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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Jackalopes

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Terrible, bitter news for all true Texans-the storied jackalope is not indigenous to the Lone Star state.

Surely just about anyone with even a casual awareness of Texas popular culture will remember having seen gag post cards of a creature with all outward appearances of being a jackrabbit except for the antlers growing out of its head. And in gift shops and tourist traps, mounted specimens of ferocious-faced furry jackalopes have delighted souvenir hunters (and the occasional game hunter in search of one more trophy) for decades.

Imagine the shock experienced by a Texan innocently visiting the Pioneer Museum in Douglas, WY who discovered that the jackalope originated in that small western town, not West Texas.

"This is crushing," a recent visitor (OK, it was me) said after taking in an exhibit dedicated to Douglas' long-eared claim to fame. "I've always thought the jackalope was invented in Texas."

The curator, eating a takeout salad at her desk, looked up from her lunch with barely concealed disdain.

"We hear that from most of our Texas visitors," she said as she continued to munch on her rabbit food.

The sad truth is, the jackalope is as much a part of Wyoming's taxonomy as the American bison, grizzly bear, elk or moose.

The story of the jackalope goes back to the Great Depression, when millions of Americans struggled to earn a living for their families. Brothers Ralph and Douglas Herrick were taxidermists, but mounted game animals are not a necessity of life when people across the nation are standing in soup lines. During hard times, taxidermy customers can be as scarce as jackalopes.

Clearly a fellow with a sense of humor, it occurred to Doug Herrick that if he affixed small deer antlers to a stuffed jackrabbit (which actually is a hare, not a rabbit) tourists probably would be willing to buy them. Jackrabbits and antelope being plentiful in wide-open Wyoming, he decided to call his hybrid creature the jackalope.

Of course, anyone who knows their North American wildlife understands that antelope horns are in no way similar to deer antlers. Further, they know that jackalopes are not real animals. On the other hand, its conceivable that some naive visitors might actually buy the jackalope story. If not the story, at least a mounted jackalope.

Herrick sold his first jackalope mount for $10 to Roy Ball who added it to the decor of Douglas' old La Bonte Hotel. Back then, 10 bucks was a lot of money when a newspaper and a cup of coffee cost only a dime.

Jackalopes multiplied like, well, jackrabbits and before long, the mythical creature had hopped straight into American folklore. The La Bonte Hotel sold the two brothers' taxidermy work and soon the Herricks were shipping their creations all over the West, including Texas.

How the jackalope became associated with Texas in the minds of many is open to speculation, but as even a cursory google search shows, it did. It may trace to a popular post card that dates to the 1930s. That classic, an example of what postcard collectors call a real photo card, is a tricked up image of a Texas cowboy skinning a deer-sized jackrabbit hanging from a tree. It fits perfectly with the old gag that everything's bigger in Texas, though it's as phony as a jackalope.

Meanwhile, back in wide-open Wyoming, as the years went by it occurred to the local chamber of commerce that the jackalope could benefit Douglas' aspirations as a tourist destination as well as the bank account of individual sellers. Founded in the mid-1880s on the banks of the North Platte River when the Wyoming Central Railway made it a train stop, the town now bills itself as the Jackalope City. To prove the point, the community put up an eight-foot jackalope statue outside the community center in what is now called Jackalope Square.

The Wyoming legislature has even considered making the jackalope the official state mythical creature, but lawmakers have withheld the honor so far. Official or not, every June the town holds a Jackalope Days celebration.

Finding further fun in jackalopes, some other entrepreneur created a jackalope hunting license. For a modest fee, a licensee is entitled to lawfully harvest one jackalope in Converse County, WY. However, to qualify for a jackalope license, a person must possess an IQ over 50 but below 72. So as to protect the jackalope population from depletion, hunters can only take them during daylight hours on June 31. (Get it? June has only 30 days.)

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June 21, 2018

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