The Current

The majestic jackalope and how it became a folklore legend

The mighty jackalope is as majestic as it is curious, but to writer and professor Michael Branch, there’s no doubt why the horned jackrabbit has captured the imagination of North America, and his own.

Michael Branch says the jackalope has been able to capture imaginations through its stories and legends

Michael Branch says rumours vary on the true size of the jackalope. ( Kyle Weerheim)

Read Story Transcript

This story was first published on March 29, 2022. 

The mighty jackalope is as majestic as it is curious, but to writer and professor Michael Branch, there's no doubt why the mythical horned jackrabbit has captured the imaginations of some people in North America, and his own.

"The landscape is so wild, so incredible, so beautiful, so difficult for people who haven't seen it to conceive, that it just seems to sort of naturally inspire stories that are larger than life," Branch told Matt Galloway on The Current.

Branch is the author of On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captured the World's Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer.

According to Branch, rumours vary on the size of a jackalope. At first glance, it's said to look like a regular jackrabbit, until of course you notice the antlers protruding from its head.

Michael Branch is the author of On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captured the World's Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer. (Kyle Weerheim)

Branch said the legend of the jackalope has its roots in rural Wyoming during the depression era, when two teenagers sold a stuffed jackrabbit with antlers to the owner of a local hotel. The hotel owner hung the creature up in his bar, and many a traveller marvelled at the peculiar animal.

"That was the beginning of a cultural phenomenon that has spread around the globe," said Branch. 

Jackalope legends

It's not just the jackalope's antlers that have propelled it to legend status. The creature has some epic tales attached to it as well. Like how it reproduces.

Branch said one of the reasons the animal is said to be so rare is because it only mates during lightning storms. 

"I just think that's an example of a million stories that have carried the jackalope forward…. It's storytelling that keeps this beast alive," said Branch. 

And there are many stories that follow the horned rabbit. Branch said it's also well known among believers that the jackalope can sing. 

"Jackalopes have been known to sing along with cowboys around the campfire, both in the U.S. and Canada. So if you're ever out camping, you start singing around the campfire, it's very common to hear the jackalope sing along with you," said Branch.

Jackalopes can most commonly be found displayed as wall mounts. Finding an jackalope in the wild is much more difficult. (Michael Branch)

But, Branch said, there is some misinformation around that as well.

"You'll hear people say that the jackalope will harmonize with you by singing the bass part and that's absurd. The jackalope always harmonizes in treble."

And then there's the details around the jackalope hunt. Branch himself was given a jackalope hunting license after spending time in the town of Douglas, Wyoming.

"Depending on which license you're looking at, it will stipulate the day of the year, the time of the day, the elevation of the hunt. But the details will always end up being something that's impossible," said Branch.

The fun of the jackalope

Branch has yet to catch a jackalope himself. Of course, that's because the mystical rabbit is a hoax, propelled by wild stories and fake jackalope mounts. But to Branch, and many of the people he talked to for the book, that's the fun of the furry phenom.

"I think part of it is that it's immediately cute and funny, which is not the case with all invented or hybrid animals," said Branch.

"For some folks, it's the pleasure of actually using it as an innocent hoax where you hang it on your wall and you convince the uninitiated that this is a real animal and you string them along as far as you can."

On the Trail of the Jackalope dives into the history and lore of the great jackalope. (Pegasus Books)

Branch said it should be clear that the jackalope is a fun hoax and not a harmful con, which is an important distinction in times like these, when one must always be wary of what's true and what's not. That's because believing in the jackalope won't hurt you. 

"In a con, for example, we want to rip somebody off. We want to get their money or their stuff, and the ideal con is one in which it's never exposed… A hoax exists to be exposed. It doesn't work unless it's exposed…. When you learn the secret, you get to be part of the group that knows better and then you get to help fool the next person," said Branch.

"I think that we absolutely need the life of the imagination, that we need to be able to find ourselves inhabiting worlds other than the one we see everyday…. And I love the way the jackalope, as a trickster and as a hybrid, sort of operates as a messenger across these worlds, from the real to the imaginary."

LISTEN | Canadians share stories of other animal hoaxes

Canadians share their experiences with jackalopes and other mystical creatures.

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now