EDITOR’S NOTE: The return of our Western Lit feature, spotlighting local authors and new books of local interest, begins with the story of a mythical beast that has some real-world implications.
Purported to be part jackrabbit and part antelope, the jackalope began as a local joke concocted by two young brothers in a small Wyoming town during the Great Depression. Their creation quickly spread around the U.S., where it now regularly appears as innumerable forms of kitsch—wall mounts, postcards, keychains, coffee mugs, shot glasses, and so on. A vast body of folk narratives has carried the jackalope’s fame around the world to inspire art, music, film, even erotica.
Reno author Michael P. Branch takes readers on an often whimsical journey, tracing the horned bunny through prank, myth, pop culture and – literally – hard science. Although the jackalope is an invention of the imagination, it is nevertheless connected to actual horned rabbits, which exist in nature. When the virus that causes rabbits to grow “horns” (a carcinoma) was genetically sequenced in 1984, oncologists were able to use that genetic information to make remarkable, field-changing advances in the development of anti-viral cancer therapies.
Michael P. Branch is Foundation Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of 300 essays and reviews, and ten books, including “Raising Wild,” “Rants from the Hill” and “How to Cuss in Western.”
A jackalope’s tale
Excerpt from “On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captured the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer,” (Pegasus Books, March 1, 2022), by Michael P. Branch.
If there is a great deal of inconsistency in the representation of the horned rabbit, that is understandable given the rarity of the animal and the wide range of witnesses who have shared their accounts. However, there are certain facts on which nearly all storytellers agree. Chief among these is the fact that jackalopes mate only during lightning storms. This odd breeding behavior not only helps account for the animal’s rarity, but also supplies a magical origin for the species. Besides, tacky postcards depicting jackalopes rearing up on their hind legs and cavorting erotically amid shattering bolts of lightning are worth every penny of the 75 cents they’ll set you back. Also firm in jackalope lore are accounts of the jackalope doe’s milk. Most storytellers insist that, because of the jackalope’s great leaps, the milk arrives at the teat already homogenized, and I have yet to find an account that deems it either safe or easy to milk a jackalope. While it is true that the creature does often sleep belly-up, they are fierce when disturbed. It is universally agreed upon that the milk has medicinal properties, and it has been credited with curing everything from bunions to baldness. More controversial is the claim that jackalope milk is a potent aphrodisiac. While enthusiastic testimonials to its effectiveness have been presented by some storytellers, evidence for this assertion appears soft.
It is also generally understood that jackalopes can be attracted by setting out a bowl of whiskey at night. Some say a mixture of whiskey and milk is more effective, and a few jackalope hunters swear that the best bait is whiskey-soaked bologna. Older lore holds that, once inebriated, a jackalope believes it can catch bullets in its teeth, and is thus made the hunter’s prey. Most hunters agree it is dangerous to hunt jackalopes, and it’s said that homesteaders once wore a length of stovepipe on each leg to protect against attacks.
It is illegal to hunt jackalopes without a license, but licenses are issued with covenants and restrictions that vary by state. Most familiar is the authorization I myself carry while tracking jackalopes: the Converse County, Wyoming license, which, under W.S. 43-1-113, entitles the licensee to bag one jackalope on June 31st between sunrise and sunset. The South Dakota permit allows hunting from June 1 to October 31, but only at elevations above 5,000 feet, and only “between the hours of midnight and 3:00 a.m., during the three nights prior to the full moon.” It is not uncommon for jackalope hunting licenses to have an IQ requirement; typically, the hunter must display an IQ above 50 but not greater than 72. It is considered unsportsmanlike (and, in some states, illegal) to attract the animal by imitating its mating call using a kazoo.
Arguably the most significant behavioral characteristic of the jackalope is its celebrated ability to sing, and also to “throw” its voice so as to deceive predators (including human hunters)—the only known example of ventriloquism in the animal kingdom. Many cowboys and campers have told the story of sitting around the campfire at night, crooning a ballad, only to hear the jackalope join in, often in sweet harmony with the song’s melody. Most accounts specify that the jackalope sings in treble, though a few less credible tale tellers claim to have heard jackalopes belting out the bass part. Storytellers also agree that the jackalope has the remarkable gift of imitating sounds, including those of coyotes, owls, meadowlarks, and even chainsaws.
One experienced hunter swears the jackalope is capable of imitating the sound of the hunter’s cell phone ringtone in order to distract them. Most common, though, are reports that the animal has the remarkable ability to make its voice sound as if it is coming from somewhere else.
This defensive tactic is used when the jackalope is being pursued by a hunter, in which case the animal will often cry out “There he goes, over there!” in order to throw the hunter off his trail. I will add that the jackalope’s use of human language as a deceptive tactic gives the lie to those who argue that the animal only mimics our language without understanding its meaning.
It is of course true that myriad questions about the mysterious horned rabbit remain unanswered—questions about its social biology, predation, seasonal migration, distribution, population dynamics, and the like. For example, experts will tell you that jackalopes have keen eyesight, acute hearing, an excellent sense of smell, and an uncanny ability to evade capture. But is it true, as some have claimed, that the jackalope has the ability to read minds? Or, that jackalope saliva may be used to create waterproof ink? Or that jackalopes sometimes snore loudly? Or that Yeti trackers have given up using bloodhounds in favor of packs of trained jackalopes? Clearly, a great deal of further field research is necessary before we can develop a complete understanding of this elusive creature.
Despite many lingering questions, the impressive welter of details storytellers have offered about the horned rabbit makes perfectly clear that the jackalope exists, even if its numbers have been severely depleted since the nineteenth century, when enormous herds of jackalopes roamed the Great Plains. Having researched the question for many years, I vehemently disagree with those who maintain that the jackalope, though now a staple of American folklore, has been driven to extinction. As one horned rabbit aficionado writes, “The jackalope’s existence, while improbable, is not impossible, but it follows that the extinction of such a creature is likewise unprovable, unverifiable, unfalsifiable.”
This is the same impenetrable logic that has kept Bigfoot and Nessie alive for so long: they must exist because there is no definitive proof that they do not. And that sort of existence is the native province of tall tale tellers, whose colorful yarns will keep the horned rabbit alive just as long as their imagination holds out.
Excerpted from “On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captures the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer” by Michael P. Branch. Published by Pegasus Books. © Michael P. Branch. Reprinted with permission.