It’s well-known that the North American Jackalope only mates during lightning storms, can be lured out from its native sagebrush by a stiff glass of whiskey, and will sing along with old cowboy songs in the desert—but only the treble parts. And if you ask author and environmentalist Mike Branch, he’ll tell you they can be found just about anywhere.
His newest book On the Trail of the Jackalope takes a humorist’s look at what happens when a hoax outgrows its depression-era roots to spread across the world, and what its real-world counterpart tells us about the relationship between myth and science.
Originally from Virginia, Branch and his family landed in the high deserts of northern Nevada in 1995, where he established a Ph.D. program in Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno—where he is still a professor. With over 300 published works, Branch’s academic and non-fiction works helped lay the groundwork of ecocriticism, a scholarly reading to literature with nature and the environment at the forefront. Following the publication of his last two collections of short essays, Jackalope continues Branch’s departure from strict academia in recent years.
Equal parts campfire story, travelogue, and investigative caper, Branch’s hunt for the elusive Jackalope takes him from the dust of the Great Basin to a famous virologist’s New England laboratory, where the lines between folksy fiction and medical science surrounding the famous horned rabbit are blurred.
He sat down with us to answer the question: how do you track an animal that lives as much in our imagination as it does in the wild?
Before we start, I was hoping you could define a different type of desert creature you’ve mentioned before. What does it mean to be a “Desert Rat” to you?
Desert Rat—don’t let anybody tell you otherwise—is an honorific. Whenever anybody calls you a desert rat, you should feel proud of that. I think what those of us who really love the desert, when we use that term, we’re kind of trying to get at the fact that, you know, nobody is a Lake Tahoe rat, right? … These landscapes that people already think of as beautiful without thinking about it at all, they don’t really need us to represent them.
… But the desert does need to be defended and represented by people who really love it. So, I think when those of us who love the desert call ourselves Desert Rats, it’s a tongue-in-cheek way of saying, “Hey, people from outside this landscape, we get that you don’t really understand this place, but we love it. And we’re dug in here and we’re proud of it.”
So, then, what’s a Jackalope?
When most people hear that term, what they picture is a hoax taxidermy mount that is made using the head of a rabbit and usually the antlers of a deer. This is a taxidermy hoax that dates to the 1930s. It was devised by a couple of teenagers outside of a small town in Wyoming called Douglas, but it has gone on to become iconic. And that’s exactly what prompted me to write the book.
I thought to myself, “Why is it that people are so enamored of this weird little hybrid bunny?” So, when I started the book, it was an innocent enough question. … The book starts from this goal of trying to say, “Okay, this is a weird little one-off joke, but how did it get so much traction in the culture? How did it become so iconic in the American west and how did it get disseminated so widely?”
At the end of the first chapter, you receive an official Jackalope Hunting License from the only county in America qualified to issue them. How far from home did your “hunt” take you?
Obviously, it’s a joke, but it also sets the stage for, what’s going to follow, which is a story written by an obsessive person who is tracking every sort of hint and clue they can to follow the Jackalope trail, wherever it leads. … And so, when you ask, how far did the trail lead? The answer is that it led all the way around the world.
It turns out that there are Jackalope analogs and precursors in other cultures around the globe, which I think is something very few people who know about our Western jackalope would know. So indigenous cultures in Asia, in Africa, in the Americas, have stories of horned rabbits going back thousands and thousands of years. So, what I found was, you know, our Jackalope, we think of him as unique, but he’s kind of a cousin of other Jackalope figures that exist in cultures around the world.
As someone who is well acquainted with the culture and traditions of the American West, did you find anything that surprised you while researching this book?
I really have become more aware in recent years of what I would call the “Global West.” And by that, I mean, the way the American West feels so unique, and yet it is ultimately connected to other stuff around the world. So, for example, you might go to a disco in Tokyo, and somebody is dressed like a cowboy because the exportation of the mythology of the American West through cinema has reached these other cultures and affected their fashion. That’s just one example of this. … I think those of us who are Westerners really cleave to that identity, but it’s important to remember that we’re part of a global nexus of ideas.
And then the second thing is, you know, as a human writer, I just really came to love that the Jackalope isn’t just interesting—It’s also funny, and that people like it because it’s funny. The Jackalope’s fame has been perpetuated through storytelling. The [taxidermy] mount has always been a subject of humor in part because people use it to fool each other. … It can make us smile; it can make us laugh. And it also inspires us to tell outrageous stories, and that kind of tall tale has always been an important part of the culture of the American west.
At one point in the first chapter, you joke about some apprehension at being “outed as an environmentalist” in a bar in Wyoming. Was ideological opposition from some of these communities ever really an obstacle for this story?
