Are Jackalopes Really Roaming the State of Wyoming?

By: Mark Mancini  | 

jackalope
Legend says jackalopes have nice tenor voices and can be heard singing in the wilderness from time to time. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Every few years, the Wyoming Legislature debates a hot-button issue: Should the jackalope — a kind of made-up jackrabbit with antlers — be recognized as the state's official mythical creature?

In 2015, the House of Representatives in Cheyenne passed a bill that would bestow this honor upon the fabled beast. But it died in the state Senate. Earlier attempts to pass the bill met the same roadblock.

Who knows? Maybe someday, the hopping horned critter will finally jump across that legislative finish line. And if it doesn't, at least there's still the Jackalope Days Festival.

A summer shindig held in Douglas, Wyoming, every June, the fest gives tourists a perfect excuse to come and gawk at all the antlered lagomorph statues populating the city's downtown area. You couldn't miss Douglas if you tried; there's a 13-foot (3.9-meter) jackalope statue greeting motorists at the city's exit on Interstate 25.

Over in Mount Rushmore country, we find another giant jackalope (complete with a saddle!) at South Dakota's famous Wall Drug attraction.

That's to say nothing of all the stuffed "jackalope heads" mounted on walls at diners and souvenir stores across the western United States. One of these was given to then-President Ronald Reagan at a 1986 campaign stop in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The all-American jackalope is considered the brainchild of taxidermist Douglas Herrick. Pull up a chair and we'll tell you the story.

largest jackalope
This 13-foot jackalope greets motorists at on Interstate 25 near Douglas, Wyoming.
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Getting a Head

Douglas Herrick was born just north of Douglas, Wyoming, on July 8, 1920. He served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. This was followed by a long career as a pipefitter and welder for Amoco Refinery.

An avid hunter, Herrick studied taxidermy as a teenager. So did his brother, Ralph Herrick. The family had its very own taxidermy shop — which is where Wyoming's favorite fictional animal got its start.

Varying accounts say the jackalope was created sometime in 1932, 1934, 1939 or 1940. Supposedly, its birth was a happy accident.

One day, the Herrick brothers — fresh from a hunt — brought a dead jackrabbit into their shop. The carcass was placed (or possibly thrown) next to a set of antlers that had been lying on the floor.

Seeing those things together gave Douglas an idea. As Ralph told The New York Times in 1977 "Doug said, 'Let's mount it the way it is.'"

Plate XLVII of Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia (Terra) by Joris Hoefnagel, circa 1575, showing a "horned hare"
"Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia" (A Hare, "Jackalope," a Rabbit, and a Spotted Squirrel) by Joris Hoefnagel, circa 1575, shows what appears to be a horned hare.
National Gallery of Art Washington/Wikimedia/(CC BY 2.0)

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Leaps and Bounds

"I think that it was kind of a joke. A lot of taxidermists fool around," recounted Mike Herrick (Douglas' son) in a 2003 exchange with the Casper Star-Tribune. "But he didn't know they would get so popular. I know he didn't know."

Roy Ball of Douglas, Wyoming, bought the original mounted jackalope off the Herricks for $10. After being displayed at a hotel Ball owned, the stuffed masterpiece was stolen in 1977. The thief was never caught.

Yet the jackalope business was just getting started.

The Herrick family produced and sold tens of thousands of these furry Franken-beasts, affixing deer or pronghorn antlers to jackrabbit heads.

Wall Drug became a major distributor. When Douglas died in 2003, The New York Times reported that Ralph's son, Jim, was delivering "400 jackalopes to Wall Drug in South Dakota three times a year, a small portion of his total production."

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Open Season

Seeing mounted "dead" jackalopes inspired people to start making up stories about the "live" ones. Some of those tales get pretty tall.

For example, jackalopes are said to be quite musical. They supposedly have nice tenor voices and can be heard singing in the wilderness from time to time. Rumor has it the animals like cowboy campfire songs; if you start one up, they'll happily join the chorus from afar.

Good luck getting Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster to do that.

Another story claims a member of the Herrick family saw a real, live jackalope around Buffalo, Wyoming, in 1920. However, Ralph denied this.

These silly tales have only enhanced the jackalope's real-world impact.

Since the late 1940s, the Chamber of Commerce in Douglas, Wyoming, has issued jackalope hunting licenses. Carriers are allowed to "hunt, pursue, trap or otherwise take one (1) pronghorn jackalope within the lawful boundaries of Converse County, Wyoming, on June 31 between sunrise and sunset only." We're not sure if anyone has ever succeeded in their pursuit of the hunt, however.

Shope papilloma virus
Rabbits and hares, like this one, can become afflicted with papilloma virus (CRPV), or Shope papilloma virus. It causes keratinous carcinomas, typically on or near the animal's head, that can sometimes look like antlers.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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Hare-Raising

Things just get sillier from here. On May 15, 1985, Wyoming Gov. Ed Herschler signed a proclamation recognizing Douglas, Wyoming, as the "Home of the Jackalope."

As if the festival, the statues, the hunting licenses and the historic ties to both Roy Ball and the Herrick family weren't enough, the good people of Douglas have put jackalopes on everything from their park benches to city fire trucks.

The creatures also look great on t-shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers. But here's something a lot harder on the eyes: Shope papilloma virus.

Related to HPV, this affliction actually does cause rabbits and hares to develop horn-like tumors. If the cancerous masses grow on or around their mouths, they can hinder the animals' ability to eat and they can die from starvation.

Obviously, there's no such thing as a jackalope. Yet we do have historical descriptions of rabbits or hares with antlers and horns that date back to the 17th century — and even earlier. The virus could explain some of those sightings.

Now we'd hate to leave you on such a depressing note. So for a good laugh, head over to the City of Douglas' jackalope hunting license webpage. You'll find a detailed, tongue-in-cheek "natural history" of the modern variant's extinct cousin.

Of course, we're talking about the legendary saber tooth jackalope. They say its singing voice "contained the hint of a French accent."

Sacré bleu!

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