© 2000,   by Robert Lesher

Quest for the Warrior Rabbit

They are often mistaken for “dust devils,” those elusive puffs of dust skipping away toward the horizon, and nowadays reports of them mostly come from tourists crossing the western plains on their way to vacations in the Rocky Mountains.

But the pioneers, pushing their wagons west on parallel trails, saw them, too. And before the pioneers, the Red Men knew of them. The Red Men, though, knew what they really were - there is no word in the Indian tongue for “dust devil.”

And ask anybody who lives in those parts today - be he red or white or black or any other color - if he knows of the jackalope, and he will smile bravely, no doubt masking a fearful pounding of his heart. For that’s what they are, these great clouds of dust - the trail of a jackalope, elusive as a puff of wind, fearsome as a tornado.

Yes, just ask any native of eastern Wyoming or the Dakotas, or western Nebraska, or down on the plains of Colorado; he will smile wistfully and perhaps, if you buy him a drink, he will tell you the jackalope’s story:

The jackalope is a hybrid animal, a cross between the small antelope and the relatively large jackrabbit. The product of that strange union is the little-seen, much feared jackalope. Curiously, while both its parents are extremely timid, any hunter will testify that the jackalope offspring has justifiably earned the label, “warrior rabbit,” for its ferocious charge and surly personality. The beast is all the more dangerous for its gentle outward appearance - Charles Kuralt of CBS News has called its smile “insouciant,” and many others, who don’t know what that means, have actually called these killers, “cute!”

The jackalope has an even more startling characteristic than its temper and antlers, however - like a parrot, it can imitate the sounds of the human voice. Cowboys and backpackers in the West frequently report that while they are singing around a campfire at night they are sometimes joined in the words of the chorus by a distant jackalope - often in harmony, usually in the tenor line.

It is primarily by use of its voice imitations that the jackalope has avoided capture. Hunting parties of several hundred people have been organized in efforts to capture a live specimen, but jackalope drives are universally thwarted when the trapped bunny shouts, “There he goes, over there by that tree.” The hunters, of course, dash away in pursuit, only to find that they have been duped, and telltale puffs of dust by then are moving toward the horizon miles away.

The first discovery of the jackalope was reportedly made by Roy Ball, a trapper, in 1829 near Douglas, Wyoming. Ball also bagged the first, which was stuffed and stood for many years in the front window of Douglas’ LaBonte Hotel. Unfortunately for science, that first jackalope was reportedly stolen a few years ago, under very peculiar circumstance that the citizens of Douglas will discuss only in private and hushed tones, if at all.

Douglas, in the east-central quarter of the state, is acknowledged to be the jackalope capital of the world and the center of the creature’s distribution, which ranges many hundreds of miles in all directions. Indeed, there are unverified reports of sightings even east of Wall, South Dakota. The famous drugstore there purports to have photos of a flying jackalope on sale, but some scientists say the photos are fakes, that some enterprising hunter for commercial purposes has simply drugged a real jackalope, pasted some partridge feathers to its tail and taken a picture. These researchers say that it would be impossible for a real jackalope to mate with a partridge.

Most verified data on jackalopes comes from these scientific researchers, who, appropriately, are residents of Douglas. Nearly a hundred miles from Douglas the highway signs begin to warn the unwary traveler of jackalope crossings and encourage the curious to visit Douglas to learn more about the “horny bunny,” as it is affectionately called by those who know and love it.

The main street of the town sports a gigantic statue of a jackalope, and its image can be seen on T-shirts, paperweights, decals, bumper stickers, and postcards in nearly every one of the town’s shops. Advertisements carry photographs and drawings of the ’lope. It may have been only a coincidence, but when I visited Douglas, Joan River’s Rabbit Test was showing at the local movie theatre. It is not easy for a visitor to Douglas to miss the point.

I should perhaps note here, however, that not all commercial applications of the jackalope have worked out. At least two ventures were made in Douglas to market jackalope milk, which is naturally homogenized by the violent running and jumping action of the animal. Consumption of the jackalope milk is forbidden to women by Wyoming state law, however, and the enterprise has therefore fallen under charges of discrimination. Actually, the law has something to do with the notion that jackalopes mate only during lightning flashes.

In view of the fact that the jackalope is relatively rare and is a clear danger to the novice sportsman, few hunting licenses are issued for jackalopes in any one year, and those are distributed on a very selective basis. The season is generally restricted to a single day, and the penalties for illicit hunting or possession of any part of the animal, dead or alive, are awesome - ranging up to as much as two weeks in Casper, Wyoming, a small community to the southwest. That particular punishment, I was told in Douglas, is being contested in the Supreme Court as cruel and unusual.

