Today in Tedium: In the world of taxidermy, I’m sure it’s extremely easy to combine the parts of one animal with another. I know nothing about how taxidermy works, but I’m sure if I had two animals hanging around, combining them for humorous effect might pass my mind. Laugh all you want, but this was literally what someone did in the late 1930s, and an entire town promoted in the 1950s. Somehow, real things have a fun way of turning into legends—and that’s, perhaps, why the jackalope is a thing. Today’s Tedium ponders the jackalope, and finds more to the myth than we bargained for. — Ernie @ Tedium
The year that Wyoming proclaimed that the state is “The Home of the Jackalope,” an honor that has given it a degree of novelty in the years since. The state’s history with the jackalope doesn’t start with myth so much as an amusing observation.
The accidental cryptid: The man (and town) that turned the jackalope into a phenomenon
Where did the jackalope come from? (If you answered Dave Coulier, early 1990s, on America’s Funniest People, sit down.)
As with many cryptids, there are myths, and there are legends. But then there’s the jackalope, which seems to have built its reputation on the back of a real guy with a taxidermy business who noticed something funny one time involving a rabbit and a set of antlers.
The year isn’t exactly clear—some reports say it was 1932, 1934, or 1939—but the rough tale goes like this: One day in Wyoming, hunters and taxidermists Ralph and Doug Herrick came home from a hunt with a jackrabbit, which they placed on the floor next to a pair of deer antlers.
It created an amusing image that Doug thought could make a funny hunting trophy. According to his brother, per a 1977 Casper Star-Tribune article, Doug said: “Let’s mount it the way it is!”
And so they did. A rabbit with deer antlers was what started hanging from the walls in Douglas, Wyoming around that time.
Soon, word spread of this unusual creature, which found itself visiting even more walls, with the most prominent wall being Wall Drug in South Dakota, which took these things by the truckload. These pseudo-animals gradually became a point of pride for the town of Douglas, which offered jackalope hunting licenses, then the state of Wyoming. The state trademarked the name, then, in 1985, declared the state the “Home of the Jackalope.”
As amusing nicknames go, I guess you could do worse.
The estimated number of mounted jackalopes that exist, according to author Michael P. Branch, who wrote an in-depth book about the jackalope legend last year titled On the Trail of the Jackalope. “Once rare, the jackalope migrated from Wyoming throughout the West and then across the nation,” he wrote. “Antlered bunnies now adore the walls of watering holes from Los Angeles to Seattle, Dallas to New York.”
There has to be more to the jackalope tale than that, right?
For a cryptid, it sure sounds like a pretty cut-and-dry origin story, doesn’t it? A couple of taxidermists putting two-and-two together doesn’t seem to have the heft of, say, Bigfoot.
But looking into literature seems to suggest that, if Doug Herrick gave it a context, there was a lot of interesting historic precedent just hanging around, ready to go in case someone wanted to put two and two together.
For centuries, jackalopes were mentioned or illustrated in a variety of literary settings, usually under the name “horned hare” or “lepus cornutus.” This legend emerged starting in the 16th century, with Dutch illustrator Joris Hoefnagel’s Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia including one such horned hare in an illustration dating to roughly 1575. (It’s surrounded by other unhorned rabbits.)
Branch points to a number of other illustrations of horned hares throughout history, including engraver Antonio Tempesta, who includes one in a book that is otherwise filled with accurate images of wildlife, and Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner, who described the animal in his groundbreaking book Historiae animalium. (The skull of a horned hare was illustrated in a German translation of the book.)
For centuries, these rabbits with horns often filled books, suggesting that the cryptid was either widespread … or people were actually seeing them in the wild.
Clearly, lots of people knew of these things. The illustrations were pretty common, even if the animal with horns was uncommon enough to sow doubt … at least in some parts of the world.
But some parts of the world does not include the state of Kansas, particularly in the late 19th century. A search of Newspapers.com for the words “rabbit” and “horns” between the years 1880 and 1900 shows 12,100 results in Kansas, by far the most in the continental United States, with the second-most coming from nearby Nebraska. (Wyoming, despite being the “Home of the Jackalope,” had just 200 mentions during the same period.) Other states mentioning horned rabbits appeared to be highlighting the horned hares out of Kansas, though examples of horned hares appeared to emerge as far east as Ohio.
One newspaper brief highlights what Kansans were apparently up against:
While out gunning one day last week Charlie Parks killed a quadruped, which in appearance and size, resembled a rabbit. In fact, at the time he thought it was a rabbit, but upon examination found two horns at the but of each ear, about two inches in length; and of bone firmly set to the skull. So far, he has been unable to find any one who can give any light upon the species of animals or rabbits, and asks for information from the reader of the Palladium, if any of them know, touching upon the series of quadrupeds. Who can give it?
Eventually, more than 40 years later, someone would be able to answer Charlie Parks’ question. That answer would have much deeper ramifications on the world at large than the mystery might suggest.
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Jackalope Coffee: A little adventure in your morning cup
Like a jackalope in the wild, there’s something unusual at the center of Mountain Town Coffee Roasting’s Jackalope Joe. The Ethiopian Kembata beans that they use for the roast offer a flavor note of blueberry that is subtle, but hard to miss.
A big reason for that is the way that the beans are roasted. Much effort is put into keeping the natural flavor of the bean around in the roasting process—and as a result, the distinctive smell of the raw beans, which give off a blueberry scent, are not lost in the light-medium roast they use.
It might sound like a mythical flavor—but not unlike the Jackalope, the Jackalope Joe flavor is surprisingly based in reality. And it’s also the featured drip coffee at a real coffee shop, Ellijay Coffeehouse in Ellijay, Georgia.
