Fearsome Critters

19 Jun

The jackalope is a mythical animal of North American folklore (a so-called fearsome critter) described as a jackrabbit with antelope horns. The word “jackalope” is a portmanteau of “jackrabbit” and “antelope”, although the jackrabbit is not a rabbit, and the American antelope is not an antelope. In early lumberjack folklore, fearsome critters were mythical beasts that were said to inhabit the frontier wilderness of North America. Many fearsome critters were simply the products of pure exaggeration; while a number however, were used either seriously or jokingly as explanations for unexplained phenomena. For example, the hidebehind served to account for loggers who failed to return to camp, while the treesqueak offered justification for strange noises heard in the woods. A handful mirrored descriptions of actual animals. The mangrove killifish, which takes up shelter in decaying branches after leaving the water, exhibits similarities to the upland trout, a mythical fish purported to nest in trees. In addition, the story of the fillyloo, about a mythical crane that flies upside-down, may have been inspired by observations of the wood stork, a bird that has been witnessed briefly flying in this manner. In particular instances more elaborate ruses – such as the jackalope – were created using taxidermy or trick photography.

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The jackalope is subject to many outlandish and largely tongue-in-cheek claims embedded in tall tales about its habits. Jackalopes are said to be so dangerous that hunters are advised to wear stovepipes on their legs to keep from being gored. Stores in Douglas sell jackalope milk, but The New York Times questions its authenticity on grounds that milking a jackalope is known to be fraught with risk. One of the ways to catch a jackalope is to entice it with whiskey, the jackalope’s beverage of choice. The jackalope can imitate the human voice, according to legend. During the days of the Old West, when cowboys gathered by the campfires singing at night, jackalopes could be heard mimicking their voices or singing along, usually as a tenor. It is said that jackalopes, the rare Lepus antilocapra, only breed during lightning flashes and that their antlers make the act difficult despite the hare’s reputation for fertility. Whilst this all serves to make a tale that is entertaining enough, the jackalope is entirely fictional. The New York Times attributes the American jackalope’s origin to a 1932 hunting outing involving Douglas Herrick (1920–2003) of Douglas, Wyoming.

In the 1930s, Douglas Herrick and his brother, hunters with taxidermy skills, popularized the American jackalope by grafting deer antlers onto a jackrabbit carcass and selling the combination to a local hotel in Douglas, Wyoming. Thereafter, they made and sold many similar jackalopes to a retail outlet in South Dakota, and another taxidermist continues to manufacture the horned rabbits in the 21st century. Stuffed and mounted, jackalopes are found in many bars and other places in the United States; stores catering to tourists sell jackalope postcards and other paraphernalia, and commercial entities in America and elsewhere have used the word “jackalope” or a jackalope logo as part of their marketing strategies. The jackalope has appeared in published stories, poems, television shows, video games, and a low-budget mockumentary film. The underlying legend of the jackalope, upon which the Wyoming taxidermists were building, may be related to similar stories in other cultures and other historical times. Folklorists see the jackalope as one of a group of fabled creatures common to American culture since Colonial days. These appear in tall tales about hodags, giant turtles, Bigfoot, and many other mysterious beasts and in novels like Moby Dick.

Other fearsome critters include the sea serpent of Nantucket, which in 1937 led to “stories of armadas hunting the monster, and footprint discoveries by local businessmen”, accompanied by wide publicity. In similar fashion, Newport, Arkansas, publicized its White River Monster, and Algiers, Louisiana, claimed to be home to a flying Devil Man. Ware, Massachusetts, drew media attention to its local reputation for alligator sightings. Perry, New York, held Silver Lake Sea Serpent Festivals based on a local hoax. The Hodag Festival in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, celebrates “discovery” of a prehistoric creature in a nearby pit. Willow Creek, California, hosts an annual Bigfoot Festival. Since 1950, Churubusco, Indiana, has celebrated Turtle Days, based on a story, part real and part invented, about the hunt for the Beast of Busco, a 500-pound snapping turtle said to be living in a nearby lake. Common to these tales is the recurring motif of the quest for the mythical animal, often a monster. The same motif appears in American novels such as Moby Dick and Old Man and the Sea and in monster movies such as King Kong and Jaws as well as in world literature including Beowulf. Whilst the monster motif also appears in tales of contemporary places outside the United States, such as Scotland, with its Loch Ness Monster, what is not global is the sheer level of embrace of local monster tales by American communities. The Wyoming Legislature has even considered bills to make the jackalope the state’s official mythological creature and, while this is yet to happen, in 2014 the Wyoming Lottery adopted a jackalope logo for its lottery tickets and marketing materials.

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2 Responses to “Fearsome Critters”

  1. Ilene Winn-Lederer June 21, 2016 at 9:44 pm #

    Very interesting post, Ash! Seems like we may think along the same lines as my current project is an illustrated alphabestiary. I don’t see where one can attach images here but if you are interested in seeing some of them, I’ve posted two at my own blog: https://imaginarius13.wordpress.com/2016/05/05/on-the-shoulders-of-giants/

  2. Nathan June 25, 2016 at 11:15 am #

    I wrote before about the similar Bavarian Wolpertinger. https://vovatia.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/the-wonderful-world-of-wolpertingers/

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