The legend of the horned rabbit of the West

Jackalopes have migrated from Wyoming across the nation, but what’s really known about the mythical creature?

One day young Doug and Ralph Herrick went out roaming the green hills, hunting for small game to supplement the family supper. Having bagged a jackrabbit, the brothers returned home and tossed the hare’s body onto the floor of their shop in preparation for skinning it. Because they had recently butchered a small deer in the shop, a modest pair of antlers already rested on the floor. By a sheer coincidence that would change the boys’ lives forever, the dead rabbit happened to slide up against the deer’s horns so as to make it appear the jackrabbit sported the rack. There must then have been a long pause, during which the boys stared at the accidental amalgam, wondering what to make of it. Then big brother Doug, in a moment of inspiration, exclaimed, “Let’s mount that thing!” 


Postcards are among the oldest and most popular items of jackalope memorabilia. This vintage card, circa late 1940s, came from the studios of photographer Harold Sanborn. It was immensely popular, with at least 17,000 copies made over the life of the negative.
Courtesy of John Meissner, Sanborn Research Centre and Estes Park Archives. Photo by Kyle Weerheim.

According to Ralph, that was in 1932 — though other sources claim 1934, 1936, 1938, 1939, even 1940. If Ralph’s memory was correct, he and his brother Doug would have been only about 10 and 12 years old, respectively, when they invented the horned rabbit mount. It must have seemed a modest accomplishment, especially for boys who had perhaps not yet received certificates for completing their mail-order taxidermy lessons. When the brothers sold that now-legendary first antlered bunny for the princely sum of $10 to Roy Ball, who displayed it on the wall of the bar in his Hotel LaBonte (pronounced “La-bon-tee”) in nearby Douglas, the newly created hybrid animal must have seemed to them miraculous. Using only their imagination, sense of humor, and rudimentary skills as amateur taxidermists, the Herrick boys had created something new: a hybrid animal that would go on to become the most famous, beloved and profitable taxidermy hoax in the world. That humble Herrick homestead, out there on the limitless, rolling Wyoming prairie, was the birthplace of the jackalope.

During the 1980s, northern California cartoonist R. L. Crabb created Junior Jackalope, a sly, politically progressive character who was the hero of the Junior Jackalope and Tales of the Jackalope comic book series.
Cover of Tales of the Jackalope #4 (1986), Blackthorne Publishing. Courtesy of R. L. Crabb. Photo by Kyle Weerheim.

By my rough estimation, there are at least 1 million jackalope mounts in existence, many of which keep watch over local bars, tourist traps, junk shops, greasy spoon diners and dimly lit pool halls. Once rare, the jackalope migrated from Wyoming throughout the West and then across the nation. Antlered bunnies now adorn the walls of watering holes from Los Angeles to Seattle, Dallas to New York. And while the horned rabbit is unalloyed Americana — a genuine artifact of this country’s folk culture — the mythical beast has also made its way across the oceans and around the world. What’s more, the iconic jackalope mount is just the tip of the iceberg of kitsch the Herrick brothers’ invention has inspired. This hoax bunny has spawned not only an endless body of comic lore, but also a thriving cottage industry worth millions — one tacky T-shirt, key chain and postcard at a time. The Herricks’ hoax has long since outgrown the gift shop and is now widely celebrated in storytelling, literature, folklore, visual art, music, film, TV, video games — and plenty more, as I was reminded the other day when I spotted a whimsical jackalope tattoo gracing the shoulder of a young woman hoisting a pint of hazy IPA at Great Basin Brewery, my local pub in Reno, Nevada.

The jackalope is an oddball even among oddballs. Despite the animal’s legendary moniker—a portmanteau of jackrabbit and antelope — the jackalope is often made from the head of a cottontail rather than a jackrabbit, and mounts are rarely fabricated using the horns of a pronghorn antelope, the wider availability of deer antlers making them the preferred choice. To complicate matters, the jackrabbit (genus Lepus) is not a rabbit but rather a hare, while the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) is not an antelope but instead an artiodactyl ungulate indigenous to North America — the sole survivor of a dozen fantastic Antilocaprid species, which, before the sweeping wave of Pleistocene extinctions broke over them, roamed the territory now inhabited by jackalopes. But when you’re inventing an animal, the sound and feel of the name count for more than its taxonomic precision. “Cottonamuledeer” just doesn’t have much of a ring to it. 

While the horned rabbit is unalloyed Americana — a genuine artifact of this country’s folk culture — the mythical beast has also made its way across the oceans and around the world. 

European Renaissance naturalists depicted Lepus cornutus, the horned hare, which they believed to be a distinct species. Flemish manuscript illuminator Joris Hoefnagel illustrated this horned rabbit situated between a normal rabbit (on the right) and a rabbit patterned after Albrecht Dürer’s 1502 watercolor Young Hare (on the left). Plate 47, Animalia Quadrupedia et Reptilia (Terra), circa 1575–1580.
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art. Gift of Miss Lessing J. Rosenwald, accession number 1987.20.6.48.

MANY FANTASTIC AND CONTRADICTORY tales are told of the jackalope. To begin with, various sources cite the animal’s name as jackalope, jackelope, jackaloupe, jackalop, jack hare, jacka rabbit, saber-toothed jack, razor jack, bristled hare, deer hare, thistle hare, lion rabbit, antelabbit, deerbunny, stagbunny, sarabideer, boop-oop-o-doopdeer, whatizzitt, and warrior rabbit. At birth, jackalopes are called “bunnies,” unless they are called “jackalopeenies” or “leverets.” Later in life they are called “calves,” or, in other stories, “spikes.” Adult males are usually called “jakes,” while adult females are “does.” A group of jackalopes may be called a “band,” “pack,” “jump,” “flagerdoot,” or, as Helga Bull would have it, “committee.” No two stories represent this information in quite the same way, and there is not even consensus about whether the plural of “jackalope” is “jackalope” (as with “deer”), “jackalopes” (as with “bears”), or jackalopei (as with “hippopotami”).

