Jackalopes!

Monster rabbits with antlers? A fearless writer stalks the myth in Wyoming.

Jackalope

An eight-foot-tall jackalope statue stands in Douglas, Wyo.

Jackalope

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“There are two species of jackalope,” Helga Bull explains to me with exquisite patience. “The mountain jackalope and the plains jackalope.One has antlers and the other has horns. Of course, the female jackalope has neither. And that’s what most people see when driving around Wyoming.”

I nod and take a few notes. I actually hadn’t known there were two species. And I hadn’t given much thought to jackalope gender. In fact, I thought the jackalope was pretty much extinct—that it had been killed off by Photoshop and a generation all too familiar with fanciful depictions of the improbable and bizarre. I figured the jackalope had gone the way of Hicken’s fur-bearing trout and the Chevrolet-size potato loaded on a flatbed. If so, that news has not reached Douglas, Wyo.

“They call me the jackalope lady,” Helga tells me. This does not come as a complete surprise. In and around her office are mounted jackalope heads, jackalope lapel pins, and jackalope hunting licenses. The car in the parking lot with the jackalope bobblehead in its rear window? That’s Helga’s.

Helga is executive director of the chamber of commerce in Douglas (population 5,288), which sits in the middle of windswept coal, oil, and ranching country 130 miles north of Cheyenne. But it’s really a one-industry town, and that industry is the jackalope. The critter appears on official municipalvehicles and on official town documents. More than two decades ago the governor officially declared Douglas “Home of the Jackalope.”

By most accounts, the jackalope was invented here in the 1930s by a teenage taxidermist named Douglas Herrick. After a day out hunting with his brother, Herrick laid some jackrabbits he’d retrieved near a pair of antlers in his garage and wondered what a stuffed jackrabbit with antlers would look like. So he made one. People were intrigued with the result—very intrigued.

The jackalope took on a life of its own. Herrick made more, and others copied him. The jackalope began appearing at souvenir stands all through the West. Legends grew up around it. The jackalope, it was said, could mimic human voices; at night cowboys on the range would be startled to hear their songs sung back to them. The jackalope was preternaturally aggressive and came to be called “the warrior rabbit.”

At the Converse County Library, I reviewed some rare jackalope-related documents—most notably, a 1982 menu from Clementine’s Restaurant. From this I learned that the present-day jackalope was actually related to a far larger (now extinct) breed, which weighed as much as 150 pounds.

“Once the giant lepus tasted human blood, it would become a rogue and virtually fearless,” I read in an account printed next to a list of appetizers. “Normally, the jackalopes would roam together in groups of ten or fifteen (a group of jackalope is referred to as a ‘Committee’) but the rogue would become unsocial and strike out on its own.” These loners were known to attack “homesteads and small wagon trains.”

At the Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum, Director Arlene Ekland-Earnst showed me a painting of a jackalope rendezvous. In it, hundreds of the furry creatures cavort on a riverside bluff, gazing about with their puzzled stares. I found it every bit as captivating as a picture of poker-playing dogs. “The artist had quite an imagination,” I said. “Yes,” agreed Arlene. “The hills of Wyoming are never that green.”

Wondering if any Herricks were still in town, I flipped through the phone book and found a Jim Herrick in the business listings. And this was interesting: His business was taxidermy.

I called his house and got his wife, Bobbi. She told me the jackalope’s inventor was Jim’s uncle. I asked if he ever got any requests to make jackalopes these days. “Oh, Lord,” she said, choking slightly. “He makes about 2,000 a year.”

Ten minutes later, I pulled up to his studio. Inside, Jim was fresh at work on a bear mount. When I say fresh—well, let’s just say we didn’t shake hands. His business card depicts a crazed jackalope attacking a hunter and reads, specializing in jackalopes.

Several jackalope heads were mounted to the wall on red cedar plaques. When he’s in jackalope-making mode, Jim turns out 20 at a time. He sells them through eBay, gift shops, and the Douglas Area Chamber of Commerce, where you can take one home for $80. I asked why he thought the jackalope was still going strong. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just hope people keep buying them.”

Jim cut our chat short, saying that he wasn’t allowed to talk much about the jackalope—something involving an entertainment agent trying to work out a possible animation deal with a California company associated with a mouse.

On my way out of town I stopped by the gift shop at the Plains Motel and Restaurant to pick up some souvenirs, including a box of “jackalope egg” bubble gum. I asked the cashier if she was tired of the jackalope. She told me that most people in Douglas were pretty well over it. But then she smiled a crooked smile and said that once or twice a year she manages to convince passing tourists that jackalopes actually do exist. “I like that,” she said.

So do I. Because as long as at least one person believes, the jackalope will have dodged extinction one more day.

Photography by John Elk III

This article was first published in July 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

CRITTER COUNTERPARTS

SKVADER This Swedish hybrid possesses the head and legs of a hare, like its jackalope cousin, but with the torso and wings of a wood grouse. Its legend grew out of a late-19th-century hunting story in which Håkan Dahlmark jokingly claimed to have shot one of these animals near the city of Sundsvall. Today, you can view a stuffed specimen at the local Skvaderboden museum.

WOLPERTINGER Germany’s answer to the jackalope sports wings and fangs. It can possess the body of squirrel or the webbed feet of a duck. Kitschy versions of this odd beast exist in the gift shops of its native Bavaria.

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