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56.
The Jackalope

IT WAS DUSK. The ground was warm from the heat of the sun but the temperature was dropping. Finally, a hint of moisture was in the air from a long dry day.
  The sound of small chirps and bits of breaking twigs came out of the scrub oak and manzanita. Through the bundles of chaparral there was a bit of movement. Then all was still. Then a chirp and a small crack again. Then still.
Gradually it came forward, coming down the trail, at the edges of the path, looking about, hopping, smelling, moving, stopping, looking about in the low light, one half-hour from sundown. Finally, it looked straight up, antlers and gray fur clear in the orange evening.
  A jackalope.
  Both Darby Hipper and Sean Heaney had mentioned the Jackalope lately while discussing their opinions about old Serra’s heart in a jar.
  It was Sean who thought the whole heart in a jar business was a hoax. Sure, the historical society could say that they had Junipero Serra’s heart in a jar, but how could they authenticate it? Who was there at the moment it occurred and could say, “Yeah, that’s really his heart. I cut it out myself.”
  Not that Sean wasn’t happy to tell the story of the heart and its history to any weekend festival-goer or drunkard at the Rusty Pelican. The casual historian in him knew that the discussion of the heart was the meat of the business. The words surrounded the jar and its contents and the words made people interested.
  Darby didn’t go for the conceptual bit, like Sean did, he just liked the idea of something off-kilter and pickled in glass, whether it was Junipero Serra’s heart, a juvenile dolphin or Paris Hilton’s dog.
  It was Sean who added the footnotes and asterisks to the story. His standard line to tourists was, “The question is not whether it’s Junipero Serra’s heart, or if it really is a heart—the question is why do we have Junipero Serra’s heart in a jar?”
  “Like the Jackalope,” Darby replied.
  “Like the what?” Sean asked.
  “The Jackalope, dude. Half antelope and half rabbit.” Darb turned away and tossed a hand. “They’re on all kinds of postcards.”
  Sean scratched his head. “Oh, yeah. Kinda like Jessica Simpson thinking that buffalo wings came from buffalos.”
  “That’s it,” Darb reckoned. “Pretty much.”
  “Like when you eat dolphin burgers. Is it dolphin meat or mahi mahi, the dolphin fish?”
  “Right on, bro,” Darby nodded. “My mom always used to ask, `Why do they call it a dolphin fish anyway? If you take a good look at it, it looks more like Hubert Humphrey than a dolphin.’ “
  “Hubert Humphrey? The politician?”
  “Hubert Humphrey, the president of the United States,” Darb said. “I believe it was 1929 to 1933 to be exact.”
  “Dude?” Sean furrowed his brow, then paused. “You mean Herbert Hoover, not Hubert Humphrey.”
  “I mean Hubert Hoover, or Hoover Humphrey, right?”
  Sean looked Darb over. “You don’t know what you mean, bro.”
  “I don’t?”

 


I say there, Jackie!

Darby kind of knows what he means. El Fornio, as well as other towns in California, are certainly full of Jackalopes (Lepus cornutus). They can be seen throughout the county, and especially downtown, going from building to building, down the streets, through the allies, in the backdoors of a dozen or so businesses, where they like to hide amongst the trinkets and postcards. That is their native habitat—the gift shop.
  The field reference of the Jackalope (also known as Lepus temperamentatulus) goes back to the 1500s, from a European standpoint. It has been described as a cross between a pygmy deer (thus, the antlers) and a rabbit, often described—with tones of Saturday Night Live folded in to the narrative—as a “killer” rabbit. Curiously, like Bigfoot, none has ever been captured alive.
  The earliest European reference to the Jackalope comes from a painting by Joris Hoefnagel (notice “Nagel” in the name) from the 1570s. Hoefnagel had copied an Albrecht Durer print in pursuit of his piece. The hare, indeed, in his painting is a Jackalope, antlers and all.
  But Jackalope is not the only name this illusive critter has been given. It is also known as a “deerbunny” and an “antelabbit,” an “Aunt Benny,” a “thistle hare” or “stag bunny.”
  The town of Douglas, Wyoming seems to be the western Mecca of the Jackalope. The owner of the Douglas Hotel, one LeRoy Ball, first displayed the creature round about 1829. Eventually, the town of Douglas went on to issue Jackal0pe hunting licenses, the season for which lasts only one day—February 30 (to add to the slippery turf the Jackalope hops upon, the season is also listed as being the second Friday and Saturday of June . . . call ahead).
  Like crossing some county lines, the search for the Jackalope calls for basic rules.   As in don’t blink, you might miss it.
In 1985, Douglas went on to proclaim itself, “Home of the Jackalope.” Mounted heads, with antlers, can be purchased in town. The local drug store even has a ten-foot likeness of a Jackalope wrought in fiberglass. Italy has only the Michaelangelo.
  In 1909, Mr. Ernest Thompson Seton published the Life Histories of Northern Game Animals in which he placed an illustration of the Jackalope, seemingly mounted.
  Now we head towards authentication.
  From this point, through the 1930s, Jackalope postcards began to populate most western, non-urban gift shops. It was only a matter of decades—and the prompting of the cotton industry—before the Jackalope beefy t-shirt found its place next to the postcard. “My Parents Saw (Ate) a Jackalope and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt (with Rosemary-apple Quince and House-made Bacon).”
  In 1980, on a visit to his California ranch, President Ronald Reagan spoofed reporters by referring to the antlered hare mounted on his ranch house wall. Turns out Mr. Reagan, a known Western fanatic, had bagged the animal himself. Uncertain whether he had a tag or license—no one asked. It was, after all, early in his administration. The questions would come later.
  So, what is the truth behind the Jackalope legend?
  As it turns out, Jackalopes, whether in Europe or the Americas, are indeed true rabbits that hop about with what seem to be antlers. But they have “antlers” in the same way that large footprints in the snow belong to the Yeti.
  The antlers in question turn out to be the biological result of the animal being infected with the Shope papilloma virus. That is, they aren’t antlers at all but tumors produced by the virus. Like, yuck.


Also known as rabbit dreads.


  It seems that the rabbits can grow the long, dark fingery tumors on their heads, go about their business, being rabbits, and being seen by humans, without the tumors killing them right out. This condition has gone on for years and has handily lent itself to the legend of the Jackalope, part rabbit, part antelope—or deer, your choice of ungulate.
  Like Piltdown Man, Bigfoot, JT Leroy, the Chupacabra, or Drake’s Plate of Brass, the Jackalope has been referenced in films like “Brokeback Mountain” and muttered by the likes of Jackie Chan. There are sports teams using the moniker and even bands have handled the title. It was only a matter of time that the Jackalope ambled its way into El Fornio, where it made its way down Main Street to hide amongst the trinkets and postcards nestled in downtown gift shops.
  “Look,” a boy proclaimed, pointing towards the grass and chapparel. “There’s one now!”

READ OTHER WORK by
JOHN GRAHAM


Copyright © 2008, The El Fornio Historical Society
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          Contact John Graham at john@elfornio.com

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