Office.

The Special Memories Zoo, located about 6 miles from where the Grand Chute kangaroo was spotted in June, reported a baby kangaroo stolen in 2015. However, in June 2019 they posted on Facebook that the kangaroo that was sighted was not theirs.

“If anyone hears a report of a kangaroo loose on Highway 41 by the Timber Rattlers [stadium], it is not one of ours! Ours are all safe and happy in their pen!” the Facebook post said.

In an interview with the Post-Crescent, Special Memories Zoo owner Donna Wheeler said the animal the caller reported as a kangaroo was likely a dog or a deer.

But could a kangaroo survive a Wisconsin winter?

The answer is: It’s unlikely.

Although kangaroos can adapt to colder temperatures, the average winter temperature in Australia, where kangaroos originate, is 59 F. Temperatures in a Wisconsin winter can fall to 30 degrees below zero.

This winter, Australia experienced a cold snap that brought snow. Australian residents posted videos of kangaroos frolicking in the snow and shivering.

In order for a kangaroo to survive a Wisconsin winter it would have to develop cold-weather adaptations or migrate out of state each year. In the wild, kangaroos are known to travel long distances, but the average speed of a kangaroo is 15 mph. In comparison, the average walking speed of a human is 5 mph.

Unfortunately, we’ll likely never know whether the animal spotted in Grand Chute was really a kangaroo.

“Officers wandered the bush and thicket looking for signs of the joey, but were unsuccessful,” a Tweet by the Grand Chute police said. “It would appear that the kangaroo had …Wait for it. Hopped along.”