As you read this blog post, I will be traveling through the American west. (It doesn’t matter if you read this ten years after the post date. Every American is in a constant state of traveling through the west, emotionally speaking.) But my travels have revealed an embarrassing gap in my knowledge.
It happened like this: I was at the gift shop for Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It was a very cool park. But that’s not the point — at the gift shop, something caught my eye. Nestled between the stuffed toys shaped like snakes, bats, and other local wildlife was a stuffed jackalope.
A jackalope, for those of you who have not seen the Pixar short leading into The Incredibles, is a jackrabbit with antlers.
I looked at the stuffed toy. I looked around the gift shop. I looked back at the toy.
Could the jackalope be a real animal?
Just the idea of it is absurd. How could a rabbit grow antlers? How would that even work, biologically speaking?
No. Something so ridiculous couldn’t possibly exist.
A hint of doubt lingered. So I did what any college-educated citizen would: I went to Google.
As Wikipedia puts it:
The jackalope is a mythical animal of North American folklore (a so-called fearsome critter) described as a jackrabbit withantelope horns. The word “jackalope” is aportmanteau of “jackrabbit” and “antelope”, although the jackrabbit is not a rabbit, and the American antelope is not an antelope.
Yes — real or otherwise, Americans can’t name animals for shit.
For the curious, rabbits (or bunnies) are typically born hairless and nurtured in burrows, while hares are born more fully developed to handle the harsher conditions above ground. As for the so-called American antelope? They’re more closely related to giraffes than to real antelopes. The difference is their horns: American antelopes are also called pronghorns because their horns branch like a deer’s — unlike the real antelope, whose horns come to a single point like a goat’s.
But back to the jackalope.
Poorly named though they may be, their existence is even more poorly documented. They’re cryptids, or legendary animals that have not been scientifically proven to exist. You know — Bigfoot. Nessie. A few cryptids have turned out to be real animals that simply had not yet been documented by science, but most remain the stuff of legend and hearsay. Such is the case with our furry antlered friend.
So where did the legend come from?
The American story of the jackalope began in the 1930s. A taxidermist named Douglas Herrick decided to graft some deer’s antlers onto a rabbit. He sold his outlandish creation to a nearby hotel, and from there the jackalope — and Mr. Herrick — hit it big. The creatures spread across the west, multiplying like, well, rabbits.
Jackalope lore gets wild pretty quickly. If antlered rabbits aren’t already strange enough for you, there are the ranchers’ reports that jackalopes can mimic human speech. And while the taxidermied jackalope heads mounted around the west are the size of a normal rabbit, some illustrations portrayed jackalopes the size of a horse. Ranchers could ride them, you see, and even use them to help herd cattle.
As iconic as the jackalope has become in the western US, the land of stetsons and cowboy boots is not the only home to antlered rabbits. Northern and central European folklore describes creatures that sound an awful lot like our furry American friends.
Bavaria has a similar taxidermy mash-up tradition centered around a creature called a wolpertinger. These usually have deer’s antlers and at least some rabbit parts on them somewhere, though let’s just say the Germans have been especially creative with their Frankenbunnies. Oh, and let’s not forget their wings. Why not, right?
Sweden hosts a similar cryptid as well — another creative taxidermy project. However, the skvader has more in common with the wolpertinger than the jackalope, as it is a cross between a rabbit and a bird which does not necessarily have antlers.
Clearly, taxidermy enthusiasts had some fun in the early twentieth century. But could there be something more to the jackalope and its cousins?
As a matter of fact, science has turned up an explanation for rabbits with antlers — or something like them. A cancerous growth caused by the Shope papilloma virus, related to HPV in humans, can manifest itself as hard, horn-like growths around a rabbit’s head and face. It’s typically not malignant, but protrusions around a rabbit’s mouth can make it difficult or impossible to eat.
So, while the jackalope’s popularity came from a taxidermy hoax, some of the stories may be based on a real natural phenomenon. It could also explain why these horned rabbit cryptids appear across multiple cultures and continents.
In the end, I did not end up buying that little plush jackalope. But, thanks to a bit of research, I feel like less of a dope for wondering if those fabled rabbits are really out there.