The never-before-told story of the horned rabbit – the myths, the hoaxes, the very real scientific breakthrough it inspired – and how it became a cultural touchstone of the American West.
Just what is a jackalope? Purported to be part jackrabbit and part antelope, the jackalope began as a local joke concocted by two young brothers in a small Wyoming town during the Great Depression. Their creation quickly spread around the U.S., where it now regularly appears as innumerable forms of kitsch – wall mounts, postcards, keychains, coffee mugs, shot glasses, and so on. A vast body of folk narratives has carried the jackalope's fame around the world to inspire art, music, film, even erotica!
Although the jackalope is an invention of the imagination, it is nevertheless connected to actual horned rabbits, which exist in nature and have for centuries been collected and studied by naturalists. Around the time the two young boys were creating the first jackalope in Wyoming, Dr Richard Shope was making his first breakthrough about the cause of the horns: a virus. When the virus that causes rabbits to grow "horns" (a keratinous carcinoma) was first genetically sequenced in 1984, oncologists were able to use that genetic information to make remarkable, field-changing advances in the development of anti-viral cancer therapies. The most important of these is the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which protects against cervical and other cancers. Today, jackalopes are literally helping us cure cancer.
For fans of David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo, Jon Mooallem's Wild Ones, or Jeff Meldrum's Sasquatch, Michael P. Branch's remarkable On the Trail of the Jackalope is an entertaining and enlightening road trip through the heart of America.
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.
"Equal parts travelogue, natural history, and tall tale, Michael Branch's On The Trail of the Jackalope is a hare-raising account of America's most beloved hoax. Branch's expansive investigation takes readers from basement taxidermy studios and dusty saloons to cryptozoology meetings and sophisticated virology labs. Best of all, his masterful wit and engaging prose ensure we all get to ride shot-gun on this fantabulous adventure. I wanted it to never end."
– Kathryn Miles, author of Quakeland and Trailed: One's Woman's Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders
"I've longed for this book all my life. The ultimate prize in the souvenir shops of my Colorado boyhood was the Jackalope, but for all my wheedling, I never got closer to owning one than a postcard. Now I feel all that longing has been richly requited by this brilliant natural history. I have seldom said about a book that it NEEDED to be written, but this one absolutely did! Stunningly researched and lived, lovely in its conception and writing, Branch's Trail is all of what he aimed for and more: an unforgettable journey along "the mighty, rolling river of Jackalopiana."
– Robert Michael Pyle, author of Magdalena Mountain and Nature Matrix
"In this charming travelogue, Branch recounts his tracking down of various jackalope tall tales and the roots of such hoaxes and our fascination with them. He ends with the amazing true story of the discovery of the role of a virus in actual naturally occurring "horned rabbits", and how this led to the creation of the vaccine for human papillomavirus."
"Enjoy the thrill of going down this captivating rabbit hole, as we follow our engaging narrator as he learns everything there is to learn about the mythic jackalope. Branch's brilliant book is a wild ride, told with the lively wit of the tall-tale tellers he admires. On the Trail of the Jackalope [or just "This book"] shows us how this fascinating embodiment of western kitsch is connected to the identity of a small Wyoming town, the American folk tradition, Looney Tunes, mythology, taxidermy, cancer research, and even death itself. Sit back as Branch spins his tale, and listen, learn, enjoy, and laugh."
– David Gessner, author of All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West
"I came to this book for jackalope gossip and lore, of which there is plenty. But what kept me turning the pages is Michael Branch's smart, raucous discussions of tall folktales, elaborate hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and fanciful acts of taxidermy. On the Trail of the Jackalope is filled with examples of how we humans delight in fusing the facts of our natural world with utter fancies. A delightful read."
– Elena Passarello, author of Animals Strike Curious Poses
"Mr. Branch knows at least as much about jackalopes as Einstein knew about physics. In On the Trail of the Jackalope, Mr. Branch digs deep into rabbit lore, hailing celebrity hares like Bugs Bunny and the more obscure Centzon Totochtin of Aztec tradition – 'a group of divine rabbits who gathered frequently to throw drunken parties.' More important, he reveals that the jackalope of American folklore (or inspired hucksterism) has a real-life counterpart – the hornéd rabbit, a creature with protrusions that can resemble antlers. Mr. Branch has a good deal to say about one of nature's stranger animals and also deeply ponders the mythological form, wondering why people dream up jackalopes and other fanciful creatures in the first place."
– Dave Shiflett, Wall Street Journal
"On the Trail of the Jackalope is a marvelous romp in two stellar literary genres: American tall tales and the history of medicine. Even if jackalopes are a hoax, jackalope history is well worth exploring and Mr. Branch had a high time doing so. Just as brightly as the first half of the book shines with charm and good yarns, the second half impresses with excellent reporting on the history of medicine and the development of an anti-cancer vaccine. I highly recommend On the Trail of the Jackalope. It's an excellent collection of well-told yarns and a fine piece of medical history reporting."
– Rebecca Coffey, Forbes