Want to bring some Jackalope flavor into your cup? Check out Jackalope Joe, and Mountain Town Coffee Roasting’s other cryptid-themed coffees as well.
The rabbit-borne disease that might have inspired the jackalope—and helped us solve cervical cancer
One of the most common diseases that affects people is the human papillomavirus, or HPV. The disease, known for causing warts and even creating a risk of cervical cancer, comes in numerous forms, and is transmitted through a variety of means, including sexually. Doctors generally recommend getting a vaccine to avoid it.
Yes, it’s one of the rare cancers we’ve been able to largely solve, thanks to the fact that its most notable cause is a virus.
But viral diseases aren’t often limited to one part of the animal kingdom. There’s a reason why “swine flu” and “bird flu” exist, after all. And it’s worth noting that viral diseases, when targeted at or threatening different kinds of animals, have different effects on those animals.
Now, you might be wondering, why am I telling you about HPV in a piece about the jackalope? Well, just as the papillomavirus can lead humans to have unwanted warts, the disease in a slightly different form has an unusual tendency to create ugly keratin outgrowths in rabbits. These are not bones, but from a distance—say in a forest—they might just look like antlers.
You see what I’m getting at here.
Now, we know a lot about HPV these days, and while we’re still navigating its impact on human health, we are further along in beating it outright than we are with than, say, Parkinson’s. And it’s all because a virologist decided to start looking at other parts of the animal kingdom to better understand disease.
Richard Shope, shown during his Navy career. (Wikimedia Commons)
Richard Edwin Shope, a physician and viral researcher from Iowa, actually became one of the first to discover swine flu, and in the midst of his research, he uncovered a “mad itch” that seemed to be causing trouble for cattle throughout the Midwest.
He soon tied the cow issue to a disease common to rabbits, which gradually led him to discover the papillomavirus, which was soon named for Shope.
In a biography of Shope for the National Academy of Sciences, fellow legendary virologist Christopher Andrewes (who discovered influenza A) noted that his research into rabbits was the most important work that he had done, especially after he helped to identify a specific type of fibroma common in rabbits, now called the Shope fibroma.
The Shope papillomavirus, as it came to be called, was a follow-up on his earlier research, and it attempted to figure out what the deal with those “horns” actually was.
The virologist did the research, and found that these horns that would occasionally appear were actually warts. More interesting: If a rabbit already been infected with said virus, their immunity to the disease would increase:
Cottontail rabbits shot in Iowa and Kansas frequently have horns or warts on their skins. Shope found that material from these would readily produce warts on the skins of cottontail or tame rabbits when rubbed into the shaved and lightly scarified skin. The warts usually began to appear after six to twelve days: they might regress after a time or persist indefinitely as tall, often black, horns. The warts proved to be caused by a virus that gave rise to neutralizing antibodies: recovered animals were immune to reinfection. In cottontails the warts could be passed in series without difficulty, but the warts in domestic rabbits, even though well-developed, commonly failed to be transmitted to further animals.
Now, to be clear, there is some degree of understanding that these keratin “horns” are more of a tragic side effect of a pretty annoying disease rather than something mythical. Rabbits are cute, and these horns sullied the rabbits.
And some knew the risks to rabbits before Shope ever put two and two together. After all, they had been dealing with these rabbits in Kansas for some time.
In an 1899 letter to the editor for Popular Science, Kansas farmer R.L. Glass responded to claims of horns appearing on cotton-tail rabbits by noting the nature of the disfiguring disease that caused it.
“When they grow on top of the head or between the ears, they certainly look like horns, but when they cover one eye, as they sometimes do, or one side of the mouth, or on the throat, the idea that they are horns is dispelled.”
But what Shope did surfaced a lasting and important lesson for the medical field. They now had a model for understanding how viruses could create cancerous tumors in mammals—because, after all, these abnormal growths were essentially gigantic tumors.
As medical knowledge expanded from the starting point of Shope’s work, this eventually led to the sequencing of the virus, and after its similarities to HPV were confirmed, to the creation of the HPV vaccine. To put it all another way, the jackalope, as mythical as its roots started out, is responsible for helping us defeat a dangerous disease that affects humans.
This, of course, raises the question: Should we feel better knowing that this quite common disease has never given us, y’know, “horns”? It would sure make the legend of this particular cryptid a lot more interesting, but at the same time, given its apparent association with a disease that causes cancer in humans, do we really want it to be much more interesting?
A type of mythical animal, similar to the Jackalope, dating to 19th century Germany, that was cobbled together from a variety of weird and unusual parts. As I Am Expat notes, these creations exist essentially for the same reason the modern-day jackalope does—for the amusement of taxidermists. In his book, Branch asked Dr. Anne Blaich of Deutsches Jagd-und Fischereimuseum (The German Hunting and Fishing Museum) if anyone compared the wolpertinger and the jackalope, and her answer was, essentially, that Bavarians consider themselves special, and hence, “a special animal as the wolpertinger can live only in Bavaria.”
I don’t necessarily think that the jackalope loses anything just because we kind of know how and why it emerged. Sure, it doesn’t have quite the mystery that many good cryptids do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s disappointing.
If anything, the jackalope might be the most impressive cryptid, because it changed the world for the better. It helped us to understand a disease that is a risk for millions of people, as well as millions of rabbits. And it inspired a virologist to ask important questions that required real creativity to solve.
Sure, like Dave Coulier in America’s Funniest People, we can laugh about these weird creatures now—though, if you’re not a fan of hunting, I’m sure you put together that two animals needed to die for the sake of this one wall ornament.
But if you can separate the taxidermy from the myth, and the myth from the real creature, you can find a lot to admire about it.
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Want to try some jackalope coffee out for size? Be sure to check out our sponsor for this series, Mountain Town Coffee Roasting. And keep an eye out for more cryptids on the coming months!