The American jackalope can appear almost anywhere: as a stuffed mount on a wall, on postcards, even in the name of a Salt Lake City bar. Like rabbits of all kinds, these horned rodents seem to have an almost infinite capacity to multiply, despite the fact that they don’t actually exist. Or, again, maybe they do. Kind of. In a sense.
Exploring this question, which is more complicated than it seems, is at the center of On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captured Our Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer, by Michael P. Branch, writer and professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. Strange, mostly mythological creatures have fascinated Branch for decades, he recounts over the phone, but one particular incident finally prompted him to research jackalopes for a book.
“Over time, I realized I saw jackalopes all over popular culture,” Branch says. “It kind of came to mind: the name of this whiskey, the name of this club, the name of this band. Then I was in this brewery and I saw a tattoo [of a jackalope] on a woman’s bicep, and I said, ‘That’s it.’ I hit a saturation point that day where I knew I had to figure out the story behind the story.”
And it did, in a living volume that digs into every part of the fact and fiction behind the jackalope: the Douglas brothers, Wyo. the jackalope; » myths from cultures around the world about horned rabbits and rogue characters from indigenous mythology; collectors of ephemera and jackalope memorabilia.
Most fascinating of all, Branch discovered a historical footnote related to the existence of true “horned” rabbits in the wild. Scientist Richard Shope began investigating rabbits with tumorous growths in the 1930s and eventually conducted the research which, with important contributions from his colleague Peyton Rous, identified certain cancers as being caused by viral infection and led to the development of HPV vaccines.
“That was probably the greatest discovery [in his research]”, says Branch. “I knew that horned rabbits, with these growths, existed, and I wanted to see what connection there was with jackalopes. Just as I wanted to say “where did the first jackalope mount come from”, I had this corollary quest, “who was the first person to enter these weird bunnies in the wild?” And I was shocked in my archival research that Shope’s first search took place in 1932, the same year as the first jackalope mount. At exactly the same time, two different scenarios are unfolding and seem strangely connected.”
This story is just one of the many ways in which On the trail of the Jackalope deals with how myth and reality can be much more intertwined than we are generally willing to acknowledge. “[The jackalope] seems to exist in that liminal zone between the real and the imaginary,” says Branch. “It just seems believable enough that it could exist, but ridiculous enough that it probably isn’t. … I really like this idea that we think we know what’s real, but we really don’t and probably shouldn’t.”
Although Branch recognizes that this is a historically difficult time to uphold the value of people who believe in things that are not based on fact – particularly, as he notes, since this HPV vaccine that could save thousands of lives is resisted by so many parents for their children – he also believes that we learn something from these stories about ourselves and the kind of world we want to live in.
“I tamed my urge to rush in and demystify,” he says. “Storytelling is our oldest technology as a species. [Working on the book] opened my mind tremendously to the value of stories that may not be true. … The habitat of the imagination is tied to the habitat of the natural world. I joke that I would love to work with one of our environmental groups to create a jackalope preserve, because you would preserve not only the landscape of the imagination, but the real habitat of so much life.”
This “landscape of the imagination” clearly includes herds of wild jackalopes for many people, and Branch has seen with his own eyes how people of all ages can find the fantastical beast so charming. In most of the interviews in the book, he asks one last question about him: “Why do you think people like jackalopes?” The response that stuck with him the most came from Douglas, Wyo resident Helga Bull: “Because they’re as real as you want them to be.”
“It fit this idea that there’s a continuum between the real and the imagined,” says Branch. “And I like the way the jackalope allows us to exist between the real and the imaginary.
“We invented creatures because we need them; our life demands this question. It’s much more a book about the imagination than about rabbits.