Thus, trophies are rare even for professional hunters, and few mounted examples find their way to the market. But I wanted to see one of these legendary creatures in the flesh, whatever the cost. I had been told that if any jackalopes were available, I would find them at Ralph Herrick’s Bighorn Taxidermy Shop, just outside Douglas. I went to his place in hopes of actually seeing a mounted jackalope.

Ralph didn’t happen to have one at the time, but after a pleasant morning’s conversation, he asked if I would like to go out into the Wyoming wilds to try my hand at bagging a jackalope for myself. Well, I had, in my wildest dreams, hoped to see a jackalope, perhaps capture one on film, but I had never imagined that I might actually look down the big barrel of a 50-caliber Henry rifle at one of those bouncy bunnies. (The Henry, the classic buffalo hunter’s rifle, is generally accepted as the best weapon for stopping the jackalope. Purists do frown on the use of exploding shells or landmines in hunting the elusive animal.) Herrick is acknowledged to be the best hunting guide in the Douglas area, so how could I possibly have passed up such an opportunity?

He took me to the Douglas Chamber of Commerce where I applied for a jackalope hunting permit. I passed the written test handily (it requires that the applicant have an IQ of at least 50 but not more than 72), and the clerk handed me my license, along with a form suitable for recording last words. We jumped into Herrick’s four-wheel drive pickup truck - the only vehicle beside a horse capable of getting into jackalope country, the rugged canyons southwest of Douglas - and Herrick outlined the plan.

Ranchers in the Douglas area were reporting a rogue jackalope attacking and destroying breeding bulls and the packs or large dogs specially trained to hunt bear and mountain lions. The bulls had taken to cowering in fence corners, it seems, and dogs that escaped with their lives had suffered such trauma that they would flinch and whine every time they encountered a grasshopper.

Moreover, once a jackalope has tasted blood, it becomes virtually fearless - dangerous to man and beast alike. The rogue ’lope had to be destroyed before it did any more damage, and Herrick and I had been given the assignment, he explained.

Jackalopes shun the daylight and are therefore spotted mostly by cowpokes leaving bars at 2 or 3 in the morning. But it would be far too dangerous to hunt jackalopes at night, so we were going to go after this one in broad daylight. Herrick said that we would either try to flush this one out of its den or, failing that, lure it out with the traditional bait for jackalopes, a mixture of bourbon, beer and baloney sausage.

After a few hours of kidney shattering driving, Herrick stopped the truck, frowned, and announced, “This is as far as we can drive.”

We hiked a few miles across rugged, barren landscape, Herrick occasionally spotting a jackalope dust trail in the distance, but to my distress I only saw them when he pointed them out to me. That worried me. It is crucial, of course, to spot the creature well in the distance, for once the hunter penetrates the jackalope’s range of charge - which can be as much as 300 yards - there is little time to bring a rifle to bear. Momentum alone will carry a mortally wounded jackalope the last 40 yards of its lightning-quick attack -sometimes with fatal results for a hapless hunter with slow reactions. Compounding the jackalope’s speed is its habit of backing into its den, thus preparing to exit like a horned cannon ball.

Several times Herrick and I were startled by lunges at us from nearby brush, but fortunately they were only diamond back rattlesnakes, neither as dangerous nor as fast as the ’lopes.

It is a strange feeling, now, to be writing this, for there is not much of a climax to the story. There was a flash of gray at the top of a nearby ridge. There wasn’t even time to shout a warning. Herrick and I both wheeled and fired, the two big Henrys going off with a single report. The recoil threw me off balance and I staggered backwards into a clump of sage. I felt a momentary flash of pain, and I fell.

When I recovered my senses and the smoke and dust cleared, I had my trophy, a fine three-point jackalope buck, whose charge had been everything it was reputed to be. I had been saved only by inches, my fall, and good fortune, for the dying beast lay behind me. It had torn the top from one of my leather hunting boots, sliced a gash in my leg, then hit a sandstone block behind me splitting it into three pieces. It was an awesome, terrifying experience.

Now some of the circumstances and events described here may have been shaded by my memory for there was no time to take written notes. However, it is certain that Herrick is America’s principal producer of mounted jackalopes. When I interviewed Herrick, a good part of our conversation, I recall, was indeed conducted in that pickup truck and while we were on foot in the hills. While our purpose was to find the jackalope, Herrick was also gathering up a five-gallon bucket of rattlesnakes which he insisted on showing me in some detail and at uncomfortably close range. I cannot remember precisely how many jackalopes we saw in the Douglas hills that day, bit I do recall coming back from the expedition perspiring more freely than the cool mountain air merited.

There are doubters about jackalopes, but the people of Douglas bear witness, if not wetness. As for me, I look at the jackalope on my office wall, its face forever fixed in a mysterious, smile, and I remember that it is precisely that smile that makes the Mona Lisa and the Sphinx two of the most treasured of man’s creations.

For permission to reprint this article please contact the author at bob@lesher.net