Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The most pervasive mythical animal of the Great Plains is undoubtedly the jackalope. Mounted jackalopes are most often seen hanging from the walls of cafes, taverns, and filling stations throughout the region, while jackalope postcards are a popular tourist item. Most jackalopes have the body and head of a jackrabbit and the antlers of a deer or elk or the horns of a pronghorn antelope, although the "warrior rabbit" of Nebraska and the Dakotas also has pheasant wings and tail feathers. The New Mexico version is sometimes called an "antelabbit."

A large statue of a jackalope is located in Douglas, Wyoming, which claims to be the home of this fabulous beast, the brainchild of two taxidermist brothers, Ralph and Doug Herrick, who created their first one in the 1930s. The antecedents of the jackalope, however, are much older, going back to the Bavarian wolpertinger and the French dahout. These beasts combine crow or hawk wings, rabbit ears, deer antlers, boar tusks, duck forefeet, rooster hind feet, a foxtail, and a coxcomb, all on a woodchuck body.

A body of lore has grown up around the jackalope: it can mimic the human voice and in earlier times would often sing along with night-herding cowboys; jackalopes mate during flashes of lightning; and jackalope milk is credited with the ability to cure everything from rheumatism to snakebite. An exhibit at the Dyche Museum of Natural History on the campus of the University of Kansas displayed not only mounted jackalope and postcards but also a number of mounted cottontail rabbits aÄicted with Shope's papillomas, a viral infection that causes skin growths similar to that which forms the outer sheath of the pronghorn on an antelope. Other fabulous creatures reported in the Great Plains include Bigfoot, sighted near McLaughlin, South Dakota, during the early 1980s, and a water monster, nicknamed "SinkHole Sam," which supposedly arose in the early 1950s from an underground cavern in McPherson County, Kansas, when a small lake there was drained.

Most mythical creatures from the Plains are actual animals that have achieved exaggerated proportions, such as stories of snakes the size of boa constrictors. Obvious hoaxes are the postcard versions of giant grasshoppers or saddled jackrabbits being ridden by cowboys, while stories of giant catfish that reside in the deepest waters of the reservoirs that dot the Plains are told for truth. Also told for truth are reports of animals that were once prevalent before being hunted to regional extinction in parts of the Plains, such as bear or mountain lions or wolves.

Finally, individual animals have sometimes taken on mythic status, such as the elusive white mustang that roamed the Central Plains in the last century, or the "Murder Steer" of the southwestern Plains celebrated in folk song. Apparently based on an actual quarrel and gunfight that resulted from an ownership dispute during a roundup, the steer was branded murder and set free, whereupon for decades it roamed the range from Texas to Montana, a grim reminder of the consequences of greed and anger.

James F. Hoy Emporia State University

Dance, S. Peter. Animal Fakes and Frauds. Maidenhead UK: Sampson Low, 1975.

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