Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Jackalope: Mythical Icon of the West

The Jackalope has long been a part of American folklore. Depicted as a large jack rabbit with the horns of an antelope or deer, the mythical hybrid animal is a solid icon of popular culture in the west.

The origins of the American jackalope are shrouded in the past. Some of the first stories of the animal may have come from the exaggerated campfire tales of lumberjacks in the early 1900s. These rugged men spent much time in the forest and the telling of tall tales became their entertainment. Outrageous stories of rare animals and strange things that lived in the wild were standard fare at lumberjack camps.

One popular origin story for the American jackalope says the creature was the brainchild of a Wyoming hunter named Douglas Herrick. An article published in the New York Times claims that Herrick got the idea when he saw the carcass of a jackrabbit next to a set of deer antlers. Using taxidermy skills he learned from a mail order course, Herrick and his brother put a set of antlers on a jackrabbit head, mounted it for display, and the jackalope was born.

Herrick sold his first mounted jackalope to a gentleman named Roy Ball who put it on display in the LaBonte Hotel in Douglas, WY. It drew a lot of attention and an entire legend began to unfold around the Jackalope. Herrick’s mounted jackalope remained on display at the LaBonte Hotel until it was stolen in 1977.

Herrick may have actually gotten his idea for a jackalope from lumberjack tales, or, he may have seen depictions of so called ‘horned hares’ in early animal encyclopedias.

In the 18th century, many "Bestiaries,” (fanciful animal encyclopedias) contained depictions of various horned hares. They were in fact listed in so many “scientific” texts of the time that they were given their own, formal Latin name—Lepus cornutus translated as “horned hare.”

The animals were purported to exist in many parts of Europe, especially Germany, but were supposedly very rare. It’s possible that the tales of these European beasts were simply transposed to American soil by Europeans.

As with many tales, there may be a grain of truth to the early stories of rabbits with horns. Around the same period that Herrick created his jackalope display, a Canadian writer and naturalist named Ernest Thompson Seton was publishing a series of books titled “Lives of Game Animals.” Included in volume four of Seton’s work was a hand drawn plate showing sketches of rabbits with horn like growths on their heads and faces. It turns out; there actually had been sightings of animals with this bizarre condition.
The odd condition was documented by biologist Richard E. Shope. Shope discovered that a virus could cause the growth of hard tumors on the heads of infected rabbits. The virus, now called the “Shope papilloma virus,” could create the appearance of horns on rabbits. On rare occasions, people still spot animals infected with this condition.

Humorous and outlandish qualities have been attributed to the jackalope over the years.

According to the lore, there have been rare sightings of groups of jackalopes. Such a gathering is called a “flaggerdoot.” More often than not, it’s solitary jackalopes that are spotted. Full moons are considered the best time to catch a glimpse of the animals as they like to sit in the moonlight and sing in a human voice. Jackalopes can in fact, mimic any human voice that they hear as well as the sounds of other animals. This makes them notoriously difficult to catch. When pursued, they will throw their ‘human’ voices and emit misleading cries such as “Over there!” or, “He’s this way!”

Over the years, cowboys discovered that the best way to catch a jackalope was to use a bottle of whiskey as bait. It seems the animals can’t resist the potent beverage.
Today, jackalope items can be seen in gift shops all over the west. From postcards, to t-shirts and statues, to mounted jackalope heads.

The creature is celebrated in Wyoming, especially in Douglas, the proclaimed “Home of the Jackalope” where the annual “Jackalope Days” are held each June.

Zoologist Karl Shuker did an excellent piece on European horned hares on his ShukerNature blog, linked below.

Horned hares, mythical jackalopes and the tall tales of early America have given the west its crazy icon, and let’s face it; it’s a lot more believable than a giant rabbit delivering chicken eggs on Easter!

Karl Shuker on Horned Hares:

Douglas, WY Jackalope Days:

1 comment:

  1. Love the info in this post! I can remember seeing taxidermy-ed jackalope most all of my life! :o)