Are Jackalopes Real?

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

We know the question on your mind, so we will cut right to the chase. Are jackalopes real?

Yes. And no.

The jackalope -- the name is a head-on collision between the words "jackrabbit" and "antelope" -- is the stuff of American legend. These horned hares have supposedly been scampering across the deserts and prairies in the imaginations of westerners for generations. Cowboys told stories of the critter’s pugnacious nature, as well as its prowess as a mimic – bronco-busters who gathered around the campfire for a group sing at day’s end swore they sometimes heard their own voices echoed by invisible singers crouching out beyond in the tumbleweeds.

The tales got pretty elaborate: The jackalope mated only during a thunderstorm under flashes of lightning. It could be lured into a trap set with whiskey as the bait. Jackalope milk was a potent aphrodisiac (but just try and milk an angry jackalope!).

All bunk. According to Douglas Herrick, self-styled Father of the Jackalope, he invented the jackalope. One day in 1932 after returning from a rabbit-hunting trip, he casually tossed a hare carcass across the floor. When its head slid into contact with a small pair of antlers lying there, Herrick got an idea... and as a taxidermist, he could put it into action. Once he (and soon his son) began to produce jackalope mounts, it seemed to take only moments for the world to embrace this weird icon of the West. By the time Herrick senior passed away at the age of 82, the two men had fashioned thousands.

Are jackalopes real? ‘Fraid not. But here’s the kicker: rabbits with horns are real as rain!

Dr. Richard E. Shope, discoverer of the vaccine for HPVIn a strange twist of fate, around about the time that Herrick was becoming the Frankenstein of the bunny world, Dr. Richard E. Shope was hard at work in his lab. He had seen prints and drawings of horned rabbits going back to the 1500s and wondered if there was anything to them. He had a hunch that a virus caused rabbits (and other animals) to sprout crusty protrusions that looked like horns. He even had samples of the “horns,” and his tests showed they were made of keratin, the same stuff that our hair and fingernails – and animal horns -- are made of.

Bunny with papilloma virusTurns out Dr. Shope was right. His experiments proved that the horns appearing on rabbits were created by cells infected by the Shope papilloma virus (you discover it, you get to name it, I guess). And they could appear anywhere on the animal, not just the head. In addition, a version of the virus can produce the same effect in humans, called “cutaneous horn.” So yes, there are horned human beings trotting around!

Shope’s discovery lead to research into the development of the human papilloma virus vaccine, which is based on the rabbit virus. The bad news for bunnies lead to good news for us humans!

Films with Menacing Bunnies
Bunnies. The word summons up soft-focus images of all that is cute and cuddly. But to some filmmakers, there is a dark side to the cottontailed varmints.

James Stewart in Harvey (1950)

Harvey (1950) When middle-aged Elwood P. Dowd begins conversing with his friend Harvey, a 6-foot-tall rabbit no one else can see, Elwood’s sister tries to have her brother committed to a sanatorium. Some find this tale whimsical and charming. Others find it creepy and sad. Nice work from Jimmy Stewart and Josephine Hull, regardless.

Night of the Lepus (1972)
Night of the Lepus (1972)  In this cult classic, super-sized bunnies develop a taste for human flesh and go on a rampage in isolated ranch country. You might wonder what a cast including Janet Leigh (of Psycho fame), DeForest Kelley (Star Trek’s Doctor McCoy), Stuart Whitman and Rory Calhoun (experienced western actors, both) is doing in such a turkey. I bet the actors wondered, too. This flick is perfect for viewers who like to throw popcorn and sarcastic comments at the screen.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)  Death awaits you all with nasty, big, pointy teeth! In a film packed with weird, brutal and hilarious medieval imagery, the killer rabbit stands out. King Arthur and his redoubtable knights are inclined at first sight to dismiss this fluffy white cave dweller as a threat to their quest for the Holy Grail... until the vicious creature attacks! Run away! Run away!

Donnie Darko (2001) Only troubled teenager Donnie Darko can see Frank the bunny rabbit. At over six feet tall and with a twisted, tooth-studded grin, Frank would be hard to miss. But is he trying to save the universe, or end it? Is Donnie hallucinating, or simply seeing things as they really are?

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.

Jackalope merchandise from Ye Olde Curiosity Shop: Flask, cotton-ball dispenser, bank
Footage of a real jackalope (begins about :56 into video)
Horned humans! WARNING: possibly disturbing images!
• Visit jackalope roadside attractions
• The Smithsonian weighs in on horned rabbits


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