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Does the jackalope have a rabbit’s body but an antelope’s horns?

Dear Cecil:

I recently visited the beautiful state of New Mexico and was introduced to the legend of the wily jackalope. What is the origin of this legend, and should I stage an expedition to be the first to brave the jackalope's habitat and bring one back alive?

Fred Ellington, Atlanta

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Ah, the fabulous jackalope, with the body of a jackrabbit and the horns of an antelope. Beloved of smart-aleck taxidermists and collectors of comical postcards. The object of eager expeditions by slicks from back east (not you, Fred, you’re from Georgia). I knew just who to ask about this — Jill, longtime consultant to the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board. Jill got her BS from the University of New Mexico but undoubtedly had a lot to start with, having convinced Little Ed she was Amish (not!) twice. I felt certain that as a westerner with an affinity for tall tales she would know about the jackalope.

She did. Jill was quite the world traveler in her youth, and you know how carefully people like that consider what they want taking up space in their backpacks. What did Jill choose? Let her tell the story:

“A favorite slide I have from a trip to Thailand shows eight elderly men holding glasses of whiskey, crowded around my table in an open-fronted restaurant, leaning over my shoulder animatedly pointing and arguing about some pictures I’m showing them. One is a postcard of a trout the size of a house trailer, being hauled behind a pickup truck. The other is a picture of a jackalope. Shame on me for introducing such hogwash to our eastern brothers, but if it’s a good enough joke to play on American easterners, it’s good enough to play in southeast Asia. I like to think of myself as an ambassador of the American west wherever I go.”

When and where the jackalope legend originated is not definitely known, Jill asserts. The town of Douglas, Wyoming, claims to be the official home of the jackalope on the strength of a proclamation from the governor and the fact that a local taxidermist named Doug Herrick prepared one for exhibit in 1939. This seems a little presumptuous, though. The folks at the Natural History Museum of the University of Kansas, which has a traveling exhibit on the jackalope, say reports of horned rabbits were published in Europe as early as 1551.

At any rate, the Douglas chamber of commerce sent along a jackalope hunting license (good “on June 31st”) plus a lavishly xeroxed brochure. This included the aforementioned gubernatorial proclamation, which, in the midst of an otherwise dry recitation, noted that “an 8 ft. statue of the Jackalope … was featured in the center of Douglas from 1965 until it was the victim of an accident on Jackalope Day, May 19, 1984 …” Dying of curiosity, I called up the chamber of commerce seeking details. (“Dwayne, this trip from Atlanta searching for the wily jackalope has not been in vain. Hand me the grenade launcher.”) Turned out the statue had been run over by a drunk, which is a pretty interesting story in itself. (“Dwayne, watch me make roadkill outta THISH one.”) An even larger statue has since been erected, prudently situated on a pedestal in a park.

All in all, a charming tale. Just one thing. There really are … well, not jackalopes, but horned rabbits. In 1933 biologists Richard E. Shope and W. W. Hurst revealed that cottontail rabbits suffered from a disease later named Shope’s papilloma DNA virus (one wonders how Hurst felt about this). Shope’s papilloma virus, which is spread by fleas or ticks, can cause giant skin tumors, which on the face can look like horns or beards. Turns out Shope’s papilloma virus has long been present in the rabbit population of not only the western U.S. but also central Europe and Asia, which have also generated stories about horned rabbits. The horns can reach four to five inches in length — hardly antelope scale, but one can easily imagine that tales about these odd critters would lend themselves to embroidery by the likes of Jill. So better get that hunting license, Fred. June 31 is closer than you think.

Cecil Adams

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