As Real as You Want Them to Be

On the Trail of the Jackalope. How a Legend Captured the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer. A section of Chapter 1 narrated by the author, Michael P. Branch.

Audio by Michael P. Branch

Hello everyone, my name is Michael P. Branch and I’m the author of a book called On the Trail of the Jackalope. How a Legend Captured the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer. 

It was published in March 2022 by Pegasus Books, and the book tells the story of the horned rabbit, the iconic jackalope of the American West, and tracks the folklore and the mythology and the humor and the kitsch that surrounds this weird animal. Tells the story of where this thing came from, and how it got disseminated so widely in the culture, and then also looks at the relationship between the American jackalope and horned rabbits in the mythology and folklore of other cultures from around the world. 

And ultimately, the book goes on to tell the story of real horned rabbits in nature; rabbits that are stricken with papillomavirus that causes them to develop these odd growths on their head. And I tell the science story of how it was the study of those weird rabbits that ultimately led to the development of the human papillomavirus vaccine, which is the safest, most effective anti-cancer vaccine that we’ve ever created. So the full arc of the horned rabbit story is told in my book On the Trail of the Jackalope.

I’m so glad to be working with the Sierra Nevada Ally again as I have in the past.

And so I thought I would offer just a little bit from the opening chapter of the book. 

Now, in this first chapter, I make a pilgrimage to the little town of Douglas, Wyoming way out on the prairie, and that’s the town where back in the 1930s a couple of enterprising teenagers created the first jackalope hoax mount, those taxidermy mounts that you’ve seen on the wall of a rabbit with horns or antlers. So I make a pilgrimage to this little town and talk to everybody I can there about how the horned rabbit began in their town and why they’re so proud of it. 

And I just met so many interesting people and heard so many wonderful stories. So I thought I would just share with you the very end of the first chapter of On the Trail of the Jackalope, which describes a visit that I make to the town’s visitor center. So here we go. And this is from the opening chapter, called “As Real as You Want Them to Be.”

My final stop in Douglas, Wyoming is the town’s visitor center, which is set up in a charming old train depot near the North Platte River, a broad, shallow, gleaming beauty that meanders languidly through town and beneath Jackalope Bridge. Everyone I’ve talked to in preparation for this pilgrimage has recommended that I meet with “the Jackalope Lady,” Helga Bull. Given the jackalope’s origin as a hoax, I note that Bull is the perfect surname for a teller of jackalope tales.

Helga Bull is expecting me and lights up as I enter the old building. The Jackalope Lady is pure warmth, energy, and enthusiasm. And before I can ask my first question, she launches into what I can tell is her shtick, but it’s such an enjoyable one that I have no urge to preempt it. 

“Here’s what you came for, Mike!” Bull exclaims, gesturing toward a wall featuring three jackalope shoulder mounts. The wall also features a bright yellow “Jackalope Crossing” sign and an original of the horned rabbit medallion that decorates the nearby bridge over the North Platte, and a large framed replica of Wyoming Governor Ed Herschler’s proclamation, officially designating Douglas the Home of the Jackalope.

Douglas and Ralph Herrick, of Douglas, Wyoming, are reputed to have been the first taxidermists to make a jackalope mount during the 1930s. This excellent full-body mount was the last jackalope ever fabricated by Ralph Herrick. Circa 2004. Courtesy of Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum, a division of Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources. Photo: Michael P. Branch.

“Now, there are two species of jackalope. These here, with the branching antlers, that’s the mountain species. But sometimes you see the plains species, it has horns like an antelope. Of course, these are all bucks. The doe jackalope doesn’t have horns or antlers. Both the mountain and plains species are related to much larger species called the saber-tooth jackalope that’s probably extinct now. Those ones weighed up to 150 pounds. Bones of that big fella have been found all over Converse County.” 

As Helga Bull continues her jackalope primer, I notice that one of the creatures on display is wearing a blue bandana tied loosely around its neck.

“Old Timers around here said those big ones sometimes attacked wagon trains or homesteads, but nobody knows for sure. We do know that jackalopes roam together in groups of 10 to 20 individuals. Scientists call this kind of group a “committee” of jackalopes.  In the springtime …” Helga continues her animated and impressively detailed lecture on the natural history of the jackalope, covering information about the creature’s habitat mating, feeding, shelter, speed, camouflage, predation, herding, evolution, thermoregulation, and threats to the species. Wrapping up her enthusiastic introduction to the imaginary animal we both love,  she adds, “But then you said you’re a serious jackalope researcher Mike, so you must know all that.” The Jackalope Lady smiles at me and I smile back. As a fellow aficionado, I recognize the twinkle in her eye.

 A man comes through the back door and introduces himself as Bill, a native of Douglas who works with Helga at the visitor center. At that moment, I happen to be asking about Jackalope Days, a  festival the town holds each year to celebrate its iconic mascot. 

“Oh, we have a lot of fun!” Helga says, “Everybody comes out for it.” 

Now Bill chimes in. “I remember the very first one back in 84, when I was a kid.”

“Was that the one where somebody got drunk and plowed down the big jackalope statue that had been out on the median of old Yellowstone highway since the 60s?” I asked, referring to the main road through town. 

“Yeah,” Bill says chuckling. “When our local deputy showed up, that fella climbed out of his pickup and swore that the big jackalope had jumped out in front of him.” He laughs again. 

“What kind of responses do you get from visitors who don’t already know about the Jackalope?” I ask. “They love it”, Helga says. “Especially the kids. But grownups too. I’d say about half of them leave believing they’re real. And that’s okay.” 

My mind flashes to my writing desk at home, where I keep pens in a jackalope coffee mug emblazoned with the reassuring slogan: The Important Thing Is That I Believe In Myself

“Yup, people love them. I always ask visitors if they’ve seen any jackalopes on their drive. And of course, they’ve always seen jackrabbits. So I just tell them those are the jackalope does. And then they point to these display mounts and ask me, ‘Are they real?’ And I say, ‘Yes, they are.’ And they are real Mike. They’re real jackalopes!” Helga’s answer has me smiling. 

“Why do you think people love jackalopes?” I ask. Helga Bull, beaming has a ready answer. “Because they’re as real as you want them to be.”

So there’s a little slice of the opening chapter of my book On the Trail of the Jackalope. And, I will say that when I left Douglas the last thing that Helga Bull gave me was a gift that she said the Mayor of Douglas wanted me to have.  It was a sealed envelope. And when I got back to my truck and opened it up, inside was an official Jackalope Hunting License, which is a gag that’s been going on in Douglas Wyoming since the 1940s. 

And by the way, this license only empowers you to hunt jackalopes on June 31. So I guess the thinking is that if you’re going to hunt an imaginary animal, you ought to do it on an imaginary day. 

Thanks to the Sierra Nevada Ally for having me back. And go check out On the Trail of the Jackalope by Michael P Branch, published by Pegasus Books in spring 2022.

Take care and keep your eyes peeled for jackalopes.

“On the Trail of the Jackalope” by celebrated author Michael P. Branch. Discover the never-before-told story of the horned rabbit – the myths, the hoaxes, the very real scientific breakthrough it inspired.

Michael P. Branch is a professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches creative nonfiction, American literature, environmental studies, and film studies. An award-winning writer and humorist, Michael is the author of How to Cuss in Western and lives with his wife and two daughters in the western Great Basin Desert, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Range.

 Founded in 2020, the Sierra Nevada Ally is a self-reliant 501c3 nonprofit publication with no paywall, a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, offering unique, differentiated reporting and explanatory journalism on the environment, conservation, and public policy, while giving voice to writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and performers. We rely on the generosity of our readers and aligned partners.

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