Forthcoming from Pegasus Books (distributed by Simon and Schuster) on March 1, 2022. ISBN 9781643139333; ISBN-10 1643139339. 304 pages. Audiobook forthcoming from Blackstone Audio.
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.
Praise for On the Trail of the Jackalope:
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, Mike’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
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 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, raucus 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 fantasies. A delightful read.” – Elena Passarello, author of Animals Strike Curious Poses
Obsessions are funny things, especially when the object of the obsession is a rabbit with antlers. The thrill of going down this captivating rabbit hole, and the pleasure of following our engaging narrator as he learns everything there is to learn about the mythic jackalope, propels Michael Branch’s brilliant book. It’s a wild ride, told with the lively wit of the tall-tale tellers he admires, as Branch shows us how this fascinating embodiment of western kitsch is connected to, among other things, the identity of a small Wyoming town, the American folk tradition, Looney Tunes, mythology, taxidermy, cancer research, and death itself. Sit back as he 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
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