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Quest For The Jackalope

Is the legendary jackalope the most endangered species in the Lower 48 or just an old cowboy tale that refuses to die?

Whoever dubbed Montana “Big Sky Country” never visited Texas hill country. Here, the sky is the color of a neon robin’s egg, with the occasional cotton-ball cloud thrown in to break up the riotously blue monotony of it all. The sky melts smoothly into the horizon, creating the perfect backdrop for the surreal sights that unfold before those patient enough to wait: deer drifting like mirages across the open, undulating landscape; armadillos waddling across the sand like poorly thrown bowling balls with legs; and dreamlike visions that appear out of nowhere to land at your feet. This is fertile ground for experiences that, after the fact, make you wonder: Was it real or was your mind just playing tricks on you? It’s a place made for asking odd questions about out-of-the-ordinary things and then waiting, hoping answers will come.

“Did you see any jackalopes out there?” It was the first time I’d asked the question, but it wouldn’t be the last.

“Mmmm…,” said the man who, along with his wife a few moments earlier, was innocently minding his own business hiking out of Lost Maples State Natural Area. He looked at his wife for guidance-or was he trying not to laugh? “What’s that related to?” he asked.

“Well, it’s a rabbit with antlers like an antelope,” I told him, pulling a crumpled, dog-eared postcard from my pocket and holding it out to him. I looked over my shoulder and noticed that my husband, Mike, had wandered off, pretending not to know me.

“You only see those in cafes and stuff,” the man said with a mild chuckle after a moment. “Someone’s pulled a fast one on you!”

Undeterred, I thanked him and we — Mike, our 2-year-old son, Austin, and I — struck out on a trail that carried us through a rocky creek drainage tangled with live oak and then climbed over grassy hilltops. It was a perfect day: sunny, breezy, ideal for chasing down myths and separating fact from fiction.

This whole thing had started at a Stuckey’s drive-in outside Waco, Texas. We’d stopped for gas, and while Mike inspected the pecan logs (a nut-covered sweet roll that looks better than it tastes), I

wandered over to the spinning postcard kiosk. That’s when I saw it: a picture of a jackalope in green grass, standing on its haunches, alert, its impressive horned head held proudly upright. I was mesmerized, transfixed, curious, embarrassed to even pick up the postcard. But I did. It looked so cute, so real, but…nah, it can’t be. But then, maybe it is?

As we drove down the Texas highway, I stared at the jackalope on the postcard, and wondered, and stared some more. I became consumed with thoughts of jacks hopping hither and yon across the land. But what kind of a landscape? All I could see on the postcard was a patch of grass. If such a magical critter does exist, where does it roam?

Somewhere near the Austin city limits, about the time Mike bit into his pecan log (and gagged like a cat with a fur ball caught in its throat), I realized that I had to know.

If you believe only what biologists tell you, then jackalopes aren’t real. You won’t find them listed in the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals. You will find an “antelope jackrabbit” that inhabits southern Arizona, but it doesn’t have horns. That, however, doesn’t dissuade people like Marshall Trimble, the official historian for the state of Arizona.

“The scientific name is Lepus temper a metalus,” Trimble told me. His was the first name I had turned up when I started doing my post-Stuckey’s research. “It’s one of the rarest animals in the world.” An expert on Southwestern folklore and author of the book Never Give a Heifer a Bum Steer, Trimble told me that jackalopes frequently were seen by cowboys riding the Western prairie in the 1800s, but now reports are few and far between. “Evidence of a jackalope was uncovered in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, and there was a sighting reported near my hometown of Ash Fork, Arizona,” he told me.

Talking with Trimble buoyed my spirits and helped me transcend my creeping skepticism and the snickering nay-sayers (Mike, primarily). If the jackalope truly is a hybrid of the jackrabbit and pronghorn antelope (or, according to some theories, mule deer), as Trimble had described, then the potential range for the animal is huge. The overlapping habitats of the two species extend throughout the Southwest, the Rockies, and the High Plains. But once you factor in urban sprawl, overgrazing, hunting pressure, hard winters, drought, and global warming, then, realistically speaking, the potential jackalope universe shrinks considerably.

Unless you’re standing in Douglas, Wyoming, that is. In the self-proclaimed jackalope capital of the world, there’s no shortage of true believers. “Little is known about the jackalope, but numerous sightings and historical accounts cannot be lightly discarded because of scant scientific evidence found to date,” states the Douglas Chamber of Commerce Web site (www.jackalope.org). “Many Westerners feel that what physical evidence has been found has been hushed up by federal agencies in an effort to make cowboys look like liars.”

Aha! A government plot! I knew then that I was on to something. Could the horny hare be the victim of a federal conspiracy? Time and money were no longer of concern in my search, nor was maintaining any hint of dignity. I had a full-blown quest on my hands. A jackrabbit with a rack became my holy grail, and neither state boundaries nor scathing comments (Mike again) could thwart me.

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