So, I was treated with great hospitality and respect, and enthusiasm by everybody I talked to. People really opened up to me and I just feel like it’s bad faith to accept people’s hospitality, and then turn around and criticize them for their politics. This is not a book that makes an environmental argument. It is concerned with the relationship between nature and culture. I love these weird nature-culture intersections. They generate a lot of humor and a lot of insights.
… I often feel that, as an environmental activist, certain parts of the rural West don’t always feel super comfortable. But what I meant in that line was I’m not here to criticize these people who are just trying to make a living in a hard place. They’re being very cool to me, and I want to return the favor. It doesn’t mean that I’m not also clear in the book about the fact that, for example, when I’m traveling through Wyoming, there’s a part in that chapter where I talk about just how heartbreaking it is to see fracking pads going in—not only in wild prairie, but also around coal pits and uranium mines. In other words, that land has been worked and worked and worked. And I don’t agree with it, and I’m very candid about that in the book, but I’m there to treat the people who I speak to with respect, because they treat me with respect. I think that’s what every writer owes people.
I have interviewed people from scientists to anthropologists, to folklorists, to bartenders, ranchers and hunters and miners to, hipsters in tattoo shops and people who run hoax websites and cryptozoologists—I’ll talk to anybody about jackalopes. And what I find most amazing is … it’s hard to find somebody who doesn’t like a jackalope. I think that that’s part of the magic of this creature is that in a really polarized and really discouraging time that we live in, here is something that brings people joy. I mean, that may sound simplistic to some folks, but I’ll take it.
Am I hearing you say the Jackalope could heal the nation’s political divides?
Hey, well, let me put it this way. I’m backing the Jackalope for president in the next election, and I think if we succeed with this campaign, we’ve got a good chance of turning this country around.
A big part of the book is the parallel between the Jackalope as a global myth, and the existence of the real-life “horned rabbits” that Richard E. Shope used to build a medical understanding of cancerous tumors—even claiming that Jackalopes are helping us cure cancer. How did you make these connections?
So, that story, which has never been fully told, is the product of my research. The coincidence that you mentioned is one that I continue to be fascinated by. Ralph Herrick, who was one of the boys who invented the Jackalope, claimed in a New York Times obituary that ran when his older brother died, that they had invented the jackalope in 1932. Now there are other sources that claim other dates, but they’re almost all in the ‘30s. … Richard Shope, this famous virologist, he absolutely positively began studying horned rabbits in 1932. And I don’t think there’s a specific causal connection there, but it’s still sort of irresistible to imagine, you know, two teenagers in rural Wyoming just screwing around with their rudimentary taxidermy skills, and at the same time, a world-class epidemiologist at the Rockefeller Institute in Princeton starting to work on horned rabbits.
So, these rabbits are stricken with what would later be called, Shope Papilloma Virus. The virus sometimes creates cancerous growths, usually on the head, and sometimes those do grow to look an awful lot like horns. I’ve been able to find records of hunters observing horned rabbits in nature that go way back before the Herrick’s first invented their hoax Jackalope. So, what exactly is the connection between horned rabbits in the real world and myth and folklore about horned rabbits? That’s hard to tell.
Book Launch: “On the Trail of the Jackalope” with celebrated author Michael Branch – Thursday evening, 6:00 pm, March 10, in the theater of the Nevada Museum of Art. Discover the never-before-told story of the horned rabbit – the myths, the hoaxes, the very real scientific breakthrough it inspired.
I thought we could end our interview with a question that you coined in the book: Why do you think people love Jackalopes?
That was good. Okay. Here’s my answer: We desperately need to live some of our lives in the realm of the imagination. I mean, most of us can’t get through a day without some kind of fantasy. And I think that the imagination is a world that we can never afford to let go of, but I also think that nature and non-human animals is a world that we can never afford to let go of. … Why do I love Jackalopes? I think this speaks in a larger sense to the appeal of this beast is that it is simultaneously real and imaginary. And I think the two greatest things anything can be are real and imaginary, but most things have to be one or the other. And the Jackalope has found a way to be both at the same time.
Publication Date: March 1st, 2022
Michael P. Branch is a professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches creative nonfiction, American literature, environmental studies, and film studies. An award-winning writer and humorist, Michael is the author of How to Cuss in Western and lives with his wife and two daughters in the western Great Basin Desert, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Range.
Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and is currently writing for the Sierra Nevada Ally, Double Scoop, Reno News & Review, and other publications. Support Matt’s work for the Sierra Nevada Ally here.
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