Mythical beast of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains combining a jackrabbit’s body
with deer spike antlers or antelope horns. The jackalope is a favorite subject for picture
postcards and, in its mounted state, as a taxidermist’s joke, it is often found on barroom,
filling station, or cafe walls in the Mountain-Plains region.
The origins of the American jackalope tradition are obscure, although much of the
initial activity seems to have centered in Wyoming. The National Jackalope Society,
based in Sheridan, sells jackalope hunting licenses and bumper stickers. Douglas, which
boasts a large jackalope statue, bills itself as the “Home of the Jackalope,” largely
because two local taxidermists, Doug and Ralph Herrick, began to make and sell
jackalopes in the 1930s. One of the earliest reports of a mounted jackalope is from a store
in Buffalo, Wyoming, in the early 1920s. Legend credits the first sighting of a jackalope
to mountain man Roy Ball, back in 1829.
The American jackalope is not unique; tales of horned rabbits have been collected in
Afirica, Mexico, and Central America, where a Mayan legend recounts how the god
Chinax felt pity for the rabbit, who had been created with horns but had lost them to the
trickster deer. In compensation the god stretched the rabbit’s ears so that it could hear its
enemies coming and enlarged its hind legs so that it could outrun them.
In Europe the wolpertinger, said to have been among the animals in Hannibal’s
menagerie, has long been a staple of Bavarian folklore. This creature, purportedly a
member of the marten family, often has a rabbit or a weasel body with hog tusks, bird
fore feet and rabbit hind feet, hawk wings, fox tail, deer antlers, and a coxcomb in the
forehead. Saliva from the wolpertinger is said to stimulate hair growth, while impotence
can be cured by sipping nectar through a wolpertinger’s shankbone, then urinating across
a stream against the current. Similar in appearance to the wolpertinger, the French dahu
is often the prey in a practical joke, similar to an American snipe hunt, in which a
credulous youth is taken into the woods on a winter night with a lantern, a sack, and a
baton while his companions ostensibly go off to drive the dahu toward him but in reality
repair to the nearest tavern.
Jackalopes are said to be extremely shy, but when stirred to anger they will charge
viciously (at speeds in excess of 65 miles per hour) and can be brought down only with a
buffalo gun. The warrior rabbit of Nebraska and South Dakota has pheasant wings and
tail, in addition to horns. In the Southwest, the beast is often termed an “antelabbit,”
while in the North Woods it is called the “Jack-pine Jackelope.” Jackalopes can mimic
the human voice, early reports mentioning a French accent. They usually sing at night
during thunderstorms, often echoing the songs of night-herding cowboys. Jackalopes
mate only during flashes of lightning, and their milk, like patent medicine, is said to cure
a host of afflictions.
Despite its fabulous nature, there is a basis in fact for the jackalope. A viral infection,
Shope’s papillomas, causes warty skin growths on cottontail rabbits. These growths, physiologically similar to the outer sheath of the horn of a pronghorn antelope,
sometimes resemble horns.
Dance, Peter. 1975. Animal Fakes and Frauds. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Sampson Low, pp. 114–
Dorson, Richard M. 1982. Man and Beast in American Comic Legend. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, pp. 50–54.
Kirein, Peter. 1968. Der Wolpertinger Lebt. Munich: Karl M.Lipp.