Among the most ancient of jackalope precursors is Al-Mi’raj, described by thirteenth-century Persian naturalist Abu Yahya Zakariya’ ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini in his geographical encyclopedia, ʿAjā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt (Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing). Originally published circa 1280.
From the updated manuscript in the Bavarian State Library, published 1750–70. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Stories indicate that this unusual animal resulted from a cross between a jackrabbit and a pronghorn. Or a hare and a mule deer. Or an antelope jackrabbit and a whitetail deer. Or a jackrabbit and a now-extinct pygmy deer, desert deer or Spanish deer. The initial cross-species mating may have been produced by two animals trapped together in a cave during a storm, though other accounts abound. One story claims that the rabbit’s odd horns are the product of a genetic mutation that occurred approximately 30 million years ago. Jackalopes certainly do have antlers (in some stories, true horns), though relatively little is known about them. Some say the jackalope is the only animal that sheds only one antler until it has fully grown a replacement, after which it sheds the other. This may also be why a jackalope, ever wary, is said to enter its den walking backwards in order to use those horns to protect itself against predators.

“The loss of the giant jackalope has had many positive effects on the areas they once roamed.”

How large is a jackalope? That, too, depends on who you ask. In his Field Guide to the North American Jackalope, Andy Robbins has the various subspecies weighing in at anywhere from one to 10 pounds. In his weirdly exhaustive booklet Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Jackalope, Bill Alexander claims the animal weighs up to 60 pounds, “about the size of a medium dog” (sic). Stories are often told of a now-extinct Sabretooth Jack, which weighed up to 150 pounds and was ferocious, especially when it was separated from its committee and thus went rogue. The demise of this immense jackalope is variously attributed to the hard winters of the 1880s, loss of habitat due to agricultural expansion, and depletion of the mammoth jackalope’s main prey, the American bison. In any case, the Douglas Chamber of Commerce informs us, “The loss of the giant jackalope has had many positive effects on the areas they once roamed. The buffalo has begun a comeback, barbwire fences and windmills are now safe, and women have obtained the right to vote.”

President Ronald Reagan displayed a buck-and-doe jackalope shoulder mount in his Rancho Del Cielo home in Goleta, California. In this photo, taken on November 25, 1987, Reagan tries to pull one over on National Security Advisor Colin Powell, whose laughter shows that he knows better.
Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library, image C43826-25.

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. Even basic facts about the hybrid bunny remain in dispute. For example, you may wonder how fast a jackalope can run. Forty miles per hour seems to be about as low as any storyteller is willing to go, and many sources land in the 50-60 mph range. My favorite answer is that the jackalope runs 90 mph because it is a hybrid of the jackrabbit, which can do 30 mph, and the pronghorn, which can sprint an astounding 60 mph. Thirty plus 60 equals 90. Simple math! On the other hand, some maintain that the animal is so adept at camouflage that it can render itself invisible and thus rarely needs to employ its speed, however extraordinary that speed might be.

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. Plus, 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.

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. But there can be no question about the jackalope’s fondness for whiskey — a trait universally acknowledged in the folklore surrounding the animal. 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.

Seventeenth-century Flemish painters Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens collaborated on the exquisite painting The Virgin and Child in a Painting surrounded by Fruit and Flowers, for which Brueghel painted the settings, garlands, and animals, while Rubens created the human and angelic figures. Note the horned rabbit depicted in the foreground right. Circa 1617–20. Oil painting with panel support.
Image courtesy of the Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Inventory no. P001418.

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 cellphone ringtone in order to distract him. 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.

An adult male cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus mearnsii) from Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas, with growths caused by an extreme case of Shope papillomavirus, from 1989. Specimen on deposit at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, Lawrence, Kansas.
Courtesy of Heather A. York.
“Its existence, while improbable, is not impossible, but it follows that the extinction of such a creature is likewise unprovable, unverifiable, unfalsifiable.”

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 Bill Alexander claims, that the jackalope “can also read minds, and some experts agree that they possess a certain ESP capability”? Is Bruce Larkin correct when he asserts, in his pamphlet 50 Facts about Jackalopes, that jackalope saliva may be used to create waterproof ink, or that jackalopes sometimes snore loudly, or that “most serious Yeti trackers prefer to use specially trained jackalopes rather than bloodhounds”? Clearly, a great deal of further field research is necessary before we can develop a complete understanding of the elusive jackalope. 

Despite many lingering questions, the impressive welter of details storytellers have offered about the horned rabbit makes it perfectly clear that the jackalope exists, even if its numbers have been severely depleted since the 19th 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. In Cenotaph of the Jackalope, Hermes Trismegistus “Hermester” Barrington helps us to think through this vexing question. “Its 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 imaginations hold out.

A noted roadside attraction and undoubtedly the world’s most famous emporium for jackalope kitsch, South Dakota’s Wall Drug sells jackalope T-shirts, key chains, postcards, shot glasses, and shoulder mounts by the dozen.
Courtesy of Sarah Hustead. Photo by the author.

Excerpted from On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captured the World's Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer. Copyright 2022, used with permission from Pegasus Books.

Michael P. Branch is Foundation Professor and a professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. A humorist and writer of place-based nonfiction about the West, he is the author of ten books and more than 300 essays and reviews. Learn more about his work.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.